BAY DELTA SCIENCE CONFERENCE: Phil Isenberg with ‘A guide for the perplexed’
Phil Isenberg is the former chair and vice chair of the Delta Stewardship Council. Prior to that, he served as Sacramento city councilmember, mayor of Sacramento, and member of the California State Assembly, representing portions of Sacramento, Contra Costa, and San Joaquin Counties. At the Bay Delta Science Conference held in November, he gave this speech during the opening plenary session.
Here’s what he had to say.
“The title wasn’t exactly given to me, but I said I wanted to talk about, is A Guide for the Perplexed, which I stole from Maimonides who died in 1190, but he has left behind a title that people have used periodically over the years whenever there are big and important social issues that confuse them. And God knows, water, the environment, and the Bay Delta qualifies under that characterization.”
“First lesson, before we do anything else. If you can find a scientist who makes you laugh, or maybe just smile, that’s the one you want to talk in public. And for those of you who do not smile when you make presentations, I would you encourage you to learn to do so.”
“OK, why are we in the mess? Donald Trump is our president to be; science will be outlawed; climate change will be outlawed – that will be good because once you establish the policy that there is no climate change, then the issue is resolved and it will just go away; the Supreme Court will be improved; the Endangered Species Act is itself endangered; Water Fix has been around for ten years and something will happen, won’t happen, who knows. There’s a drought which will continue or won’t continue; mandatory conservation comes and goes depending on whim and occasionally weather; the Bay Delta ecosystem is in crisis; and water board’s either trying to destroy agriculture or destroy fish, and we can’t honestly decide which they are doing by all of their hearings.”
“Now that qualifies, it seems to me, for A Guide for the Perplexed, so I propose to talk to you about five things. First, how policymakers, some anyway, view the usefulness of science. Then I’m going to talk to you about the really nifty question of when do we know that we’re using the best available science, and then I’m going to talk to you about is there hope at the end of the road; then why won’t California do things in the Delta, and last, why should science be involved in policy anyway?”
How policy makers view the usefulness of science
“A panel discussion led by Jeff Mount in June of 2003 for the Public Policy Institute of California talked about the question, Delta and science. Jeff Kightlinger is the general manager of Metropolitan; Met’s the big gorilla in the water field, among other big gorillas. He’s a really smart and interesting guy. So Mount hits him with it right in advance; he says, ‘When you have to go before your board and you have something like this behind you (meaning the dilemmas we face in the Delta), does it help you in dealing with your board? And Jeff says the following (and by the way, scientists didn’t like what he said): ‘Yes, it does make it difference, says Kightlinger. At some point you just say this seems to be where we’re headed and we’re going to have to adjust. It’s painful but we’re going to have to adjust,’ and that helps.”
“That can actually help politically, too. We can make expensive decisions that are unpopular popular if you can say, ‘I’ve got the evidence that shows me that we have to make this change, and we’re going to spend the money to do it.’ That helps them go back to people (he means his board members); they have to charge for that and say, ‘here’s a good basis for it.’”
“Now, in 2013, after hearing all of that, a couple of scientists were roaring around, criticizing Kightlinger for not understanding the purity, the nobility, and the pure speculative value of abstract science and endless research, and instead, concentrating on tawdry things like how to get the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California board of directors to make up their minds.”
“I would commend to your attention that description because if you can get a policymaker to think that anything you do is even slightly useful to them, even for bludgeoning their elective board members into doing things they don’t want to do like impose rationing and raise rates and all of that, that’s not bad. It’s better than not bad.”
“But here is the other thing. Jeff was trying to pin him down a little bit more on the question of science and the notion that there’s independent science which is good and terrific; then there’s combat science, which is hired science, which is bad and evil, and how do you deal with that. And Jeff said, ‘I hear a lot that ‘sound science will lead to good decisions.’ Then, what is unsound science? What are these ideas? Of course, we all want sound science, we all want to do these decisions; they are just really tough decisions. They are policy decisions. They are very unpopular decisions. We’re making choices, someone’s going to get less, someone’s going to get more, and we’re going to make tough choices and these lead to very different perspectives.’”
“I think that’s the most honest presentation that you’ll get from an executive officer of a big utility, explaining that scientific information just can’t pile up and expect to be used; there are impediments like popular opinion and that’s the way the world works. It works slowly and imperfectly.”
When do we know we’re using best available science?
