Category Archives: Uncategorized
Why so few experiments in the real world?
…very few studies were judged to be attempts at a controlled experiment where livestock numbers or systems were intentionally manipulated, and even many of these lacked elements such as adequate replication.
Schieltz, J. M., & Rubenstein, D. I. (2016). Evidence based review: positive versus negative effects of livestock grazing on wildlife. What do we really know?. Environmental Research Letters, 11(11), 113003.
This is a ubiquitous lament.
In our exploitation of natural resources, including soil, we rarely use the scientific method, at least in its pure controlled experiment form. This means that robust evidence of the sort that can be accepted readily, even when it conflicts with values that different people hold, is limited in its extent and applicability.
This means we are short on inference.
Most environmental issues lack experimental evidence from a robust application of the scientific method and easily become contentious.
The example above is from a review summarizing evidence on the effects of livestock grazing on wildlife.
Here is another one referring to the control of vertebrate pests – principally wild dogs, pigs, goats, rabbits, camels and deer – in Australian agricultural landscapes…
We review the design of 1,915 pest control actions conducted with the aim of protecting native biodiversity in Australia during 1990–2003. Most (67.5%) pest control actions consisted of a single treatment area without monitoring of either the pest or biodiversity. Only 2.4% of pest control actions had one or more treatment and non-treatment areas, and very few treatment and non-treatment areas (0.3%) were randomly assigned. Replication of treatment and non-treatment areas occurred in only 1.0% of pest control actions.
Reddiex, B., & Forsyth, D. M. (2007). Control of pest mammals for biodiversity protection in Australia. II. Reliability of knowledge. Wildlife Research, 33(8), 711-717.
That is nearly 2,000 pest control actions — pest control activities conducted in a control operation such as poison baits to control wild dogs, not the termites in the basement form of pests — where virtually no evidence is available to decide how effective the actions were to either control the pest or mitigate the disturbances the pest induces.
This is not good.
There is no way of knowing if the control method worked so no way of knowing if it was worth the money or the effort or if we should stop or keep going. The only information to make these important financial and resourcing decisions is anecdotal. Maybe we saw fewer wild dogs this season, maybe not.
When it comes to real-world practicalities, we don’t use the scientific method.
Why is this?
The scientific method is tried and tested. It has given us most of our technology and understanding of nature so it seems odd that we don’t follow it in coming to terms with using nature for maximum value whatever that value might be.
It is especially important when the objective is to balance competing values such as production and conservation, utility and persistence. It is even more important to know the details when the prime value is an emotional one, such as not wanting to wake up and find two calves in the paddock that died a painful death from bites.
Here are three reasons why science in the environment is hard…
- Replication is a challenge
- Manipulation is difficult to achieve
- Controls are hard to find
These are the technical difficulties of using the scientific method on hills and fields and countryside dotted with woodland remnants and craggy moorland.
It is very hard to replicate, manipulate and control any of the critical variables.
These are the fundamentals of the scientific method in its deductive form. Here is what the method looks like
The most important step is the experiment.
This is where one critical variable, let’s say the number of wild dogs, is changed from what it is normally to more or less or both in a series of treatments and the consequences are recorded through measurement variables, let’s say number of lambs lost.
The significance of any change in the measurement variable in the treatments is compared with what happens in the controls where nothing is changed, in this example the dog numbers are left alone.
Logical and simple enough in theory.
In practice, there are many specific challenges.
What should the replicate be in this case? Is it a field, a farm or a district. It clearly cannot be a test tube or a pot in a greenhouse or a plot marked out in a flat field on an agricultural research station.
If we choose fields as the replicates how can we make them the same? Not really possible even if we knew precisely the behaviour of wild dogs and how many there were in each district so as to determine how many times they would visit the fields. The same number of times if the fields are to be realistic replicates.
Always the replicates will be a little different to each other. Nothing like 100ml test tubes. Then they are not true replicates at all.
The solution is to have many replicates after first deciding from an understanding of the ecology of wild dogs how they use a landscape and so what size the unit of replication should be.
