Insects

Insects

All around the world there are entomologists, people who study insects. We should be very proud of these fine folk for without their understanding it would be harder to manage many diseases transmitted by insects, resolve many pathogens, figure out how to assist insects pollinate crops and, most importantly, support insects and their invertebrate cousins maintain soil fertility.

Then there are insect people you might know about. The pest control folk who make sure the fly spray kills the flies and not us.

Sounding a bit posh and, dare we say a little ivory tower, ‘entomologist’ usually refers to the researchers who gather the data and sift through it to find evidence for the good, bad and ugly on the insects that share our spaces. So we can listen to them with some confidence. Not only are they spending their days with ‘bugs’, yuck, they are also the right kind of skeptic using the numbers to find inference.

Lately the number of insects observed by entomologists are in decline. This is not because the entomologists are getting lazy, spending more time watching TV than setting malaise traps or peering down microscopes, but because there are fewer insects around to be studied.

A recent publication confirmed from long-term trapping data in 63 German nature reserves, what many have casually observed in many parts of the world. Insect numbers are going down. And not just by a little bit, they are plummeting.

Hallmann C.A., Sorg M., Jongejans E., Siepel H., Hofland N., Schwan H., Stenmans W., Müller A., Sumser H., Hörren T., Goulson D., de Kroon H. (2017) More than 75% decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas. PLoS ONE, 12(10), eo185809

Three quarters in a generation.

If such a collapse had happened to the Dow Jones the sky would have fallen in. Imagine trying to survive on a quarter of your wages you earned when you started out. Heaven forbid if the defence budget from the 1990s was reduced by all those billions, how scared and vulnerable would we feel?

“Not a problem” the observant reader cries out. “The crawling insects will simply fill the space left by the loss of the flying ones, that’s what you ecology types tell us all the time.”

Perhaps.

Equally a loss in numbers does not necessarily mean a loss of function. Pollination only needs one bee to transfer pollen from stamen to stigma. Fewer mosquitos has to be a good thing and those beetle larvae can’t be doing that much to soil when we have fertilisers.

It is always very easy to play the ostrich. Only they are remarkable and very dumb birds.

When an observation so dramatic and material to so many key ecological processes becomes known we dismiss it at our peril. If we ignore these numbers just because we like the idea of fewer midges at summer evening picnics without looking deeper to find out what is going on, we increase risk to our already precarious food security.

We need to enable our entomologists to find out why the numbers went down and if the decline is going to affect the key ecosystem services we rely on.

Or, of course, we could ignore them and buy more submarines.

Probability

Probability

If a coin is tossed in the air, caught and flipped onto the back of the hand, most people know that there is a 50% chance of calling ‘heads’ and getting it right.

Some will also know that no matter how many times the coin is tossed, and whatever previous sequence of heads and tails has occurred, the probability of calling heads on the next toss and getting it right is still 0.5 or 50%

Alloporus contends that this is about as far as it goes.

Not many of us understand any more of the whys and wherefores of probability than the likelihood of calling head and getting it right, notwithstanding the few who take to the racing tracks. That so many others push coins into slot machines is a bit of a give away. No pun intended.

The next step on the ladder of probabilities requires intuition and so is rather hard to learn.

Suppose I have a group of 100 people.

I know that 50 of them have Irish grandparents and the other half have Scottish grandparents but there is no way of knowing the recent ancestry of an individual without asking them.

I select 10 people at random from the 100 in the room and 8 of them tell me that they have Irish heritage.

I’m expecting it to be 5 but chance can always throw things off a little. Picking just two Scots is unexpected but not impossible.

I select another 10 people at random.

Should my expectation of finding five Irish folk be the same as it was at the start?

Of course, it depends.

If I return my first 10 people to the room to resume their canapes and conversation and I select another 10 people entirely at random with no bias towards those I have already asked, then the answer is yes.

But if I send the first 10 individuals out into the carpark and sample the remaining 90 people at random then the answer is no.

Because by sending the first 10 away (sampling without replacement), I have changed the proportion of Scots in the remaining population of the room. It’s only a small amount but its no longer a 50:50 chance because the proportions of Scots to Irish is now 53:47

Hardly material to any future results. However, if I continue to sample a small population without replacement the proportional change due to my random process of sampling could affect future interpretations. Sample 30 more people and if 20 of them are Scots before we know it its a majority of kilt wearers munching on the salmon pate.

There are any number of thoughts that this simple example should generate from thinking about political poll numbers to whether or not another spin on the pokies is really worth the gamble.

Here is one that may not be at the front of mind.

It’s a truism that most of us do not get probability. My recent ‘ah ha’ moment made me realise that this ‘not getting it’ is pervasive and prevalent even among the technical folk who have been trained in it.

And people don’t get a bit of probability, it’s an all or nothing type understanding. You got the idea behind sampling with replacement not changing the likelihood of sampling a Scot or you didn’t. And it seems that if you didn’t that’s quite OK because, in all probability, you are in the vast majority.

So the thought is this.

How on earth are humans so successful when most of them do not understand chance?

