Good evidence

Good evidence

It’s fake news.

That is all I need to say to put doubt into your mind about anything in the media. Fake news is rhetoric that is nothing to do with the actual news item, who knows if the President did or did not spend private time with scantily clad Russian ladies, the point is for you to doubt the source. Just by calling anything fake the seeds of doubt are sown. Whatever evidence there is now has a much more difficult task.

The FIFA world cup in Russia was great entertainment for the soccer tragic. No doubt the aforementioned ladies also enjoyed it. The use of VAR technology to replay the action and review the minutiae of key decisions by the referee changed results but not the players behaviours towards the ref. They still jumped all over his decisions, and his person too. Players protestations to reverse a decision are even more vehement in the VAR age than they were before. They would claim it was fake even as the visual evidence played to a global audience.

Why do players protest so aggressively?

No referee has changed his mind because he was shirt fronted by an expensive haircut. In oblong ball codes such behaviour ends up in the sin bin.

The soccer boys do it to get into the referees head. Maybe he’ll be less inclined to decide against them next time. And it works more than we realise. Even in the world cup with VAR looking over the referees shoulder there have been post protestation biases.

Fake news and haranguing the referee are just two of the tactics in the seeding of doubt game. It began with the mad men of advertising and is now everywhere.

There is a larger game at play here too. Consider this quote about the use of evidence.

In any decision–making setting there will be people with greater power than others to assert what counts as good evidence, but this does not mean that the less powerful will agree.

Alliance for Useful Evidence

The President of the United States has more decision making power than most. He can start a war, release a nuke, pardon a criminal and gain any number of retweets. But it does not mean we will all agree with his decisions even if he presents credible evidence for his choice. In other words he could demonstrate the real and immediate threat of global annihilation from WOMDs and not everyone would agree with a pre-emptive strike.

I can still run in my head the footage of missiles landing on Baghdad to start the first Iraq war. It was wrong.

So if the less powerful will not agree despite the evidence, a smart play is to discredit all evidence. Then agreement defaults to feeling and all you need then is enough people to feel like you do about your decision. Tariffs for example.

Again evidence, that is facts that generate real inference, struggles even for a voice. This applies no matter how good the evidence is.

There is no simple answer to the question of what counts as good evidence. It depends on what we want to know, for what purposes, and in what contexts we envisage that evidence being used. Research data only really become information when they have the power to change views, and they only really become evidence when they attract advocates for the messages they contain. Thus endorsements of data as ‘evidence’ reflect judgements that are socially and politically situated.

Alliance for Useful Evidence

Shouting ‘fake news’ has the effect of weakening evidence however good the evidence is, just as the protestations and rolling around in fake agony of the $10,000 a week boys gets into the referees head to weaken the evidence he see with his own eyes.

What to do?

The instinct is to rail against the ‘fake news’ tirade and seek ways to show that evidence matters, do the fact checking, use only credible sources and spend enough money to keep honest reporting somewhere near the front page.

This should be done but it is not enough on its own. Demonstrating fact from fake is unlikely to change hearts.

Tackling the psychology is the go, only that is a much longer play.

You don’t know shit

You don’t know shit

You don’t know shit and I’ll prove it to you.

Have a little think about these questions.

  • What’s your net worth?
  • How much money does the taxman appropriate from your paycheck?
  • What’s the current balance of your retirement fund?
  • What businesses does your superfund invest in?

All over your finances, fair enough. Try these.

  • How about the name of your local member of parliament?
  • What’s the policy on the aforementioned income tax held by the party your local member represents, do you even know the party?
  • Can you list the top three things that your tax dollar helps pay for?
  • Who’s the Minister responsible for spending the biggest chunk of taxpayers dollar?

Struggling a bit now? I bet.

Here are some more knowledge questions on a different tack.

  • What music does your brother/son/nephew/kid next door listen to?
  • Does he even listen to music?
  • If you mentioned Paul McCartney to him would he even blink?

And toward more detail, how about these…

  • Can you say with certainty that the koala is going extinct?
  • Do you know if clearing 20,000 ha of forest is a good thing to do or even if 20,000 ha is a big area?
  • Can the planet support the needs and wants of 7.5 billion human beings?

Phew, that’s intense. My apologies.

You don’t know your shit do you? No, neither do I.

The thing is that nobody does.

It’s a given that we are all mostly ignorant about many of the most important things in our lives from the big to the small. And clearly this doesn’t matter a jot.

Ignorance has not stopped progress, the economy, wealth creation or Sir Paul’s 17th solo album (no, I didn’t know that either). At least not yet.