Let’s say we settle on fields of between 5 and 10 hectares in size where sheep graze for at least 100 days per year at similar stocking rates and where lambs are raised.
The fields must have at least one other field between them and yet must also be in the same district.
The real problem is that we need plenty of replicates. Three or four is nowhere near enough to bound the natural variation in the treatment and measurement variables. More like forty replicates of each is needed. This is unlikely to be possible due to logistics and cost, even assuming there is a district with enough fields that meet the criteria.
There will also need to be plenty of controls and unlike in a traditional experiment with, let’s say, fertilizer application, the control will have to be in a district where the wild dogs are not controlled. This means they are not strictly formal controls.
Then only one treatment is realistic, reduction in wild dog numbers. Not too many farmers would be up for a treatment where dog numbers are increased.
Not surprising then that
Only 2.4% of pest control actions had one or more treatment and non-treatment areas, and very few treatment and non-treatment areas (0.3%) were randomly assigned.
The first glance at the statistics sends you to a criticism of the wildlife ecologists and pest managers for not using the scientific method and delivering robust evidence.
The reality is that the method is very difficult to implement. And that fundamental challenge is not the fault of the pest managers or the wildlife biologists.
An alternative form of the scientific method
It should be possible to complete some before-after-control-impact studies, sometimes called BACI analyses.
The idea here is to compare levels of both the treatment and the measurement variable before and after an intervention such as a baiting program in the wild dog example.
There are formal statistical procedures to interpret data of this kind and as long as there are sufficient instances of the comparison some robust evidence can be gathered. Not as rigorous as formal experiments but close enough given the constraints of the real world.
This approach takes time and coordination but it can be done, even retrospectively from standard observations and reports of dog sightings and livestock losses.
The science purists will tell you that inference is weak without formal experiments. This is true.
But for this type of expensive interventions even weak inference can help decisions on the necessity or scale of the control programs.
Why so few experiments?
There are few experiments on the use of natural resources because they are hard, sometimes impossible, and always challenging to design and deliver.
Few institutions have the funds to take them on given the levels of replications and the logistics involved.
Few scientists have the time to wait for the results. It is a career limiting step to wait a decade for your experimental results when publishing at least three peer-reviewed papers a year is essential.
Few scientists have the smarts to design experiments on this scale without resorting to pseudoreplication or other shortcuts.
The value sets that the experiments explore are so strongly held that they are hard to shift even if the inference is definitive.
What is the solution?
Be pragmatic about all of this.
Make sure that there is at least some information and apply the various rules to determine how useful it is to the questions at hand.
Help people to see that there is likely an emotional response at the root of their opinions and whilst this is legitimate it will make for tougher than necessary compromises.
Use big data. There is a new source of information that is a combination of remotely sensed data, artificial intelligence algorithms that can see complex patterns and modelling particularly the modeling of ecological processes that can make the inference much stronger than before.
We are much better off than we think when it comes to environmental information.
I am fortunate enough to live in one of the world’s great modern cities, Sydney, Australia.
There is every amenity you could ever need, a true diaspora of food and culture, and as cities go, Sydney is stunningly beautiful. It is even trying its best to gather up some history. Visitors pile in from all around the world and they love it.
The day before the Vivid festival of light and delight, it was date night. I went with my wife – shame on you to think otherwise – to the theatre. We were both left open-mouthed at Still Point Turning, a beautifully written bio-play of courage and fragility performed with great skill and compassion. It was fantastic. Even if you can’t get to see a production, read the play. It will be worth the effort.
On the way, we stopped for dinner at our newly crowned ‘best Italian eatery’ and blew our wheat quota on proper pizza. Yum.
Walking to the theatre, a gas-powered bus pulled up at the kerb, beeped and announced that “the mobility ramp is in use”. An array of respectful youngsters waited their turn before moving off into the night.
It was easy to feel blessed. Almost pinch-worthy just to be sure it was not all a delightful dream.
The next morning I had a meeting in the city and tuned into the ABC morning radio en route to the train station. The NSW state opposition leader Luke Foley was crapping on about the need for infrastructure for refugees. I use this term because he was having a whinge, using a minority to make his point and by doing so crossing the line into racism. He sounded like a total tool and it was shameful.
