gathering-evidenceUnder English common law the accused is innocent until proven guilty. The onus is on the prosecution to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the person in the dock committed the offense.

This usually means that details of what happened to perpetrate the alleged crime is amassed and presented to the court. Information designed to established who did what, when, and where. Often there will also be an explanation of why the person did it for context is important too.

In short the court will hear evidence.

Indeed the quality of the legal system is determined by the amount and reliability of evidence amassed and the integrity with which it is used. A court that relied on hearsay and opinion in the absence of facts would scare most sane people.

Step outside the court and the logic that underpins the legal system should still apply.

Decisions made from evidence should be smarter, more efficient and lead to more consistent outcomes than decisions made on a whim.

Unless I was crazy thirsty I wouldn’t pay $100 for a beer once I know that the going rate for a beer is $5.

Jumping on a train makes no sense unless I know where it is going… “The train on platform 10 is an all stations to the back of beyond”.

Clearly we gather, store and use evidence all the time.

Wait a moment.

This tsunami of logic is all very well if it was true but it is a ruse. Recent experiences suggest to me that we actually prefer to be without evidence when we make decisions. Our egos rather like seat of the pants choices that require us to think fast and punt on our hunches.

Instead of careful massing of information, turning it over with evaluation skills and maybe project a scenario or two, we guess.

If the gut says yes, then yes it is.

How else could a handbag be sold for $5,000, a third of the worlds population be eating themselves into disease, or climate change be denied?

I think that massing evidence, filtering it out and taking the time for an informed choice is just too hard for most of us, even when it is about the important stuff.

As a purveyor of evidence this really pisses me off.

Guilty your honour.

Accumulated knowledge

damselflyIf you wanted to read all that humanity knows about damselflies it would take you a while.

A Google scholar search on ‘biology of damselflies’ provides a list of nearly 9,000 research papers and this is just the start. Not every paper will have biology in the title, so search ‘damselflies’ and we are up to 13,000. Dig a bit more and there are over 68,000 publications containing information on damselflies and their charming cousins the dragonflies.

Suppose you really like these flying denizens of forest glades and decide to become an expert in their biology. By allocating 10 minutes to each publication — time to scan the abstract, a graphic or two and the key points of the discussion — then you would be at it for over 11,000 hours.

Make than 6 years of full-time work with no holidays.

In the good old days of the gentleman naturalist you might actually have taken on this herculean task. Your passion for damselflies would make the work a pleasure and independent wealth afforded you all the time in the world.

There was no need to produce anything from your all those hours in a wing chair by the fire. A mind brim full of detail on mating rituals, prey selection and peptide inhibitors was enough. That you could bore the pants off your dinner guests was simply a bonus.

Not so today.

Anyone afforded the luxury of 72 months with the accumulated human knowledge of damselflies would need a product at the end — a research thesis at least. And that thesis would only pass muster if it added to the already huge body of knowledge.

Your studies could not be completed in front of the fire surrounded by a library of leather bound books with the whiff of coal smoke across your nostrils. No sir.

After just a small amount of reading you would be donning a white coat and spending the rest of time in the laboratory dissecting the tiny abdomens of Diphlebia nymphoides, a pretty blue species native to eastern Australia. How else would you discover the true variability in digestive efficiency?

Only if you were really lucky would you have first donned hiking boots and trekked to the streams and creeks with a butterfly net to catch a few specimens for your analysis.

Even when the body of knowledge is vast our job is to add to it. Human endeavour is all about adding to the pile. We are addicted to making things bigger and better.

And boy is this mountain of human knowledge growing. The 869 papers on damselflies published in 2014 is double the number published in the entire decade of the 1970s.

Clearly damselflies are not central to any of the many economic or social challenges of our times. At best research might provide some details on how to avoid their extinction. So why do it beyond bald curiosity passed down the generations?

The reason for the burgeoning knowledge is simple. There are many more people than there used to be.

More people means there is more education, more universities with science faculties, and more students in attendance. The law of large numbers does the rest. Even the most esoteric topics will have more people interested in them than in the past.

So the body of knowledge grows, even for damselflies.

Pause for a moment to consider what this process of knowledge creation means. It is nearly impossible for any one person to have read everything we know about damselflies. Even if they were given a decade in the drawing room they might not get to all of it.

