Conservation questions

Conservation questions

The current loss of biological diversity is a problem that calls for a collective characterization of what we want to protect and conserve and of what biodiversity we value. Should the focus be on local or global biodiversity? Should alien species be eradicated to protect ecosystem integrity and endemism? Should mammals be favored over plants? Should priority be given to useful species over useless ones? Should natural diversity be valued per se, or should it be valued on the basis of the goods and services it ensures? It is likely there is no one answer to any of these questions; rather, different contexts will give rise to different outcomes. Conservationists should tackle this kind of uncertainty and attempt to bring to light and discuss the moral values at stake. Maris & Bechet (2010)

What an extraordinary set of questions. Ask any one of them in the pub late on a Friday and you will start a ruckus. There will always be a least two individuals with diametrically opposite answers and any number of weird and wonderful interpretations given half the revellers will not understand what on earth you are on about.

Ask the same questions at an ecology conference of learned academics and you will get equally passionate answers. The lecture hall will buzz with erudite responses argued from one or other theoretical position with responses debunking each one as simplistic or impractical. And just like in the pub the answers will be interpretations rather than definitive inference because each question is contentious in its own way.

Here are a few examples.

Local or global becomes… I really want to see the sea eagle when I go to my favourite beach and have no trouble with it being on the list of threatened species. Only this species is distributed widely from Mumbai to Melbourne and is often locally common and the IUCN list it under the ‘least concern’ category.

Aliens becomes… We really should remove willows from creeks across the Australian countryside as they are a nasty invasive alien species. Only when they are removed and not replaced habitat and water quality declines and erosion can accelerate to the point where multiple values are degraded.

Mammals obviously… If the koala goes then it’s just not the same to have its food trees around the place. Plus if you keep the koala you also keep the trees and the umbrella works to protect more than just the animal.

Useless species… No species is completely useless because they all have existence value and a moral right to be, except in the minds of those people who believe that human beings are the apex of evolution and the moral right to lord over nature.

Services take precedence… Given there are so many people and with people coming first it is impossible not to value services over natural diversity. Unless we can use species somehow, directly or indirectly, there is no point in keeping them in a crowded world where every single patch of land and water has to do something for mankind. After all what is nature if it is not in the service of humanity. Only without nature there would be no humanity.

Questions of value

There is contention everywhere because whilst the questions appear scientific, the answers are all about values. Even in a room full of experts loaded opinions flash from every corner with no obvious way to separate them or decide which has the most to offer.

I doubt that conservationists have any idea about how to tackle this value conundrum any more than the average Joe. My experience is that they jump onto values and run with them without even realising there was any uncertainty in them. They also seem intent on the dichotomy as the wrong that only their opinion puts right.

Inevitably they will be up against those who see nature as a resource for humans to exploit, the gift that was given to mankind that no other creature ever has or will possess.

Context will favour one or other view as more logical or moral, consequently, as Maris & Bechet (2010) conclude “there is no one answer to any of these questions”. In other words each question has an uncertain answer.

Recognition of uncertainty would be a major advance but I doubt that holders of strong opinions, especially when claimed as the moral high ground, easily conceded their answers in a values argument.

Perhaps the best we can hope for in values debates is some objectivity.

This begins with recognition of all answers to the various questions and of the plurality of values. Objectivity would also recognise that if we land on one or other side, then the other side has compromised, often massively. Same for plurality. If you want to keep koalas, then the objective arguments says that this cannot happen everywhere, choices must be made on where effort is put to keep them alive. In other words morals are compromised to let some of them go.

Objective answers should let everyone one win, some of the time, in some places.

Incredulous

Incredulous

Here is a recent headline from an ABC online article, a reputable publicly funded media source

Bush stone-curlews popping up in suburbs as bird once extinct in ACT makes a comeback

Nice you might think given that headlines containing good news are like threatened species themselves, rare and at risk of being lost forever.

Here is the problem.

