Guest Post: How big is that gray area?


speedometerMy 16-year-old son has started to drive. He holds a learner’s permit, which means he can’t drive without me sitting in the passenger seat. Me, narrating, reminding, commenting, coaching, evaluating, and reinforcing. We haven’t done much highway driving yet, so I haven’t directly addressed the idea of breaking the law — which almost everybody on the highway does.

Around town, he’ll ask me: “What’s the speed limit here?” I’ll say, “Probably 30 mph” or 40 or 25 or whatever the size of the road seems to allow.  (And yes, I take pride in the fact that I usually guess right. I’m glad I can still be an expert at something for my almost grown son.) Yesterday, he slowed way down when he realized he was driving in a school zone. I said nothing, as if it’s a given that he’d follow the letter of the law.

But what about the highway? Will I say, “The speed limit is 55 mph here, but most people drive 60-65.” How will I frame that gray area between stated rule and common practice for my son? As a cringe-worthy “everybody does it” excuse or as a rationalization, based on what I believe to be true — that it’s safest to drive at the speed of others around you.

While we’re exploring gray areas, my son, let me point out that there are plenty of examples of rules and regulations put in place with the best intentions and then blithely ignored.  Take New York State’s Department of Education standards that say schoolchildren should have physical education every day. You, my son, go to a reputable public school and have never had PE more than three times a week.

And let’s talk about about fish restoration efforts, because I wrote about them last month for ScienceNOW. A classic human vs wildlife standoff — hydropower dams in the Northeast vs fish who swim in from the ocean to their upstream spawning grounds. The dams are required by state and federal laws to construct fishways and they include target numbers for the passage of various species of migrating fish, such as Atlantic salmon and Atlantic sturgeon — both listed under the US Endangered Species Act.  But the targets aren’t being met.

In fact, they’re missing targets by ridiculous amounts — instead of the target 5 million river herring passing the first four dams on the Susquehanna river per year, the average yearly count over a four-year period was 7 — according to a recent paper in Conservation Letters. That’s seven with no zeros. I found the numbers so hard to fathom, so unbelievable, I was compelled to double-check them with the lead author.

Helping fish circumvent dams is not a new problem; efforts date back hundreds of years.  And sometimes a fish ladder or a fish elevator works at a particular dam for a particular species. So people keep tweaking the fishways and trying new things. There’s a whole field of study around attracting and orienting fish so that they might take our human helping hand.

But it’s simply not working at a dozen Northeast dams for a half-dozen species of fish. Not by a long shot.

I often cover stories in which current policy is being contested — violent video games, emergency contraception, and menthol cigarettes to name a few. The science is bandied about, used to effect by opposing sides, undermined with skepticism or cherry-picked to best represent. Policy-makers decide whether to draw a new regulatory line or to stick with the old one.  That seems all as it should.

What do we do when a line has been drawn and is not met? Highway patrolmen seem to prioritize — a car traveling 10 or more mph over the speed limit is the one that gets pulled over. What if it can’t be met? NYS educators seem lenient but practical, well aware that school budgets have shriveled and PE teachers are few. They’ll give an imperceptible nod to recess or other creative definitions of PE.

And the fish? The targets clearly cannot be met, and yet it seems impossible to view the actualities as a gray area. The report’s authors call for dams to be removed and they’ve got a point. They’ve got science AND policy on their side.

How I wish I could come up with a rubric for my son to assess rule-breaking. Whether it’s okay for convenience’s sake or for conscience’s sake or for any of a whole host of reasons which may or may not be defensible. I’ll wish for clarity but I’ll settle for honesty. I’ll have to risk mixed messages and a dose of relativism to relay that how one deals with gray areas is pretty gray.


Jill U. Adams is a health columnist for the Washington Post, and a contributor to the Science Writer’s Handbook. Her work also appears in Audubon, Discover, The Los Angeles Times, Science, and Nature. Find her on Twitter @juadams or on the web.


Photo provided by Shutterstock.

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