We have a searchable repository of the knowledge in the cloud that makes it easy to find specific facts. This is fine if you are already an expert and know what you are looking for.

But most people simply wouldn’t look. And if nobody spends any time in the winged armchair only the cloud will have the accumulated knowledge.

Evidence-based decisions

Melbourne-skylineIn the last month I have been exploring decision making in business. It’s a long story that spins around one core assumption that I needed to test. The assumption is this.

If evidence is available people will use it to help them make smart choices.

Now I always thought that before any serious decision was made the brain recalled and sifted its available knowledge relevant to the decision. This coffee is hot. It must be because I just saw the barista pour steaming milk into it so I will sip it to avoid burning my tongue.

Other decisions rely on less categorical evidence. My superannuation scheme allows me to choose between steady and more risky but high-yield investments that have something to do with the mixture of stocks and bonds in my portfolio. I choose the steady option because I remember seeing a graph showing share price crashes occur often enough for another big one to happen before I retire.

Sipping coffee or avoiding risky stocks are evidence-based decisions even if the amount and quality of the evidence used is vastly different.

As a professional scientist evidence is my currency. Training and experience have taught me the skills to sift data into facts and to understand how facts can become evidence. And I always hope that the evidence is articulated in forms that influence decisions. This is a powerful paradigm that still underpins my consulting practice alloporus environmental.

It always made perfect sense to believe that if the human brain makes decisions based on facts, then if evidence were available people would use it.

Oh the bliss of naivety. If only it were possible to be in such a state indefinitely. Life would be so much easier.

Then I began to ask business types this question.

If evidence were available to help decision-making, would you use it?

Mumbling ensued. In just a handful of meetings it was clear that the real answer was no. There were claims of course and even the occasional example of actuarial prediction or due diligence report, but in reality decisions are gut feel things.

At best evidence is gathered in support of a decision already made.

It has been quite a shock to find a core assumption that is a given for a scientist is at best bent and at worst ignored in other walks of life, even where evidence is needed.

Then I paused and realised where evidence comes from for the majority of people who do not have the time or inclination to peruse academic tomes. It comes from their experience; usually their immediate experience that is still in the front of the mind.

And a good deal of this ‘evidence’ is incomplete.

What we see in the workplace or told by the boss or browse on the web is not evidence in the scientific sense. Even if it involves data it has no context to determine inference. In short we decide on a whim. What our guts tells us.

If this is true it begs some very interesting questions.

Why doesn’t the system fall over if we are relying on the [mostly] corpulent guts of [mostly] male business managers?

Why do we have evidence at all if nobody uses it?

Would decisions be better if they were made analytically?

Pinnacles of knowledge

Teaspoon of soilSuper-specialization by individuals sets humans apart from all other species — more so even than language and technology.

No other species has a system where individuals can first figure out what their innate skills are and then focus on them to train, strive and perhaps one day become the best at them. It is a luxury afforded by taking away the need to spend our waking hours searching for provisions and we have basked in it. The result is extraordinary greatness in every field of human endeavor from art to archery.

Science is fertile ground for this specialization. Given that what we already know about nature is both broad and deep, advances in science require highly detailed understanding and no small amount of technical expertise.

A visit to any modern analytical laboratory will show you that the lab coated ones must be as adept with electronics and computers as they once were with a pipette and petri-dish. They must be highly focused on their topic and their techniques.

We have also had several generations of this specialization. As each generation passes the body of scientific knowledge broadens thanks to the increasing numbers of focused scientists. The handful of Universities with a five hundred-year plus heritage have been joined by thousands more, most of them in the last 100 years. The lab coat manufacturers are doing pretty well

Specialization has also filtered down the academic system. Modern undergraduates no longer enroll in a general science or even a biology degree. They will major in microbial ecology or wildlife management, specialisms that did not exist in times past. The brightest students that progress through the degrees into research and academia of necessity become super-specialists. The best of them climb steadily onto a pinnacle of knowledge that is often so narrow that only one person can stand on it.

This should be good. The body of knowledge is already vast and all the obvious things are known — it takes focus and tenacity to add anything meaningful to the pile. If the system failed to promote specialization we would rarely find out anything new.