I turned off the radio.
As I write this post on the train that is comfortable and running on time, reflecting on delight and disgust, it seems that no matter how much good there is and how much of it there is too take in with all your senses buzzing, there has to be the opposite.
There will be someone, sometimes myself, finding as much bad stuff as is humanly possible. It is the human condition.
My advice is to drown in the good stuff when you feel it.
Let the warm feelings seep deep into your bones and let them glue themselves into the matrix of your being so that when the morning comes and reality brings the opposite to attack you, there is a defence, a barrier that you can retreat behind and smile.
Then do the right thing and don’t vote tools into office.
Donald Trump is a grandstanding genius. He just loves it.
And being President just makes it so much easier. I mean you only need to pitch up and hundreds of people will flock to your side and hang off your every word. What you say as president means nothing to them. They just want to be there and bask in glory by association.
Then there are the millions of followers on social media, a pertinent description for the people who can’t actually be physically present, mostly because they couldn’t be bothered, but can bask by virtual association. Again there is no need to say anything special to followers other than to meet their approval for a second.
So what happens when you, the consummate grandstander, go into a boardroom to meet with leaders of countries whose economies make up 60% of global commerce?
You grandstand of course.
Only these people, the G7 leaders and their advisors, have come to discuss issues of state, to agree on the politics that affects everyone, and to make sure their country is a winner. They are the players, there a no spectators here.
But still your grandstanding prevails.
It is as though there is nothing else in your playbook.
So you look grumpy or at times aggressive. You claim that the world is against you and must be punished for it. You sit with closed crossed arms, open to nothing. You big up all the lies and deceits to get the attention required. And then you leave early.
Grandstander – A player who appears to seek the approval of the spectators rather than concentrating on the playing of the game; (in extended use) a person whose words or actions are motivated primarily by the desire to attract attention or gain approval
As a G7 report by the ABC put it…
[Trump’s] early departure means he will miss a working session among the leaders on climate change and clean energy, as well as talks among the G7 and poorer countries focused on the health of oceans.
Oh yes, and an announcement on significant funding for women’s education.
These things do not matter.
They are topics rarely, if ever, on the minds of the virtual spectators so have limited capability to attract attention. They are easily ignored for far grander actions… like meeting with a crazed dictator whose family have all but decimated a whole country and brainwashed too many of its people. Not to mention assassinate unruly relatives.
But what a gesture?
Play to the crowd by exiting the building, leaving behind the important issues to those who don’t matter, tainting those issues in the process. Let the spotlight follow you.
The politics of grandstanding is that approval means far more than truth. So honesty and pragmatism will decline to nothing in favour of pleasing the followers.
And followers will follow for that is what they do. There are any number of livestock truisms involving noses, herds and sheep that tell us that once a crowd is assembled it can be easily whipped.
Trump followers are not going to stop following if he keeps grandstanding. It is his cattle prod and it works.
The truly scary part is that it’s clever. He’s making a huge legacy for himself and his kids. He will leave office far wealthier than when he swore the oath and he won’t need books and lecture tours to fund his retirement. Think hotels on Korean beaches and Russian oil pipelines.
Whatever the guy says and however dumb and clumsy he looks he is making the deal of human lifetime, thanks, in no small part, to his grandstanding genius.
Scenarios with pragmatic outcomes
One morning the sun rises a little brighter than usual on its winter path. It gains a little extra height in the sky and creates unseasonal warmth. A woman sits in an Andronicus chair painted crazy daisy yellow and admires her newly landscaped garden.
“Do you watch the news my darling?” She says to a teenager perched on the arm of the chair.
“No nonna” the girl says leaning into the safety of her family.
“That’s good my love” the woman says and smiles.
This post was written before Trump attended the NATO meeting in July 2018 and then the UK followed by his parley with Putin. As you will have noticed you can insert any of these more recent events into the post without any change to its intent.
