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$ and no sense (10/08/2006)
By Janet Lewis Burns

"I have found that policies developed on myths and folktales have led to one failure after another for natural resources." "...a myth sometimes is perpetuated by scientists in spite of growing evidence to the contrary." - Daniel B. Botkin

As skies turn heavy and stern with an impending chill, my reading material turns intense again. Botkin's "Strange Encounters - Adventures of a Renegade Naturalist," c2003, though not quite "Indiana Jones" or "Crocodile Dundee," is an eye-opening and witty chronicle of his thirty-five years of scientific research.

In the 1960s and 1970s, scientists sought to simulate what effects an atomic war would have on the environment by radiating an entire forest. Joining the study, Botkin discovered that money was no object. "A pocketknife or a Swiss Army Knife?" Knives, along with ample supplies for any need a biologist might encounter and rarely had to access, were readily available in large warehouses.

The kick in the pants came fifteen years later when it was discovered that nobody cared to do a follow-up on the project and few knew of the research papers. Botkin questioned why the study of the forest's recovery wasn't part of the original plan?

"Perhaps our high-technology devices and access to expensive equipment merely fooled us into believing we were doing science when we really were not," Botkin writes. "Perhaps the radioactive forest was at best a good joke, a joke on science, a joke on ecology, a place that, to whatever kind of civilization follow us, will seem strange."

We humans tend to believe just what we want to believe. In scientific research that tendency can be disastrous. Sadly, scientists can be guilty of wearing rose colored glasses, unwilling to part with ideology, myth, and folktale.

For over one hundred years, fishermen, conservationists, and government agencies have destroyed sea lions, blaming them for killing too many salmon (despite evidence to the contrary).

At the end of the 1990s Botkin was involved in a follow-up study only to discover that past analysis and calculations were erroneous. Ignoring knowledge and scientific data, nobody cared to make an issue of wrongfully killing thousands of sea lions, including environmentalists.

Nature programs and travel guides continue to entice travelers with so-called "triple-canopy rain forests" (possibly in the Amazon Basic). Botkin's explorations determined that there were none to be found. Sadly, "our policies, laws, and actions for conservation are determined by these stories."

Since sometime before 1948, "poison 1080" was used to kill rodents and predators. Though poisonous organic compounds were supposed to decompose in their first victim, it was later discovered that 1080 could also kill any animal that fed upon a target animal, including endangered species and people who work in predator control.

There was no scientific data to regulate the extensive use of this poison until 1972, when President Nixon issued an executive order barring the use of poisons for predator control. Still, fiascoes go on!

Was NASA spaced out? In 1999 America's Mars lander disappeared after it reached its destination. The NASA team had opted not to include devices to measure the condition and behavior of the spacecraft as it passed into Martian atmosphere. An out-of-this-world extravagance of $165 million - lost in space.

Wouldn't it be an ideal world if all scientists could put their brilliant heads together? If the cost of experimentation wasn't an issue? If greed, power, and politics were no longer stumbling blocks in research...where life, death, and wellbeing are concerned?

Daniel Botkin's dedication to the truth and his personal involvement in scientific studies is awe-inspiring! As he questions whether ecology has been based on preconceived notions masquerading as "science," one can be certain, after reading his compilation, that this renegade naturalist has given taxpayers their money's worth!

Janet Burns has called this neck of the woods "home" all her life. She can be reached at patandjanburns@earthlink.net 


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