“Now the real question is, for me at least, is what do you do to get out of this stuff? I would commend to you a nifty book just issued earlier this year by John Weins, who is on the Delta Independent Science Board. John did these essays largely for a journal in Britain, but they are readable, accessible discussions of the hottest political items possible. Here’s what he said: ‘In conservation or management situations that entail considerable uncertainty, as most do if we’re honest about it, I suggest that actions might best be based on knowledge that is ‘good enough’ to avoid doing something stupid, rather than pouring more time, effort, and money into achieving a greater degree of certainty. What is good enough is ultimately a matter of costs, benefits, and risks. Decision support tools and expert knowledge approaches may be helpful in weaving these factors together.’”
“Now I heard John give his speech here at the Bay Delta conference many years ago, where said it only has to be ‘good enough’ and there were gasps from the audience. That an eminent scientist would say that there’s a point of time in which the research has to be able to be actionable.”
“Not even a John Weins is totally out of copping out on some issues. On the third page of this document where the publication date and the printers name appears and all that, is something called ‘limit of liability/disclaimer of warranty.’ It reads as follows: ‘While the publisher and author have used their best efforts in preparing this book, they make no representation or warranties with respect to the accuracy or completeness of the content of this book, and specifically disclaim any implied warranties of merchantability or fitness for a particular purpose. It is sold on the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering professional services, and neither the publisher nor the author shall be liable for damages arising herein.’ That’s great!”
“By the way, that is one of the biggest problems communicating to public policy people is the caveats that you do not wish to be responsible for the comments and representations that are adopted surrounding your decision.”
Is there hope at the end of the road?
“Is there hope? Yes. John Fleck who is now running the water center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a recovering journalist with great fascination about California even though he’s spent 25-30 years in New Mexico, wrote a recent book, Water is for Fighting: And Other Myths About Water in the West. It’s one of the more optimistic books that are around in the world and I commend it to your attention.”
“For example, John can even find plausible reasons that I think are compelling to favor the planting of alfalfa in water-starved areas. You ought to read the argument in his book about that because it is a public policy and factual argument that is compelling. It’s kind of the example when all of us spent our youth trying to get agriculture in the Central Valley to stop planting subsidized cotton. Those guys turned around and now they’ve planted trees, making a lot of money, and compounding the water problems of California.”
“When Peter Moyle mentioned today the North Delta Arc for restoration, it strikes me that’s the kind of thing that John is talking about on the water supply side that is likely to be the future of California.”
Why can’t California do things in the Delta?
“Why are we screwing around and not making big changes in California to solve all these problems in the Bay Delta? Winston Churchill is alleged to have said roughly the following in 1940: He was in a cabinet meeting, and this was before the US entered the war, and somebody asked, ‘Mr. Prime Minister, when will the US get in the war?’ They were faced with the bombings and the threat of invasions … and Winston is reputed to have said, ‘America will always to the right thing, after trying everything else first.’”
“Now it turns out Churchill never said that. Nobody’s ever been able to find it. It’s like the Mark Twain quote on water, but it rings true.”
“California is going through its period of trying everything else other than facing the dilemma that the water supply is infinite, the demands cumulatively seem endless, and nobody wants to say no to endless demands. To me, the art form is getting to that point where everyone is either so exhausted, so confused, or so threatened by the US Supreme Court, by any Court, or by the legislature doing something so that they actually get together and work out solutions similar to what Fleck is talking about.”
Why science should be involved in policy making
“Why, after all of that, would somebody like me who loves to tease scientists and lawyers and almost anybody else who comes up … why would I like to have scientists involved? C.P. Snow was a young scientist, a physicist I believe in World War II, in Britain helping to fight the war. Afterwards he became part of various government institutions as a scientist. He then converted himself completely into a novelist and an essayist, and he gave the Godkin lecture at Harvard in 1960. The title of that lecture was, ‘Government and science’. I won’t bore you, but it’s about an 88 page thing, well worth reading, he gave it over three nights.”
“He concluded for all of the failings of science or policy, for all of our failings collectively, science has the ability if done properly, as he said, for the gift of foresight. It is not the ability to predict the future with 100% accuracy, it is not the ability to determine who should be elected to office or not be elected to office, but it’s the notion that scientists live looking farther out than the rest of us do with the gift of foresight that if properly utilized, can inform, educate, and ultimately motivate policy makers.”
“That’s what I’ve been doing since I retired – I’ve been thinking about things like this. I think about all of you. Just remember to get the ones who make you smile to present your case.”
“And no regression analyses to a public policy official. Not one damn regression analysis!”
For more from the Bay Delta Science Conference …
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