Who Is Robert Kahn and Why is He Saying Those Things?
Thanks to Matt Koehler for originally posting here. What I thought was interesting was the concept “Why should we care what Robert Kahn thinks?” What is his background, and what experience does he have in our world?
I did my usual internet search, found that there were a lot of Robert Kahns around, and that this one is the webpage editor for Courthouse News Service. Here’s their masthead.
One thing I’ve noticed about CNS is that many of the articles have what I call “snarky lawyer tone”. Now I don’t mean this to be offensive to lawyers, but in some cases in their culture, it is OK to have a tone that “other people are stupid and malevolent and we are smart and good.” It’s a style that you often see in appeals and litigation.
I remember one late night, a person was working on an appeal and wrote the response in the same tone “if the appellants had read the case they cited, they would understand that in fact…”. There wasn’t much I could do to help her, so I volunteered to “desnarkify” the response. Hype, snark, nastiness, snark, hype.
Having been brought up in the more genial groves of forest science, I find the tone.. well, nasty and offputting. And when I see hype, I tend to think “either that person has a casual acquaintance with the truth or they aren’t choosing to tell me the truth for some reason”. Either way, they are off my list of “people to whom I listen.”
So let’s deconstruct a bit of Kahn’s column.
Scientists are better than politicians because scientists want to know if they’re wrong.
Wow! I have worked in the science biz and it’s really, really not that simple. Scientists are human, and probably don’t want to know they’re wrong, if for example, they can’t get more funding or particularly if their archenemy turns out to be correct. Of course, it’s just silly to make these global statements anyway. I have met good scientist and good politicians and bad scientists and bad politicians (in the moral sense). I have noticed that a great deal of the “let science determine” the outcomes doesn’t actually come from scientists. In some cases, it comes from NGOs with many lawyers on their staffs and not too many scientists who know the “sausage-making”- like qualities of making science (usually we think of laws that way, but the scientific process is not always pretty, either).
Politicians – and their friends in the timber and cattle industries – don’t give a damn. So long as the money rolls in: to them.
That’s also pretty global. I worked on Capitol Hill (not sure that Robert ever did) and politicians get donations from timber folks and cattle folks and environmental folks (perhaps different politicians from different folks), but the point is.. oh, perhaps getting money from environmental groups is Good and Holy and getting money from timber and cattle folks is Evil and Venal.
I see 5,000 lawsuits a week editing the Courthouse News page – stories of rape, murder, drugs, perversion, official corruption – revolting stuff.
But the most obnoxious lawsuit I saw this week was from the timber and cattle industries, which claimed that scientists exert “improper influence” on the U.S. Forest Service, by seeking ecological sustainability above industry profits in National Forests.
I have to admit my stomach turned when someone says that an obtuse lawsuit against an obtuse planning rule is more obnoxious than rape and murder. Of course, “seeking ecological sustainability above industry profits” is an oversimplification.
The people litigating, in my view, are worried that some of the complicated language in the new rule could be interpreted by courts in silly ways to the detriment of the land and the people. Because, if things are fuzzy, then certain circuits and NGOs are going to make the determination-not based on the best policy but based on their interpretation of the fuzzy regulation-with a hefty dose of their own predilections in interpreting the fuzz. The litigants probably want the language to be clearer in the first place. I wonder if we could save lots of money by taking the phrases in question and having an open discussion about what we hope to achieve and what are our fears. That is what a FACA committee could have done for the rule-writing effort; people who differ speaking to each other directly and not each independently making their case to the FS.
Anyway, I just don’t see why folks can’t disagree without being nasty. And I really hate comparing rape or murder to interpreting the intersection of social, economic and “ecological” sustainability- a legalistic and paperworky exercise.