Stories

Stories

This definition pops up when you ask Google.

story

/ˈstɔːri
noun
1. an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment.
“an adventure story” synonyms: tale, narrative, account, recital;

2. a report of an item of news in a newspaper, magazine, or broadcast.
“stories in the local papers” synonyms: news item, news report, article, feature, piece

Stories are accounts about the wonders of real or imaginary people told to entertain. We like them so much that every day we listen to them constantly as we gossip amongst ourselves or settle in for a night of Netflix.

We also call items of news stories and that is rather odd.

Evidence, on the other hand, is less popular. It is dry, factual and objective, unlikely to fire the imagination or to entertain, unless, of course, it is dramatised into a story.

Enter the public relations team for a government department. Any department really, but let’s say it’s the Department of the Environment.

The PR team face a conundrum. They have some scientific evidence to communicate only it is dry information that would struggle to cut through butter. Stories though are entertainment and, in the times of personal screens and feeds, are indispensable.

“Do you have a story?”, the PR lead says without any idea of what he is asking.

Well, as it turns out I do. I even wrote a book of them called Stories for a Change. There was also my first book, Awkward News for Greenies, that radically and without success had both stories and evidence in the same volume. It just confused the hell out of the handful of people who read it. They couldn’t tell when the fiction became fact.

Even though Netflix shows about sitting presidents get closer and closer to reality, we know them to be dramas made for television. This means that they are not true. Part of our brain can hold onto this even as we fall headlong into the illusion.

Similarly, modern period pieces are so well made that it feels like what actually happened is right there on the screen. The deception would be complete if they figured out how to relay the stench of Mr Darcy. He was most likely on the nose, given the frequency of bathing in the early 1800s. Into these dramas, we can fall without any controls because no matter how realistic they look they are obviously not real.

No doubt our affection for reality TV is that we can kid ourselves into turning off this safety completely. We can see that the people are real even as their stories are clumsily manipulated by eager producers.

In all of these entertainments, there is part of our brain that knows the truth. The story is not a reality. The thing is that we all must know how to separate the truth from fiction otherwise we go mad.

Our lady from the Ministry asks ‘what’s the story’ on a reflex. She knows that unless the evidence is made into entertainment it will not cut through to the desired audience. She also knows that evidence is more likely to be painful than dramatic, stranger than fiction but impenetrable and dull.

Who would know what to say about the average area of illegal land clearing being consistently greater than the modal area? It means that a few large clearing events skew the average upwards and tells you that the majority of instances are smaller than the average. It also tells you that if the total area of clearing is the worry, develop a policy to reduce the instance of large events, through heavy penalties for example.

So why do the people who should use evidence baulk at it in favour of the story, the fabrication that entertains? It is not just a matter of cutting through for people do want to know the truth and are engaged with it whenever it becomes accessible. A more likely reason is that stories are easier.

Telling the truth requires more than courage, it’s about making it easy for people to grasp when the truth can so often be painful.

Stories do this so much easier than facts.

Why are species going extinct?

Why are species going extinct?

Species go extinct because of the process that created them.

Ah ha, not the answer you were expecting. You thought I was going to say habitat loss, pollution, introduced pests, climate change or some other lefty topic sung about by old hippies and youngsters frightened for their future.

Indulge me for a few minutes and follow this little sequence of logic to the end of the post and you’ll see why extinction is more about the process of evolution than it is about humanity.

Polar bears and koala (not) bears

If you go to northern Manitoba, Canada, you can go out to the wilds and see a polar bear. There are even tour operators who will take you and look after you so the bears don’t rip your Gortex jacket.

You cannot see a wild polar bear in Australia.

However, if you go out to the Australian bush, into the right habitat types, keep your eyes keen, and have a bit of luck, you will see a koala. And, yes, a koala is not a bear, it is a marsupial mammal.

There are no wild koalas in Canada.

Canada, polar bears; Australia, koalas. This we know and take for granted. The reason is that all species have regions where they occur in the wild and regions where they do not go and have never been seen, except in a zoo. It’s called their geographic range.

Let’s extend this idea a little.

Bird species in Australia

There are 828 bird species in Australia that are known to be present. Some are rare, others common. Some occur everywhere and some are found in just one or two places or in the case of the King Island scrub tit, on one island. It would take a lifetime of twitching holidays to personally see all these species because it is also nature’s way that species have certain habitats and places they prefer.

Some species are super specialists and only occur in certain very specific habitats, for example, old growth forest. As there is not much of this habitat left, these species have a narrow range. You need to hike into the forest and be very patient in order to see one.