And unless the pinnacle is tall, steep-sided and isolated on the plain of human knowledge he, or these days she who scales it would not be seen by everyone else [just because a person wears a lab coat does not mean they are exempt from normal human needs for adulation and success].

Not surprisingly then, specialization has flourished.

The soil biologist

Suppose that you are want to be a scientist and you happen to be interested in soils, specifically in the importance of biological activity for the delivery of nutrients to plant roots. This is a pretty specialized niche to begin with, albeit essential knowledge at a time when global food production must double again in the next 30 years.

This area of interest may seem quite focused yet it has a number of pinnacles. You might choose to scale the one related to arbuscular mycorrhiza fungi, AMFs. These are a specific type of fungi in the soil that penetrate the roots of vascular plants and make it easier for the plant to capture certain nutrients.

It is easy to see that the AMF specialist will soon be so focused that the biology undertaken by his colleagues who study soil nematodes is very different to his.

Techniques wise the soil biologist will also need to specialize. Instrumentation to uncover patterns in the DNA of those AMFs is not the same as those used to understand what happens to nitrogen that these microbes help to fix. It would take training and many years of experience to be able to drive all the necessary machines to be an AMF generalist.

The downside of the pinnacle

A pastry chef might be able to rustle up a passable vindaloo but it is unlikely that he would be familiar enough with the flavor combinations to create a gourmet curry dish.

Similarly whilst the AMF specialist will know more than most about soil biology

his intellectual comfort zone is narrow. Monitoring for soil quality that is in part determined by the activities of AMF, for example, requires skills in sampling design [what to sample, where, when and how often] that are not usually in the toolbox of the laboratory specialist.

Once perched on the scientific pinnacle of AMF DNA the specialist may have a fine view of the plain of soil biology below and in the distance see the landscape of challenges to apply the hard won skills. Only to do anything about them requires descending once again to the plain of generality.

At this point Sir David would whisper commentary about lemurs not wanting to cross the bare soil between isolated trees and having to first pluck up courage and then dance across the dangerous open space to the safety of the next tree.

You see the point. Complex environmental challenges need the knowledge and skills from many specialisms. In an ideal world this would mean gathering up the requisite specialists into a team and setting them to work.

Our human made world is never ideal and we are at serious risk of super-specializing our way out of the ability to adapt.

Slow, slow, quick, quick | Postscript for the contentious mind

CO2 enrichment Cumberland Plain WoodlandA recent upbeat post on the importance of soil biology ‘slow, slow, quick, quick’ went by without comment.

Except that loyal readers wouldn’t imagine that Alloporus could really let a taxpayer spend of $40 million on infrastructure and operating costs of $1.5 million per year just for the CO2 for one experiment to pass without comment — especially when you look closely at the image to see that the patch of woodland is so small that the enrichment plots and controls will be subject to huge edge effects.

If significant funds are to be spent on a given research topic then there will always be those for and those against its import. On balance we could concede that understanding the effects of climate change on plant growth and ecosystem dynamics will be important. Findings will help lay the foundations for selecting the most effective responses to climate across ecosystems we rely on. We might say research on some of the more acute effects of climate change [temperature, severe weather, seasonal shifts] might yield better bang for buck, as would a focus on adaptation, but for the moment we could concede these points too.

When I visited the CO2 enrichment experiment at the Hawkesbury Institute of the Environment it was a windy day, the air was moving through the ‘cages’ freely and rapidly. We were told that high-tech control systems monitor wind and try to match the delivery of CO2 to maintain consistent enrichment levels. But I could not see it myself.

The experiment is sited in a small, naturally open patch of woodland constrained far more by moisture and temperature extremes than CO2, blitz occasionally by fire and with plant growth potential moderated by old soils. For me it was simply the wrong manipulation, implemented at the wrong scale and at a site too small for what was being tested.

So it’s not actually about the money. What seems unacceptable is the quality of the science.

Slow, slow, quick, quick

It was 1987 at the end of the dry season, 26 years ago almost to the day that I first visited a non-descript patch of miombo woodland near Marondera on the Highveld of Zimbabwe.

Scattered amongst the mature Brachestegia and Julbernardia trees were many wooden boxes all set on stilts ready and waiting to catch anything that fell from above. On the woodland floor beneath the cathedral canopy were mesh bags containing known volumes of leaf litter steadily decomposing, some with and some without the attentions of termites, ants and their tiny critter cousins. Everywhere there were small plastic flags of pink and yellow popping up from the lichen covered soil like daffodils in spring.