Science and Policy

Science and Policy

In a recent article on why science gets shut out of policy Anthony Bergin from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute contends that

“The extent to which scientific knowledge gets traction in policy will depend partly on the state of science knowledge on the issue, and partly on the degree of controversy surrounding the issue under consideration. It will also depend on the degree of public and political attention the matter gets.”

He goes on to suggest a few reasons for why scientists are not all that good at getting the message across in what is always a consensus and value driven process. Similar to the thinking in Are scientists ready?

In short, scientists too often revert to their necessary scepticism in the face of uncertainty and so come across as weak communicators.

Alternatively Bergin suggests that

“Too often, scientists tend to think they know what is best or what is needed, and then they are disappointed, frustrated or angry when their ideas and hard work are rejected or put on the shelf.”

In other words, they also form and promote values too, just like all the other players in the game. Then their egos get in the way, just like all the other players in the game. Lovely.

I doubt that Bergin is correct in his claim that policymakers do care about scientific evidence if it helps them make decisions. If it helps them make the decision they want to make, perhaps, but that is not quite what he meant. My experience with natural resource management policy is that policymakers understand very little of the science despite their access to considerable in-house and review style expertise. Their political masters understand even less.

Needless to say they all care when evidence helps the spin.

And before everyone whines that policy makers are not in the business of politics, dream on people. It’s 2018, the decade when fake became more influential that fact and public servants found it harder than ever to serve the public when the minister of the day wants her own specific outcome.

So Bergin is right in his tone.

Science into policy is very difficult especially for the scientists.

Scientists do have to front up with confidence, develop communications skills, and learn that their audience has never understood a probability, let alone an inference level.

The use of scenarios makes good sense. It’s the approach that helps AfterBefore Systems to understand options for investment in land management, as does delivering advice in multiple forms. Only my academic experience suggests very few scientists are any good at either of these things. They are hypothesis testers not scenario modellers. They are geared towards output as peer-reviewed papers that create some of the most turgid reading experiences known to man. The poor dears are staring at a very steep cliff.

As with most opinion pieces in this space, the conjecture is easy. In this instance, policy and science are hard to reconcile given the nature of the people involved.

Equally the suggestions are sound. They are easily summarised into “chill out and communicate”.

But wait. The premise here is that inference and evidence will be used should they be understood and available. There is an assumption that human beings are so rational that in the face of evidence they will make the decision pointed to by the evidence.

I doubt it.

Sometimes the evidence is clear. The voluntary inhaling of smoke into your lungs affects your health. Cut down the forest to make arable land and, in time, you will have to fertilize to get a crop. Burn enough fossilised carbon and it will change the composition of the atmosphere. But even blindingly obvious evidence will not always be heeded.

This creates the biggest psychological challenge for the scientist. Trained to find evidence and believe in inference, the scientists is incredulous when obvious evidence is ignored for the short-term expediency of the policy. And this will happen. It has many times already and will continue to happen for as long as there is politics.

The real challenge is making sure that the important evidence gets noticed. Perhaps by being truthful about what happens if it is ignored.


More on this general topic

Are scientists ready?

Post revisited – Leaders not heroes

Time for scepticism

Macron

Macron

The French president was in Sydney recently, fresh from his triumph in Washington DC. He was in town for talks and, by all accounts, his signature. Any number of bilateral agreements were made legal.

Just to remind you, this is the French president, the figurehead of the country that the English fought wars with for centuries. Only in modern times have they become best buddies, at least officially.

Only “this is Australia, not England”, you say.

True. But an Australia still run by the remnants of the British, the white heritage dudes who, whilst nodding to the multicultural attributes of the people, keep reminding everyone of the empire and those who died to defend it. The very same empire that colonised and suppressed so many peoples for so long.

And what was the President to say, in French of course, to his Australian host Prime Minister Turnbull. My translation from his speech outside Kirribilli House on a gloriously sunny autumn day with the harbour shimmering in the background was something like…

“We love you bro, and your missus.

We are well chuffed to sign just about anything you like if it makes you feel good.

After all we are miles away up there in the real world and you are far away down here and for some reason you were gullible enough to buy a bunch of our submarines at great expense.

Thanks mate, good on ya.”

Now I am sure that underneath my cynicism there are more conventional messages.

For example, it is always good to be friendly towards foreign powers whether they speak French or not. Bullying or annoying them is obviously detrimental to any current or future bonhomie.

Chatting pleasantly to the French president helps realise the opportunity for really good deals with a European Union just as they are about to look closely at trade agreements once the British exit. Pleasantries might even secure the odd bilateral with France.

The French are good at high tech industry and Australia has thought it might like to try that too, so cozying up to a player in that game has any number of benefits. Defense materiel, si vous plait.

The more mates you have, the easier it is to keep the bad guys at bay and off your internet allowing you to be the main social media influence. Although one has to think that cyber crime and indeed, cyber warfare, are the arenas of the future.

All up, keep the boys club alive and all will be well.

It will not. We need better than this. We need discussion and agreements about refugees, food security, universal income, changing the workforce, technology to keep people alive rather than kill them, and a host of solutions to keeping multitudes of affluent people happy and off the streets.