Other species are just about everywhere. The Indian myna or the house sparrow are familiar to half the people on the planet, even those who have never owned a pair of binoculars.

Even in a habitat that occurs everywhere, like open woodland or backyards, not all species occur everywhere. There will be a dozen or so species in the average Aussie backyard in Sydney only several of the species in the Melbourne suburbs will be different, and those in Brisbane different again.

This is normal and always has been. Some species are rare, some are common. Some are localised others are everywhere. Welcome to nature.

In fact, nearly half, 400 or so, of the 828 bird species in Australia occur nowhere else on earth. They are endemic or unique to the island continent or both.

Alright, I’ve laboured this enough.

The point is that this is what the process of evolution does, it creates diversity. Random mutation alongside natural selection results in diversity as organisms focus on the most efficient way to harness resources that they convert into more organisms.

If you prefer to replace organisms in the last sentence with genes, you get Richard Dawkins, Selfish Gene.

I use organisms because a gene does not do it on its own, it needs other genes to make a vehicle that can travel forward in intergenerational time. But, of course, Dawkins is right, really it is genes that are selected.

We are so familiar with the result of natural selection, namely a huge variety of species unevenly spread across regions and habitats, that we take it for granted. Don’t be stupid, everybody knows that there are no wild polar bears in Australia, it’s too hot for them.

Nature is made up of gene combinations that are the most efficient at converting the resources in a given place, given the conditions. This is what evolution does all the time, everywhere.

This is the bit you need to follow… given the conditions.

Specialisation happens as an inevitable result of natural selection. There are still generalists with a fine working model of existence, crocodiles for example, that have not changed much, but the majority of species become quite specialised.

The problem with specialisation is what to do when the conditions change. Just ask the dinosaurs how that went for them.

Again we accept that mass extinction 66 million years ago without blinking. A huge, diverse group of land animals all die out in a short space of time because a meteorite hit the earth and changed the conditions. They couldn’t cope with what the impact and its aftermath did to their food and shelter. It disrupted things too much for them to adapt fast enough. Except for the crocodiles who could switch to fish.

The 5th mass extinction that knocked out the dinosaurs and 76% of species alive at the time, is a dramatic, iconic example of change. Only, the thing is that conditions change all the time. And this means that species go extinct all the time. It is an inevitable part of the process.

I’ll just say this again. If conditions change (and they always do) and they change fast enough, big enough or for long enough, some species cannot survive and go extinct. Period.

This is just a consequence of natural selection creating diversity and the whirlwind of a spinning planet with a complex atmosphere, ocean currents and mobile continents generating change.

The flip side of change that causes extinction is the opportunity for diversity. Change things and gaps open up for new species to exploit. But we’ll save that idea for another time. Today we are on the extinction consequence.

Change and extinction are inevitable

Only this is not what you are told.

Take this example from the front page of the Guardian online feed on 31 March 2019 stating that record numbers of Australian mammals face ‘imminent extinction’ that includes this quote

“The report calls on the next Australian government to commit to a policy that no more of Australia’s unique wildlife species will be allowed to go extinct, and to ensure, backed by the necessary laws and resources, that this policy is fulfilled”

Wilderness Society’s national forest campaigner, Peter Roberston.

Pause and read that quote again.

This person is asking you to believe that extinction, a law of nature that has a history as long and deep as life itself, can be overturned by muppets in Canberra.

Come on, get over yourselves.

You are not that important. Human activity is the biggest current agent of change sure, but to think that a specific political decision can rewrite evolution means you really do not understand the challenge.

We could leave it there as today’s healthy thought. Only there is just…

One more thing

Thinking we can ‘save the koala’ forces us into a bind. We are now imagining that extinction is terrible, an awful result that must be prevented. So important is this premise we even ask the politicians to make a policy to stop it happening.

We would have a very different view of conservation if extinction were an acceptable option because that is what happens in nature.

The choice to save a species from extinction becomes a conscious one made with a clear understanding of cost and benefit. We may still want to save the koala or the panda or the Southern Corroboree frog but if we do it’s a positive choice.

Important postscript

This post simplified natural selection as just about honing a solution to shelter and food and secretly implied that competition for these resources is what sorts out the weaker options. This is true but it’s not the only way.

There is also sexual competition that drives specialisation. Just so you know, Charles Darwin figured this one out too.

Amazing.

Why the sixth mass extinction was inevitable

Why the sixth mass extinction was inevitable

Palaeontologists have a fine time of it. They fossick around in obscure parts of the world where there are few people and take a hammer to rocks.