Human beings are remarkable in that we cannot know our shit, partly because there is just so much of it, and yet we can still be successful and even satisfied. We have enough innate savvy and bullshit detection ability to survive the many situations where knowledge would actually help us a lot and lack of knowledge is a hindrance. This skill in decision making by instinct rather than evaluation is so well honed that we not only survive but we prosper on it. As Steven Pinker will show you at length in any of his books, all the metrics of societal wellbeing show progress and lots of it.

Perhaps we are survivors extraordinaire because somehow we learn just enough.

Snakes are bad, koalas are good. Paycheck goes into my account, no need to know what the taxman took so long as I get a rebate at tax time. The kid next door adores Anne-Marie, so what, I did the same with Debbie.

Knowing that the minister for health in the NSW state government is responsible for a $17.3 billion budget hardly helps me choose the best school for my son. I can get more relevant ‘information’ through the opinions on a local Facebook group of concerned parents like me.

We learn and know enough of the things that we perceive as relevant. The rest we can trust to what Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman calls ‘thinking fast’ because it actually doesn’t matter. There is no perceptible gain to taking our time over it.

You don’t know your shit. And you got over it already.

Who needs answers to questions when instinct guides you in a heartbeat.

An ‘ah ha moment’ for me

This is a critical realisation for me. People don’t need information to answer questions. They have instinct for that.

So as a purveyor of evidence that I would like people to absorb, understand, and use to help them be more objective, I have a big problem. People don’t need what I have to offer and, therefore, they don’t want it.

At times evidence is a surreptitious influence that gently permeates the psyche to change a mind or two over time. This would be how Rome was built. Information is sometimes stored for use as ammunition in an argument, although simple slander is more potent and easier to use now we live in Trolland.

But in general, evidence is not needed for general awareness and going about one’s business. No matter that the 15 year old can sing along to ‘Let it be’ without knowing Paul McCartney wrote it half a century ago. All that matters is it’s still a good song.

The ‘ah ha’ bit is this truth…

Shit does not matter except when it does.

Death and taxes

Death and taxes

Death and taxes are certainties. After more than 30 years of professional life, I have learned that there are a few more items on the definites list.

I know now that, in fact, the world is full of certainties beyond death and taxes. Our lives are fundamentally predictable. Business is business, people are people, trains are often crowded, and coffee is a requirement. Accident and novelty notwithstanding, I can be pretty sure what tomorrow will bring.

This is not to say that I readily accept this reality. I am much more inclined to fear the future as something entirely unpredictable and out of control. It seems that my biology requires risk, perhaps to keep me on my toes and on the lookout for lions and the snake in the grass.

My good fortune is that my chosen profession is founded on evidence, the raw material to understand, mitigate and avoid risk. I am trained to find as much certainty as is humanly possible and then to apply that certainty to first reduce risk and ultimately help alleviate fear.

A noble profession you would think.

At some level, I like to think so. Gathering evidence to inform decision making seems like a calming exercise that should benefit the many. Thinking, researching and evaluating my way through environmental problems should be a good thing to do in a world where resources are finite and demand voracious.

Science, the gathering and evaluation of evidence, surely is our best source of certainty. It bounds events through understanding and generates evidence that makes life predictable.

Imagine my shock when in an article from the Alliance for Useful Evidence I came across this quote from a senior UK policymaker…

One insider’s view of policymakers’ hierarchy of evidence
1. Expert evidence (including consultants and think tanks).
2. Opinion–based evidence (including lobbyists/pressure groups).
3. Ideological evidence (party think tanks, manifestos).
4. Media evidence.
5. Internet evidence.
6. Lay evidence (constituents’ or citizens’ experiences).
7. Street evidence (urban myths, conventional wisdom).
8. Cabbies’ evidence.
9. Research evidence.
Source: Phil Davies, former Deputy Chief Social Researcher, 2007.

Classic British cynicism this list may be. A caricature of reality it may be. Satire it must be. And it is probably all of the above. Only it is also alarmingly close to the truth.

For a decade or more I have worked with policymakers a lot and I would say that the list and the ranking of sources are accurate. It may not be what policymakers say they want. Many are keen to involve themselves in evidence-based policy but very few of them know where to get the evidence or how to evaluate it. They are easily swayed by ‘evidence’ sourced from within their everydayness, and that often includes the Uber driver.

They are not familiar with the peer-reviewed literature. They are not avid readers of systematic reviews and none of them knows how to estimate a likelihood.

The reality is that most of them do not have the tools to separate opinion from evidence.

It is a huge problem for me and, I suspect, for you too.

The policies that become the laws that determine what we can and cannot do, what society allows and tolerates and the big decisions on how we use or abuse the natural resources that we rely on for our wellbeing should be firmly grounded in evidence, not opinion.

The problem with Mr Davies’ list is that eight of the nine sources are contaminated by opinion. The ‘evidence’ may or may not be based on fact and could cease to be evidence altogether when all it is based on is the worldview of Joe citizen.