A couple of would be chums buying and selling arms is not the answer.

Future self

Future self

“Most of us can remember who we were 10 years ago, but we find it hard to imagine who we’re going to be, and then we mistakenly think that because it’s hard to imagine, it’s not likely to happen” Dan Gilbert

I find it hard to remember what I was doing 10 years ago.

After a while I can recall what my job was back then, what my family was up to and maybe the colour of the ever changing feature wall in the living room. Most specific activities are a blur unless I really concentrate on place and where I was within it. Even then the memories are patchy.

As Dan Gilbert suggests, that’s the easy part. We are much better at remembering the past than we are predicting the future.

Memory has obvious evolutionary advantages for long-lived organisms who need to know where the food and shelter can be found when the weather turns bad.

Predicting is much harder. Perhaps because we remember actual things that, at least for us, really happened. Predictions are a guess. A possibility with a likelihood. In other words, events are just as likely not to happen as they are to come to pass. There is a psychological cost to making a prediction that is never paid with a memory. Any prediction we make comes with risk to our self esteem. The further forward in time we project our guesses the more likely they are to be wrong so our ego shuts them down as a form of protection.

Well, that is one rational explanation anyway.

No doubt if I spend a few days trawling Google Scholar I could find out if anyone has positied it formally and maybe even tried to test it.

But let’s consider the consequences of humans not generally being any good at predicting our future selves.

We are easily stuck in the past often viewing it with tinted spectacles.

Our frame of reference is what has gone before, what we know, rather than what could be. Our anxiety over autonomous vehicles is a case in point.

We get very good at incredulity. So much so that we even refuse to believe what is front of our noses because unless we have seen it before it cannot be real. We’ll let the perversity of that logic slide.

It takes a lot to convince us of anything we have not already seen, heard or felt, unless its been on our Facebook feed.

We lose the ability to be rational in the face of evidence.

And we could go on.

Altogether this inability to predict the future leaves us with one binding feeling…

We hate change.

We just want everything to stay the same. It’s what we know, what we remember and what makes life predictable, reliable, certain and, please god, comfortable.

Only as Dan Gilbert points out, there is a problem. It’s called time.

“The bottom line is, time is a powerful force. It transforms our preferences. It reshapes our values. It alters our personalities. We seem to appreciate this fact, but only in retrospect.”

Many a post on this blog has ranted on about the consequences of time, what’s coming over the horizon and how poorly we are prepared for it.

If this difficulty in imagining our future self is pervasive, it offers a proximate explanation for many of these rants. We simply just don’t know how to see the future so we stay stuck in the past overestimating the wonders of the present and scared to death of change.

Heaven help us.

Ecological grief

Ecological grief

Research shows that people increasingly feel the effects of [these] planetary changes and associated ecological losses in their daily lives, and that these changes present significant direct and indirect threats to mental health and well-being

So goes the introduction to an article on ecological grief by Neville Ellis and Ashlee Cunsolo, young academics interested in the mental health consequences to people living in the Anthropocene, the geological epoch man has created.

They suggest that we feel the ecological change going on around us so profoundly that we grieve for the loss of its more comforting attributes.

Bullshit.

There is no way that the average city dweller en route to a job they hate after grabbing a pop tart that will give them indigestion at best and yet so happy to be out of the house where all they seem to do is argue, is grieving over the loss of Amazonian rainforest and 2 degrees of warming.

Not unless you unfurl a hugely long bow and claim that all this angst is, actually, ecological grief manifest.

Sorry, I don’t buy it.

The stress people experience in their lives starts much closer to home. It is their ego propelling them into chaos. Whilst it is true that the ecological cliff we are hurtling over adds to the problem, it seems unlikely that our insatiable needs for wealth, recognition and personal power all have their origins in grief.

There is far too much basic evolutionary biology that can explain these human drivers. It’s just that the selfish gene has spectacular psychological and emotional expression in the Anthropocene.

Ecological grief is an enchanting concept though. I have no doubt that we all feel it even if almost all of those good folk on the 7.32am from Barking never make the association.

So my challenge to the inventors of the the term, is to figure out how much of this grief exists and is it strong enough to influence present and future behaviour.

There are glimpses that it might be. The zero waste girl who lived for a year without generating any garbage. Or the global movement to ban single use plastic bags. But there is also endless examples where, if people are grieving, it is not changing their behaviour.

Unless, of course, this is their grief.

Ah, such sweet tautology.

Little gem – more hopeful

Little gem – more hopeful

TED talks have been around for a long time now, since 1984 as it turns out. There are over 2,000 of them, most in that punchy, smart format that makes even challenging ideas accessible.

Here is a collection of eight of them that Kara Cutruzzula selected on how to be more hopeful

They have these messages…

  1. Shift your expectations
  2. Recognize that you can change your life at any point
  3. Look for meaning in the most challenging moments
  4. Listen to another person’s story
  5. Return to your home base
  6. Add some wow to your world
  7. Remember the essential goodness of humanity
  8. Think about your death (yes, really).

A good list, a little gem, and well worth a look.