They have done this for generations, found lots of fossils, and come up with some interesting conclusions.

Here are five of them.

  • 444 million years ago 86% of species were lost.
  • 375 million years ago 75% of species were lost
  • 251 million years ago 96% of species were lost
  • 200 million years ago 80% of species were lost
  • 66 million years ago 76% of species were lost.

These are, of course, the five mass extinction events in the fossil record. The last one being the most famous when all the dinosaurs copped it.

Here is another pattern they found

Over time diversity has increased despite these mass extinctions and several smaller ones in between them.

There are more species alive today than at any other time in evolutionary history, despite the obvious fact that humans are kicking the sixth mass extinction into existence.

This is the history of life on earth. It is dynamic with huge shifts in diversity but with an underlying driver powerful enough to increase diversity over time.

If you believe this evidence then a few core concepts become clear:

  1. Extinction happens.
  2. Large extinction events happen often enough to make another one inevitable.
  3. After extinction events, diversity recovers
  4. And for at least 150 million years the trend is for diversity to increase rapidly, noting that the non-avian dinosaurs were lost during this time.

Diversity happens because there is time enough for mutation and natural selection to hone any number of specialisms. When organisms specialise they are successful in a relatively narrow set of conditions. A proportion of species become vulnerable to change in those conditions.

Enter human beings. Modestly specialised initially but with a distinct advantage. They had the brains and communication to adapt to a wide range of conditions, especially when they tamed fire and then much later discovered fossil fuels.

Once in control of energy humans have appropriated over half the global biomass production, removed vegetation, getting rid of wildlife and altered the composition of the atmosphere. More than enough change for mass extinction.

Humans affected the change but change would have happened at some point. Tectonic plates moving to cut off ocean gyres, volcanic eruptions, another meteorite strike, it would happen soon enough, maybe 50 million years hence.

Is the reality of extinction too painful?

Perhaps it is. Perhaps we are just too much in the present day to accept timeframes beyond ourselves. Certainly, there will be huge consequences of extinction for our production systems, the ecosystem services we rely on, and the very liveability of the planet for our species.

We’ll need a lot of adaptation to survive.

What we might also remember as we plan for change and seek to retain what we can of the diversity of life, that extinction is real and inevitable. It is as much a part of the process of evolution as the creation of new types.

Objectivity

Objectivity

I’m sure you would say that you are impartial and that you are “not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts”. Indeed you would say that objectivity is a feature of your everydayness.

At least this is what our parents and teachers taught us to say.

What these good folks often forgot to mention was that being objective takes effort and a lot of it. In order to be objective a person must know or have access to real kernels of truth, irrefutable information, that is things that are known or proved to be true.

In short, objectivity requires evidence.

This means that becoming and remaining an objective person takes constant effort to assemble and evaluate evidence. It means knowing a fact when you see one and also where to look for those that you do not have to hand. It takes rigour.

This should be easy enough in this world of internet searches and virtual assistants but just because an important or famous persons says something or it is reported on commercial media, does not make it a fact. There is learning, skill and experience in making sure that information is factual, reliable and accurate, not to mention relevant.

Just yesterday there was typical vision on the news of a windswept reporter wearing logo embossed gore tex standing in front of a collapsed shed. There had been a supercell storm. An event so powerful “the town was all but destroyed”. Only wait a minute. The ‘town’ was home to 20 people, it was a hamlet at best where most of the houses were still standing. Pan out from the close crop of the flimsy shed and the destruction was hard to see.

Access to information is only the first part of objectivity.

There is information in profusion and some of it is irrefutable. The shed was in a mess. The problem is there was no town and no information beyond the close up of the shed to indicate destruction. What we actually have is a visual fact and a host of loose interpretation and opinion. We must also trust the reputation of the news channel and believe that the reporter was indeed in central Queensland. She could have been in a studio with a wind machine and a green screen.

One irrefutable fact – an image of an upside down shed – is not enough.

Objectivity requires numerous validated facts that must override a host of deep, ingrained and often long standing feelings that are part nature, part nurture and part sheer bloody mindedness. Objectivity means not just accumulation but the ability to sift through facts and put them into context, a process of evaluation to generate relevance.

Now we are lurching rapidly toward some serious effort.

Not only must we have asked Alexa or said hey Google for the relevant facts, we must not just take what the virtual assistants on the smartphone says as gospel. There is another step to objectivity that requires we evaluate the facts for their individual efficacy – are they true – as well as what that piece of information brings to the challenge or conundrum we are trying to be objective about.

