Admitting ignorance can be a good thing

  • Pat Wray


At the risk of sounding like I’m a bubble or two off plumb, I’d like to ask our natural resource decision-makers to try something new as we start 2013. I’d like them to decide things based on what they don’t know, rather than on what they do. If it seems counter-intuitive to plan the future on a lack of knowledge, please consider the record we’ve compiled so far, starting in the Northwest.

After using gillnets and fish wheels to decimate the almost limitless salmon runs of the Columbia River during the 1800s, we used what we knew -- commonly referred to as the “best available science” -- to build hatcheries and hatch billions of eggs. The best available science held that all salmon of a given species were essentially the same, so there was no attempt to release the fry and smolts into their natal streams.

After more than a century of developing fish that were progressively weaker, more prone to disease and more vulnerable to predation than their wild cousins, we finally began to use modern hatcheries to supplement wild runs, rather than replace them.  Perhaps in another century or so, we’ll be able to undo the harm we caused based on what we thought we knew.

While we were destroying the greatest run of salmon on earth, we were also beginning a frenzied search for precious metals. That search left great scars on the land, turned streambeds inside out, and polluted waterways that are still a mess today.  In fairness, I doubt the scientists of the day even pretended to know what to expect from large-scale mining.  By the mid-20th century we knew better, though, and began implementing controls on older, existing methods.  Unfortunately, those controls didn’t help us deal with new technology.

Heap-leach mines use a cyanide or sulfuric acid solution to extract gold, copper and nickel from crushed ore. The pregnant solution then drifts down to an impermeable layer where it is collected so the metals can be removed.  The scientists, planners and mine owners knew the layer was impermeable … until it wasn’t.  They knew there was no risk … until there was.  Unfortunately, leaks weren’t typically discovered until the nearby groundwater was poisoned.

Nowadays, with increased environmental awareness and media coverage, it is more difficult for corporations to damage the environment, but only slightly.  Because even if they can’t prove their activity is benign, corporations can still say, “If you don’t like what I’m doing, prove it’s harmful.  Until you can provide incontrovertible proof, I’m going to continue, because, based on our best available science, I’m doing no harm. And you’re just an hysterical homeowner, environmentalist, troublemaker.”

The timber industry has a long history of such attitudes. Although government biologists were raising concerns about old-growth-dependent wildlife species in the 1970s, they were sidelined by the continual demand for data. “There is no definitive data showing spotted owls and marbled murrelets are affected by the loss of old-growth timber,” said the loggers. And when the data became available, they simply refocused their argument. “Well, OK. Spotted owls in Northern California are covered by your study, but do we know if owls in Oregon and Washington are affected?”

Because of these delays, the timber companies were able to delay sanctions until they’d harvested all but a tiny fraction of the Northwest’s old-growth timber.

What if we’d admitted, from the beginning, that we really didn’t know much about salmon? Would we have continued to flood the rivers with damaged fry and smolts?  Or might we have stopped and taken a look around and decided that maybe Mother Nature knew somewhat more than we did? If the mining engineers had admitted their ignorance of the long-term impacts of their actions, would they have continued to do the damage they did? Or did our utter dependence on the best available science cause them to push forward? Would a little humility, a little uncertainty, have slowed the timber industry down, made its decision-makers question themselves and their legacy?

Now consider fracking –– hydraulically fracturing the earth’s crust in a massive search for oil and gas. Wouldn’t it be more prudent to approach something as potentially catastrophic as fracking by taking it slowly for a few years, thereby giving us time to evaluate the risks?

Instead, the oil and gas companies are fracking wherever they can, full-speed ahead, just as if they really had a clue about what they were doing and what might happen in a serious accident.  “There is no proof of any danger to water supplies,” they say, “and no proof of any danger of earthquakes. And if you don’t like it -- show us your data.”

Pat Wray is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News( He writes in Corvallis, Oregon.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at