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.



For me ‘ah ha’ moments fall into one of two types. There are the ‘oh why didn’t I think of that before’ kind of ah ha’s that tickle the brain when they happen but often fade into the nether regions of forgetfulness soon after.

Then there are the real ‘ah ha’s’, the kind that are arresting, stick around, and may even shift my perception of the world.

Recently I experienced one of the latter, a real doozy.

In a meeting with colleagues who, between them, had over a 100 years of environmental experience I realised that none of them understood numbers. They did not think quantitatively.

It worth taking a moment to absorb this observation. Eight experienced professionals who most would describe as technical experts, all with a tertiary education and many years of practice with problem solving in land management, native vegetation and agriculture, were not thinking numerically.

Few of them would admit to this of course. They’ll pour over spreadsheets, examine graphs and even contemplate statistics alongside the best of their ilk, but deep down they are not thinking numbers.

Instead they shift words and documents around. They think in the language of processes and procedures not likelihood, rates, and difference.

As many a post on this blog attests, my brain handles proportions and probabilities.

However, I am not especially mathematical, and often lament a lack of fluency in that language. But limited math literacy does not stop me thinking numbers. I’ll see a proportion and instantly ask “proportion of what, a thousand or a million?” In my head 20% of 10 is not the same as 20% of 1,000,000 when it’s, let’s say, greenhouse gas emissions. There is materially in the latter number even though the proportions are the same. It seems impossible not to do this numerical reality checking when faced with the variability in space and time of the matters environmental people are interested in.

But there it was, plain as a binomial distribution. My colleagues were not quants. When they relaxed into an innate thinking state, they did not see the world quantitatively.

Now before the trolls get too upset, this ‘ah ha’ is not about belittling or downgrading all the feeling thoughts, the creative thinker or even the normative types. All problems are best tackled with a variety of thought processes and the best answers do not always come from understanding a likelihood. What got me was that the quantitative type was not in the very building you would expect to find it.

For a scientist, researcher and one time lecturer in biostatistics this is a hard one to fathom. The question still bouncing around like a subatomic particle is why? There is no obvious reason, other than the peculiar quirks of chance, that none of these people were quantitative.

Only they were not and soon the consequences started to come up. Any talk of likelihood, rates, and difference would not be fully understood without explanations and time to digest what the numbers mean.

It would not be possible to just present a graphic and assume that everyone would understand any obvious pattern, let alone the nuance.

In short, my colleagues were not going to have an easy handle on inference.

This is a huge deal. If the people who are closest to the facts as they play out in the real world do not get the numbers, the same people who support decisions around sustainability and the trade-offs with natural resource use… Well, there is a good chance we are in muppetville all over again.

Ah ha.

Optimism and evidence

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 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.

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.


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.