The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) may soon be required by federal law to base its policies on actual science—and of course environmentalists are livid about it.
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) reintroduced a bill known as the Secret Science Reform Act that would prohibit the EPA from “proposing, finalizing, or disseminating regulations or assessments based on science that is not transparent or reproducible.” The bill was originally introduced in 2014 though it did not clear all congressional hurdles. Barack Obama—our most super-sciencey president ever—vowed to veto it if ever reached his desk.
Don’t believe me? Here’s the opening sentence from an oppositional op-ed by Dianna Wray of Houston Press: “A lot Republicans hate the Environmental Protection Agency, but have left it to San Antonio Republican Representative Lamar Smith to come up with a bill that, if passed, could actually stop the agency from doing just about anything.”
Oh, I see—if it weren’t for secret science, the EPA wouldn’t have any science at all. According to Wray, if they can’t hide their data and refuse to show their calculations they’ll be “crippled.” There’s just one problem with this idea—secret science is a contradiction in terms. Science isn’t science if its results can’t be held up for inspection, judged worthy or unworthy, and accepted, refined, or rejected. If a theory is too delicate to withstand the heat and pressure of scrutiny, it doesn’t deserve anyone’s acceptance.
Legally speaking, the word “science” was defined in McLean v. Arkansas (1982), a famous court case that exiled creation science from public schools. Judge William Overton found that creation science was not science at all because it failed a five-prong test. According to his decision genuine science must:
1) be guided by natural law;
2) be explanatory by reference to natural law;
3) be testable against the empirical world;
4) have conclusions that are tentative, i.e. are not necessarily the final word; and
5) be falsifiable.
Anything that fails even one of these prongs cannot rightly be called science. That’s a high standard. Some might call it too high, though that would depend on whose theory is being put to the test. Nonetheless, the McLean test has value. Ideas that don’t live up it cannot legitimately be called scientific. Whether they’re true or not is another question entirely.