A Ratty Conversation with the Center for Biological Diversity

Are you a corporate shill if you point out that environmental activists have a financial incentive to present only one side of a story? According to one scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity -- which has about 50 lawyers on its staff -- the answer is yes. Our irony-meters exploded.

The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) portrays itself as a pro-science, non-profit organization that simply wants to protect endangered species. In reality, it's largely a group of lawsuit-happy lawyers.

CBD's website lists about 170 staff members, with more than 50 having "attorney" or "counsel" in their job titles.* So, that's a law firm, not a scientific organization. The page even brags about how awesome CBD is at winning lawsuits:

Based on our unparalleled record of legal successes — 83 percent of our lawsuits result in favorable outcomes — we've developed a unique negotiating position with both government agencies and private corporations, enabling us, at times, to secure broad protections for species and habitat without the threat of litigation. [Emphasis added]

In other words, since everybody knows that CBD wins lawsuits, they don't even have to threaten you with one to win. That's like saying that the Godfather has such a well-known negotiation strategy that he doesn't even have to put a dead horse's head in your bed to get what he wants.

I've long had my suspicions about this organization, and they were all confirmed when one of its directors contacted me about an article I wrote on taxonomy, the science of species classification. Typically, this is a field that generates very little attention. It's mostly an academic exercise, at least until it runs into people who are motivated primarily by politics, ideology, and money. Then, taxonomy gets nasty.

The gist of the article was that politics must be removed from any scientific endeavor to classify species. I used as an example Preble's meadow jumping mouse, which has been controversially identified as a separate subspecies in need of protection, wreaking havoc on the local economy in Wyoming and Colorado to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. I cited work that supported the view that the mouse is not an actual subspecies, and I also noted that there are at least 24 different conceptions of what constitutes a "species," so that taxonomic classifications are inherently fuzzy.

Noah Greenwald, CBD's Endangered Species Director, contacted me via email. He claimed that my article was wrong and needed a correction because of methodological problems behind the data I cited. He also provided a paper in Molecular Ecology that concluded that the mouse was indeed a unique subspecies. The abstract of the paper says:

"A survey of 21 microsatellite DNA loci and 1380 base pairs from two mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) regions (control region and cytochrome b ) revealed that each Z. hudsonius subspecies is genetically distinct."

So what? Similar techniques show that isolated human tribes are genetically distinct from other humans. That doesn't warrant classifying them as a human subspecies. If the concept of species is vague (and it is), the concept of subspecies is almost arbitrary. This paper, therefore, doesn't prove anything. It's an evidence-based opinion -- so that's good -- but, it's still just an opinion. It's hardly dispositive.

Besides, CBD has a financial incentive to find as much biological diversity as it can and to downplay evidence with which it disagrees. The organization's business model is to raise money from donors by identifying what it believes are endangered species and then threatening to sue people. The more (sub)species it identifies, the more lawsuits it can threaten, and the happier are its donors. That doesn't automatically mean that CBD is wrong; it just means that we should be skeptical of the claims it makes, similar to the way that we should be skeptical of the claims made by a company about a product it is selling.

In response to Mr. Greenwald, I again noted the controversial nature of the subspecies classification and cited a different paper. I added, "CBD is an organization that financially benefits from disputes like this, which is why I remain skeptical of your position."

That didn't go over well at all. Mr. Greenwald responded, "I have mistaken you for someone who actually cares about scientific accuaracy [sic]" and then said that I work for an "industry schill [sic] group." Apparently, I made him so mad that I broke his spell checker.

Is the Center for Biological Diversity a Shill for the Environmentalist Lobby?

The "industry shill" ad hominem attack is thrown against us by conspiracy theorists or people who simply have no other response to our analysis. It's inaccurate and lazy but commonly used by allegedly serious thinkers.

Whenever I hear that smear, I immediately do some digging, and I'm rarely disappointed with what I find. In this case, I learned that the Center for Biological Diversity has a budget that is roughly 15 times the size of ours and that one of their early funders was a Swiss billionaire. None of that really matters, but two can play the shill game.

There's one other point that CBD should consider. Being obnoxious backfires. A 2007 paper argues:

"[U]sing single species listings under the [Endangered Species Act] as a tool to combat urban sprawl or to influence land use decisions undermine political support for both the ESA and other species conservation efforts."

Apparently, calling people shills and suing them is ineffective at winning new friends to your cause.

*Note: By comparison, it has 10 with "scientist" in their job titles, but that might be a slight undercount since some of the directors might be working as scientists.