The IUCN lists the conservation status of the Bush stone-curlew as “least concern”. In other words, its not under any immediate threat of extinction in the wild.

In fact, the species has a broad habitat preference throughout Australia pitching up in open forest, eucalyptus woodland, rainforest edges, grassy plains, arid scrubland and along inland watercourses across much of the vast continent. It is a common species in the cities of Brisbane, Cairns and Townsville and is abundant in the tropical and subtropical north. In other words, it’s not a rare species at all.

I’m told there are pubs up north where you can sup on a stubbie alongside a foraging stone-curlew.

To use the word extinction, the termination of a lineage, where the moment of extinction is generally considered to be the death of the last individual of the species, is a lie.

This bird is not extinct.

Placing a geographic limit so as to use the term is disingenuous. Strippers are extinct in the Vatican is about as crazy a statement.

So is this fake news?

I think it is. The bird species is not actually extinct. It’s not even at risk unless you specify a discrete subset of its natural range. And when we learn that the Canberra specimens were almost certainly taking a wander from a nearby reserve artificially stocked with a few pairs to “reintroduce” them to the local scene, then the implicit hope in the story takes a huge dive.

I know that there are feeds to feed in this modern age of lightning fast news cycles. And I also know that there are good reasons for at least trying to be upbeat when, for the conservation minded, the world appears to be crashing down. But, like cricketers crossing the line, there are consequences for cheating on the truth. In the end people do not respect you, they dismiss everything you say even when you are actually being honest.

So my call to myself, and everyone who is in the business of information, let’s be as honest and as truthful as we possibly can and leave the spin alone when it comes to the facts.

This is easy to say and not at all easy to do but we all have to try.

Are scientists ready?

Are scientists ready?

The peer-reviewed publications series of posts based on my personal reminiscences from my time as an academic has triggered a number of thoughts and emotions. One is the dubious relevance of the work to anything beyond a young academics career path.

Research is intellectual fun and throughout the time I was a researcher, and at intervals later, along with the endorphins I thought that I had helped add another straw onto the haystack of human knowledge. This banal thinking readily justified the most esoteric of studies, including the sex life of millipedes. And there is some logic here, for should the haystack become large enough then any number of problems are crushed under the sheer volume of evidence. At least that is what we used to tell ourselves.

There are people who have rumbled this ruse including Dr Bhaskar Vira of the University of Cambridge who summed it up as “time for university leaders to double down on the interdisciplinary, solution-oriented work that this complex, problem-filled world needs”.

Questions should be asked about the relevance of university research and there should be suggestions made for change. Bluntly, get real or stop wasting taxpayers money.

And why wouldn’t this happen? Surely this is a given and is not a question that should even be asked. After all, academics are smart folk. They ought to know what is needed and how to make the best use of their considerable intellectual bandwidth. But Dr Vira’s argument is that Universities are not structured to allow this to happen and I have to agree.

It was one of the reasons I left the academic system that always felt too lethargic to be part of the real world. There was currency in research output but no requirement for any of it to be relevant and in my discipline of ecology many a long nose was peered down at anything applied to a real-world problem.

No doubt there are pockets of innovation and nimble responses here and there but collectively the system is not delivering on most of the wicked problems. And all that esoteric research on millipedes didn’t either.

Dr Vira asks for interdisciplinary, solution orientated work. Getting people to cooperate outside their specific area of expertise — read ‘comfort zone’ — and to look for solutions through applied research is asking more than most can give. It takes great courage and self-confidence to walk into a room of specialists from another discipline and ask them to work with you. Not many people can do it.

The narcissists, bullies, and fools can, but they are not the source of effective collaboration.

Humans fake cooperation when it is a requirement for a paycheck, so industry and commerce can build teams of sorts, but even when the incentive is clear, businesses need small armies of project managers and change consultants to make sure output happens.

So, can academics work together to save the world from its woes?

Unfortunately, my friends, not in a million years.

Evidence

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.