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…
- Shift your expectations
- Recognize that you can change your life at any point
- Look for meaning in the most challenging moments
- Listen to another person’s story
- Return to your home base
- Add some wow to your world
- Remember the essential goodness of humanity
- Think about your death (yes, really).
A good list, a little gem, and well worth a look.
Optimism and evidence
Part one is about optimism
Many would have us believe that it is easy to be an optimist.
All you have to do is believe (in) yourself. If you say positive things most of the time, catch yourself when something negative sneaks in and smile a lot, then you are good to go.
Believe and your shoulders set themselves back and your chest rises.
“Yes we can” you will scream. And there are hundreds of Youtube win videos that attest to this power. People are awesome indeed.
Pulses of positivity do not require any substance to back them up. There is no need because optimism is often killed by the truth. There are few facts in favour of running a successful business, seeing your team win the league, or the world surviving intact the activities of 7 billion humans. Such matters of fact are not what optimism is about. If you accepted the likelihood of winning the lottery you would never buy a ticket.
Optimists have no need for facts. This is not how it works for them. They just believe it to be so. And that is enough. No matter what the circumstance, for innate optimists, the glass is always half full and Schrodinger’s cat is alive.
It is actually a remarkable thing.
In spite of evidence to the contrary and especially where evidence is lacking, the optimist has hope and drinks deeply from the glass.
Part two is about evidence
As a scientist I know the logic that makes the likelihood of a lottery win minuscule. I also know that facts are not always in your favour.
No matter how good a snowboarder you are, sooner or later the half pipe will claim you – speed, ice and many moving parts fixed to some plywood and fiberglass is enough evidence.
Yet for years I have laboured to generate environmental evidence, reliable facts about the way the natural world works, with the naïve belief it would be useful.
Today I am not so sure.
My conviction in the value of evidence is shaken if evidence erodes optimism. It is flawed completely if optimists mostly ignore the facts. If the glass half empty people don’t want to hear any evidence because it depresses them even more and the glass half full people are too busy getting on with fulfilling their hope, it means that nobody is listening.
Deaf ears indeed.
Suppose you are a die hard Manchester United fan. You have been in this manic state since you first kicked a ball around the living room in your diapers. It’s baffling why Manchester United is the club that captured your undying soccer loyalty given there are numerous top grade clubs within spitting distance of your childhood home, however, you cannot question it for the feeling resides somewhere deep and unexplainable.
Along with this love of the Red Devils comes a dislike, some might even say hatred, for the club that plays at a ground just 6 km distant and wears sky blue. Your ire rises higher at any mention of jokers from other towns, Liverpool especially.
Now this rivalry with the opposition is no doubt part of the deep and unexplainable. It has something to do with the limbic requirement to compete and win.
Along with this genetic programming, nurture has imbibed you with the essence of local culture, defined your broader allegiance, and provided you with an accent. Who can even understand what those scousers are saying?
I’m sure you are with me so far, at least in principle.
You may not be a soccer tragic or reside in north-west England, but I guarantee there is something you are passionate about to your core. A tumult in your soul that has no apparent explanation.
Importantly, such passion is never truly extinguished. Sure it wanes, but come finals day or a beer around the barbecue, and the old passion reignites like a bushfire in a breeze.
Like it or not, admit it or not, tribal affiliation makes you feel good.
This is because the tribe has two highly desirable traits. First the tribe covets your loyalty, cares for it and protects it to your benefit. This becomes a delicious positive loop. The more you feel wanted the stronger the tribe and the stronger the tribe the more loyalty you relinquish.
The second highly desirable trait is that there are always other tribes.
So just as your loyalty is rewarded with warm feelings of belonging and place, so the tribe tests its mettle and your allegiance with rivalries.
And herein lies the ancient human condition as recognisable 3 million years ago as it is at Old Trafford on a Saturday. We love a good stoush.
In our modern, supposedly enlightened times, it is no longer necessary to attack Liverpool FC supporters, leave them for dead, capture their womenfolk, steal their pigs and eat all the yams in their grain store. It is sufficient to chant abuse from the stand and laugh when their striker scuffs his shot wide. But rivalry is crucial to the tribe. It feeds the loyalty process and without it the warm feelings are much harder to maintain.