As a bushy tailed postdoctoral fellow my job was to take all this in. I then had to figure out how to make reliable counts of all the soil animals in this small patch of savannah and, for good measure, in the adjacent maize field.  Over the coming months many a sweaty day went by digging through that sandy Marondera soil but also much joy when sometime later the results were published in a peer-reviewed journal. The paper entitled ‘Abundance, biomass and diversity of soil macrofauna in savanna woodland and associated managed habitats’ was published in Pedobiologia [a journal title that sounds a bit dodgy but is actually quite legit as pedon is the Greek word for soil] and provided much academic satisfaction and a handy unit of kudos.

CO2 enrichment Cumberland Plain WoodlandEarlier this week I visited a rather similar patch of woodland. Only this time it was in Australia just 30 minutes drive from home where a parcel of Cumberland Plain woodland owned by the University of Western Sydney had been similarly commandeered for scientific research.

The litter traps and mesh bags were all present along with the ubiquitous daffodil like flags. The major difference was that there were also vast steel cages that formed circular sampling plots around clusters of trees designed expertly and with considerable precision to enhance the carbon dioxide levels throughout the vegetation. Once I forced myself to ignore the $40 million outlay for the infrastructure and the $1.5 million per year just to supply the extra carbon dioxide, it was a real back to the future experience. All that was missing was the soothing aroma from the tannins as they volatilize from the floor of the African bush.

Aside from the complex technology and infrastructure to enhance CO2 levels it felt like not much had changed. Today’s researchers were sampling the soil biology in pretty much the same way.  The challenges of understanding the complex biology that goes on under our feet were still there and no amount of high-tech wizardry had yet helped to break us out of the sampling constraints.

We like to think of research as being at the cutting-edge. It is after all where we find out solutions to our problems and create greater understanding that can be used to improve our lives.

Certainly since 1987 there have been major advances in a whole range of fields — back then the iPad or even the mobile phone were not even imagined let alone in use by everyone. What I took away from my déjà vu visit the notion that even when well resourced, progress is not a given.  Advances are just as likely to be patchy or steady and rarely come in spurts.

Back in 1987 the idea that soil could be defined as much by its biology as its structure was an exciting ‘new’ thing. There were a host of applications from understanding the basics of how natural systems functions to practical advances for agriculture and forestry.

Interestingly it is still a ‘new’ thing. Progress has trundled rather than sprinted along. Somehow all those benefits of understanding and managing soil biology failed to reach the farm gate [perhaps because it was easier to throw in some fertilizer].

Fortunately there is a new generation of the bright and bushy tailed. Only this time I suspect there really will be serious attention outside the close world of academia. We cannot achieve the push toward the next doubling of agricultural production that demand projections say we will need by 2030 without a hefty input from soil biology, not least because we are reaching the limits of yield benefit from fertilizer application.

So more power to those modern pioneers pumping CO2 into Cumberland Plain woodland and to their research colleagues around the world and let’s hope we can get a foxtrot happening.

Here are the citations

Dangerfield J.M. (1990) Abundance, biomass and diversity of soil macrofauna in savanna woodland and associated managed habitats. Pedobiologia 34: 141—151

Dangerfield J.M. (1990) The distribution and abundance of Cubitermes sankurensis (Wassmann)(Isoptera; Termitidae) within a miombo woodland site in Zimbabwe. African Journal of Ecology 28: 15—20

97% said their cats prefer it

Its official, 97% of peer-reviewed science papers, that expressed a preference, agree that climate change is caused by human activity.

Academics have surveyed nearly 12,000 academic papers penned by 29,000 scientists. There were 4,000-plus papers that took a position on the causes of climate change and less than 100 of these disputed the scientific consensus that climate change is the result of human activity.

Here is what the lead author had to say about the survey

Call me a cynic but all I could think about was the “8 out of 10 owners who expressed a preference said their cats preferred it” Whiskers ad and how I didn’t believe that either.

And later I imagined what it was like back in the day when every intellectual believed that the earth was flat until some crazy dude decided to sail all the way around it.

And later still I decided that it really is missing the point because it does not matter what the cause is, it is the effects we have to worry about.