Knowledge is not just about committing facts to memory, it requires an additional step, relevance.

A koala example

Let’s consider an example and try to be objective about the following statement:

The koala is in serious danger of going extinct therefore we must do all we can to protect it.

Australians understand what this means but it doesn’t have to be the koala, it could be the lion, tiger, African elephant or the ghost orchid, Dendrophylax lindenii, known only from a handful of tiny sites in Oxfordshire.

Feel free to insert into the clause whatever species you are told is in danger of extinction. The challenge is how to be objective when presented with such an edict of irreversible loss.

Begin with getting yourself across the suitable, irrefutable and relevant facts.

And here is the initial challenge. What facts are these?

Well given the edict, it would have to be facts about how many koalas are currently alive, what has happened to their numbers in historical and recent times, and evidence for the presence and veracity of threats to their continued existence.

In other words you need to be cognisant of and able to evaluate the population dynamics of koalas as well as the key drivers of those dynamics before you can be objective about the clause regarding extinction.

Curiously, the Australian government factsheet on Koala populations in Queensland, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory and national environment law does not say how many koalas there are in Australia. What is does say is there are koalas living wild across a range that stretches the entire eastern seaboard of the continent.

Similarly the NSW government’s $44.7 million NSW Koala Strategy does not mention how many koalas there are in the state of NSW.

The Australian Koala Foundation estimates that there are less than 100,000 Koalas left in the wild, possibly as few as 43,000. However, the link that sends you to a page on how this estimate came about was broken.

You need to go to the science literature to get a more robust estimate.

Phillips (2000) reports koala population trends in the reputable journal Conservation Biology as declining from a population size somewhere <100,000 to “an order of magnitude larger”. That’s a discrepancy estimate of around 900,000 that, even for an error estimate, is quite a few more than the 43,000 the conservationists would have us believe are currently extant.

More recently McAlpine et al (2015) looked at ‘Conserving koalas: A review of the contrasting regional trends, outlooks and policy challenges’ in the equally reputable journal Biological Conservation and presented some density data but no actual numbers for total population.

I could go on but I suspect you are getting the message.

The suitable, irrefutable and relevant facts are not easy to find or may not exist at all. In the case of koala numbers, it would seem that nobody knows how many there are in Australia right now, let alone historically. The key facts are actually a known unknown (although nobody close to the problem would admit to this).

In the absence of accessible facts we might choose to rely on the Commonwealth Scientific Committee that gathers information to match the status of species and habitats believed to be at risk of extinction and evaluates this information against agreed IUCN criteria, the global standard. This is the independent body of scientists tasked with deciding if a species or habitat type is at risk of extinction across Australia.

What they said about the koala in the koala population factsheet was nothing about the populations of koala, that is, how many there are now or were around in the past. There’s a nice map of where they are known to occur and if you are a species with a distribution that covers a third of a continent you are probably not too worried. But even in the absence of evidence and a truth that the koala is unlikely to go extinct soon, if at all, the federal environment minister listed Australia’s most at risk koala populations in April 2012 as vulnerable under national environment law

This means that the system set up to evaluate the evidence for decision making on whether a species is at risk of extinction in the wild did not find enough evidence, but it made a decision anyway. Perhaps the scientific committee invoked the precautionary principle or, dare I say, they temporarily put objectivity aside in favour of political expediency or public opinion.

How dare you!

What to do?

This example is typical. It means that it is very hard to obtain and evaluate enough relevant facts to be truly objective. There will usually be holes in your own or the collective knowledge, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. It is rare that we are across all the relevant facts.

The koala is in serious danger of going extinct therefore we must do all we can to protect it

Most of us don’t have the time, inclination or access to the facts to evaluate this statement with objectivity. Somewhat ironically you can find reference to the science on Google Scholar but not all of it has free access. You also need to know where to look for not all sources are credible.

Reality is that it takes too much time to hunt down and assemble the facts (oops, poor choice of words), that’s before you put in the intellectual effort to evaluate them and find the truth.

We would also have to work hard emotionally to suspend our feelings enough for healthy skepticism. There is a reason koalas, pandas, polar bears and other creatures with fur are used in these extinction statements: to humans they look cute.

So we resort to our default source of objectivity; what we feel. Our instinct, the gut response we have somewhere deep down that is part guide and part conscience.

Should we be brave enough to discuss our objectivity with others, this gut feel will be exposed to serious peer pressure, and must pass some collective logic that comes from group gut feel, known round these parts as the ‘pub test’.

How to be be objective without the effort

And this is just one of the many opinionated statements we have to filter every day.