Crucially this necessity for rivalry builds more than aggressive contempt. It is not admissible to speak these other thoughts because they are easily misinterpreted, but at some level you have respect for those scouser scum. They are, after all, tribalists like you. They are misguided in their choice of allegiance, deranged even, and yet without another tribe of near equal size and passion what would be the benefit in winning any encounters. Crushing minnows ultimately depletes loyalty.
Thankfully there they are on the terraces, giving back as good as they get, and always rendering that god awful song about walking. Curiously they are wearing the same clothes as you. They are as overweight and unfit as you, and, hey, isn’t that Bob from accounting?
In short, you empathise with the opposition support because you need them and because you recognise their image in the mirror.
The same thing applies to all other tribal rivalries that humans have invented. In the violent conflicts any empathy has wilted or died invoking a chicken and egg explanation. But in many others the empathy is still there and may even be the reason there is restraint.
One of these intense rivalries is over the environment.
Not the grab for land, water and oil that is at the core of many, perhaps all, wars but the rivalry that exists even in stable nations with well defined and uncontested territories.
On one side there are various tribes with members willing to hug trees or stare down bulldozers to protect the lesser spotted owlet even as the greater spotted owlet numbers increase to previously unknown heights.
In opposition are tribes with members in hi-vis vests or business suits who have never even seen an owlet.
This rivalry is ostensibly about the consequences of resource use. More strictly, who should get the benefit from exploiting natural resources or wear the opportunity costs of parsimony.
The consequences of resource use are real enough, far more so than the winning or not of 3 points towards the title race and a few months worth of bragging rights. Any human exploitation of natural resources alters the flows of energy and nutrients through the environment either directly – log a forest and habitat is changed or last altogether – or indirectly – burn coral and the climate changes.
Green tribes hate this outcome.
Brown tribes hate this outcome too mainly because it fuels green tribes out to stop them. Usually those with a development focus feel so strongly about the need for resource use to fuel the economic engine that they don’t even notice the consequences for future resource use let alone any undesirable externalities.
The trouble is that the green tribes have to get their hemp and their biofuels from somewhere in the environment. Every human leaves a footprint in the sand.
Equally the brown tribe members know that even though ‘a tree converted to dollars invested in the stock market’ is a well trodden road to wealth, on this road there are potholes, oncoming traffic and, heaven forbid, fuel shortages. Heavy boots do some real damage.
The kernel of empathy exists in these contradictions.
It comes through admitting that even the off grid, eco-home, tiny house still has a footprint and that with over 15 billion human feet on the planet, the tiny house option cannot be for everyone. It also comes from the notion held among some resource users that maintaining a resource for the long haul can be a better economic outcome given the resource is still there to be used.
Many also know that the environment always offers renewable solutions.
Then we have the option of incentivising resource use actions that limit the undesirable outcomes using the language of the economic tribe to change behaviour. We pay resource users to be careful. A weird compromise position that partly neutralises the conflict.
Here, then, is the thought.
When you next find yourself in a tribal situation, and this will probably be sooner than you think, look for the empathy. Try to find that connection with the rival that you know makes them just like you.
Should this situation have something to do with the environment and the empathy feel just can’t be seen, look harder, for empathy is there hiding behind the entrenched positions.
I see the glass as half empty far more often than I would like.
It’s the cynic in me that does this, a nimble imp that jumps around incessantly to skilfully sneak up and strike when I’m not looking.
And I am not alone.
Many of us are pestered by negativity fed incessantly by the imp and his allies in the mainstream media with their constant peddling of bad news as something we just have to know. It is enough to depress the most ardent of us.
The psychology is simple enough. We are shown bleak accounts of impending and real doom to make us feel hopeless and in this stupefied state we don’t need to try to fix anything, we can just keep on consuming our way to distant happiness.
The imp just loves it.
He gets to play silly buggers with us and there it is, a glass half empty.
Diogo Verissimo, a conservation scientist and social marketer, believes that to make the environment a mainstream concern, conservation discussions should focus less on difficulties and much more on positives. He’d like us to see the full half of the glass.
In April 2017 the Smithsonian Institute organised the Earth Optimism Summit to shift the global conservation movement’s focus away from problems and toward solutions. Verissiomo’s own Lost and Found project tells the stories of 13 species once thought extinct but now rediscovered by intrepid and dedicated humans.
The hope is that the good news with the help of storytelling will generate a “more positive vision for the Earth’s future”.
It is hard to be optimistic though. The numbers of people and their needs are scary and our psychology held deep in our reptilian brainstem is not in our favour. Too many posts on this blog have explored this dilemma.
Post revisited – Washing machines
Post revisited – Can we have sustainability?
The biggest global challenges revisited
It seems unlikely that some good news stories will create much more than a temporary salve.
Now I believe we are on the path that Thomas Malthus warned of back in 1798 when he talked intelligently about per capita production and mankind using the abundance of resources for population growth rather than for maintaining a high standard of living.
Sure we slow down population growth rates when affluence is high, counter to the Malthusian trap, but we are doing it after our absolute numbers have reached 7.5 billion. A full order of magnitude more than the 700 million alive when Malthus wrote his famous essay.
These billions are resource hungry and increasingly disconnected from the natural world.
In fact, if I hadn’t been lucky (and resource hungry) enough to visit over 20 countries in my lifetime I’m not even sure I would believe that 7.5 billion people was even possible. But it is here, a miracle that Malthus would have imputed to the almighty.
What the imp knows is that despite the occasional good news story, Malthus was actually right. He got the numbers a bit askew, an understandable error given the knowledge of his day, but the theory is sound.
Resources will become limiting and the consequences will not be pretty or good.
The glass half full may be the view we need but it is a hard one to see.
Overshoot day is the day in the year when human activities have used up the amount of the Earth’s natural resources that can be renewed within one year.
Ideally this is sometime in very late December or better still, January, February or later in the in the subsequent year. Overshoot day celebrated then would mean we are either in balance or slightly ahead using less resources than are renewed each year. This was pretty much true up to the late 1960’s.
In 2017 overshoot day was 2nd August.
This leaves another 151 days left in the year to keep everyone going on resources not renewed within the year. We are using up credit, reserves of resources that sit in the renewable pool.
There is more bad news if you are Australian. Our Aussie lifestyle chews up more resources than most. If everyone lived like us then overshoot day arrives on 12th March, almost half a year earlier.
Put another way, if everyone lived the Aussie lifestyle, we would need 5.2 Earths worth of renewable natural resources per year. And if we all had the British stiff upper lip or Italian suits, then it would be 3.0 Earths.
This is a serious problem folks. I mean it. We are overextended taking up at least a third more than is renewed. It is like having a salary of $100 a week and spending $130 a week. It is only sustainable for as long as your savings or credit card allows.
Aussies should be ashamed that they are the most profligate being ahead even of the Americans (5.0 Earth’s in their case); not that finger pointing helps. All the wealthy people in the world are collectively living on credit. We are borrowing from the pool of reserves without an ability to pay back in. The risk in this transaction is not secured against any collateral other than the technology mantra.
In natural resources terms, buy now, pay later, becomes use now, worry about shortages later. And it could become use now, deal with collapse later.
If laboratory rats run out of food they get hungry, then they fight each other, and then they eat each other.
It is ugly.
Our system of credit, supply chains, and technology applied to renewable resources will buffer us for a while. It is why we don’t feel shortages or, indeed, hunger for those of us living on $100 plus a day (a little under $50,000 a year before tax).
It is also why we buffered this system after the GFC even though we knew it was built on sand and so much of the extra credit promised ended up in just a few pockets. We should pay much more attention to all this. But I digress, here is the key message.
Overshoot day is the most important day of the year. If we are smart, less greedy and less fearful we could even make it a biannual celebration.
So when you are pondering your New Year’s resolutions and reflecting on another year lodged into history, with full stomachs and the lingering indigestion of Christmas cheer, spare a thought for the day in 2018 when we overshoot our renewable resources for another year.