Koalas are cute because humans beings have a genetic predisposition to find expressive forward pointing eyes either side of a nose clustered together rather low in a much larger “face” impossibly attractive… Think about it.

We are going to need an inordinate amount of seriously powerful facts to overturn such innate prejudice. Most people would not even see the need to try.

Koalas are cute after all, what’s your problem dude?

Any objectivity has a precipitous, ice-covered cuteness cliff to climb.

Species

Species

…the fact that ecological communities constantly experience temporal turnover, and that consequently some species will not only fluctuate markedly but also become either locally or globally extinct, is something that, while well appreciated by ecologists generally, is often omitted from popular news stories. 

Mugurran et al 2010

By research paper standards this is an accessible quote. You may only need to read it a couple of times to get the gist. It means what it says.

Everything in nature changes and species disappear from both the backyard and from the planet.

Ask any ecologist who has more than a few minutes of fieldwork on their resume if they agree with this premise and they will say yes. There is change over time. They would concede that if you stare at a patch of nature long enough, it will start to move. Organisms will come and go, sometimes never to return, their place taken by an equivalent.

In my own garden that backs onto eucalyptus forest in the Blue Mountains of NSW I have seen this happen with the seasons as the grass stops growing in winter, during drought when even the trees droop, and also through the decade we have lived in the house.

When we moved in the garden was blessed with tree creepers, fairy wrens and wagtails. There were regular visits by resplendent satin bower birds and even occasionally a lyre bird or two. I have stared at a frogmouth in its daytime roost and had glossy black cockatoos drop casuarina cones on my head. Delightful.

Then, three years ago the noisy miners arrived. An especially aggressive social breeder that with brazen behaviour worthy of a panzer corps will chase all the other species away. Only the big beaked cockatoos and the butcher bird are unmoved.

None of the aforementioned chorus are extinct but they are not longer in my garden.

More recently some new neighbors moved in next door. They have a nervous pointer and a black labrador with a limp. The swamp wallaby no longer hops up from the creek to pick at our herb garden.

There are several important things in this simple everywhere reality of ecological change.

The first is change itself.

Nothing in nature has ever been or ever will be stable. It is not how nature works. At times the dynamic is subtle and hard to see with human perception of time and space. Typically though we can see, smell or hear it. All it takes is a little patience and some observation.

If a human who might live three score years and ten can perceive this change with just a little patient observation, then…

the second important thing is that change is fast.

Incredibly fast on an evolutionary or geological time scale. Happenings that take decades are the blink of an eye equivalent for a planet that is billions of years old.

Such rapidity means that the idyllic lilly pond with the weeping willow tickling the water will not be there in a thousand years or so. Sedimentation and succession will make dryland of it unless there are humans with the spare time to occasionally dig it out.

This is the third important reality, stability requires inputs.

The main reason that nature is so dynamic is due to entropy, more strictly, the constant struggle organisms must undertake to counteract it. It takes an enormous effort to keep things the same. Energy must be pumped in to prevent chaos.

Humans have, of course, become true masters of this use of energy to counter entropy. We have figured out where to find and use external fuel sources to change the world to suit ourselves. It’s our superpower. But it has also duped us into believing that we can keep things the same, despite all the evidence to the contrary. We even think we can save species from local or real extinction.

This is the fourth of the important things, the often crazy notion that we can save species from ourselves, the most severe new driver of ecological change in aeons.

Change as the norm is “omitted from popular news stories” because the acknowledgement not only questions our god-like ability to rule the planet, it would mean admitting our role in the acceleration of change.

After all, the noisy miner spread with the suburb.

Positive future

Scenarios with pragmatic outcomes

It is a short time into the future, nowhere near an aeon. Against all likelihoods, Homo sapiens did not join the hundreds of thousands of species that have crossed the extinction finish line because miraculously there was a meme that spread through the social fabric of every nation on the planet faster than pictures of Harry and Meghan.

The meme said, “ecological communities constantly experience temporal turnover”.

The miracle of course was twofold. People not only understood this gibberish but they extended it to the practicalities of the real world.

Everyone recognised change everywhere and embraced it. They let species move around, leaving some places and moving into others. They saw vegetation as fluid not as a vase on a shelf, still but fragile.They realised that there were some species that would go extinct and that if a particularly cute one was popular enough to save, then this was going to need effort specific to that species. It was a choice.

And they saw the whole landscape, all at once, despite its altered state, and they focused on what that landscape could do, not what was in it.

It was truly remarkable.

It even made the news.

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.

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