Opinion, a view or judgement formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge

Arguably far too many of our laws are judgement calls that have little or no evidence to back them up. A law to protect the koala because it is going extinct when there is no evidence for this peril.

Here is another certainty to add to taxes, crowded trains and coffee. Policymakers will not use real evidence.


Because they are not trained in how to tell the difference between what they are exposed to and the truth. In their minds, the two are muddled and confused to the point of being indistinguishable.

Poor choice

Poor choice

Suppose you are marooned on a desert island.

Luck would have it that, on the island, there is a stream with fresh water, a seemingly endless supply of fruits on the trees close to the beach and, bizarrely given you don’t smoke, you remembered to pack a cigarette lighter.

Other than the ability to make fire, you have very little else. Not even a sunhat.

Chances are you could survive for many days, weeks even. Malaria or other insect vectored lurgy notwithstanding, you could even survive to Crusoe-esque timeframes.

There will be any number of specific challenges to overcome beyond the boredom and the need to find food and water. Avoiding cuts and sprains, not getting bitten by a shark or a spider, avoiding any unknown foods and being sure to cook the shellfish as well as you can. Most of these are, to some degree, under your immediate control. They are avoidable through choice.

Your island is iconic.

A tiny, low lying place with no real high ground to speak of and as you explore you notice evidence of past storms. There are more fallen trees than seems plausible. The biggest trees aren’t really that tall. There is debris from the beach everywhere, even when you think you are as far away from it as you can be. The reality is clear. Come the next storm there might be very few places to hide. Should there be a hurricane, survival would be slim.

So whilst there is no immediate danger, you certainly are in a pickle.

Against all the odds the government hears of your predicament. Phew, rescue is on the way. Perhaps there might even be an airdrop of provisions and a temporary hurricane shelter before the relief vessel arrives.

Turns out that the government appraised the policy position on your predicament and rather than deal with your immediate challenges and imminent risk, they are sending you a lifetime supply of sunblock.

From a policy perspective this makes perfectly good sense. Todays danger is the taxpayers responsibility and if there is unavoidable danger then it is the fault of previous governments for failing to plan ahead.

Providing sunblock is exactly the kind of future thinking that is needed. It means that while you are out there so exposed on the island you are far less likely to develop a melanoma and will stay out of the healthcare system. Not to mention the benefits of government contracts to the local sunblock manufacturer and supplier.

The problem of increasingly more severe and frequent storms or, heaven forbid, a rise in sea level or hotter sea temperatures killing the coral that fringe your island with an underwater wall of protection from the ocean swell, or any other proximate causes of your likely demise, are not issues for the local jurisdiction. They are for everyone else to resolve.

The obvious issue to fix is skin care.

Early the next morning on the faint sound of an engine you jump up from under the simple palm frond tent you cobbled together and, gorilla like, replace every other night. Scanning the horizon the sun reflects off something into your eye.

It must be an aircraft.

It must be.

Sure enough, a few minutes later a transport plane flies directly over your tiny island disgorging a package that floats down gently on a bright yellow parachute to land in the sea, halfway between you and the coral reef.

Fortunately the package floats but it drifts away from the shore far further out that you have dared to go until now. Not expecting anything more than the obvious food and shelter provisions you decide to take the risk, wading and then swimming toward the welcome gift that fell from the sky.

It takes far longer than you would like but weary, you make it to the yellow package. On the side it says “Banana Boat” which strikes you as odd but it’s a float that stays on the surface even when you hang on so you really do not care. Kicking toward the shore is way to hard with the parachute still attached and precious energy reserves are used in trying to free the tangled ropes. Your mind registers that your arms and legs are aching.

All of a sudden you are in the most real and present danger you have been in since you arrived on the island.

Panic begins. It takes courage that you have never used before to stay calm enough to hang onto the banana boat and kick. You keep kicking, frantic at first and then more measured as the panic subsides a little once your brain registers the palm trees inching closer.

In the end your legs are moving on a reflex until one kick hits sand.

The scariest event of your entire life is over. You are belly first on the shore with the boat beside you.

A plastic catch flips easily at the end of your finger and the lid opens with a slight click. Inside there are several boxes with the same logo as the side of the boat. Inside the boxes are tubes of sunscreen. At least one hundred of them all up. And nothing else.

Bewildered but still comforted that an aircraft flew by knowing you were there, you return to the shade of the palm tree and your makeshift shelter. You wait more alert than before for at any moment real help will arrive.

A week later the storm you knew would come is there on the horizon. A wall of black in the middle of the day. Already the waves on the coral sand are rising higher up the beach. You retreat to the leeward of the biggest tree on the island and crouch down into its bowl and start to pray.

It is the only thing left to you.

The storm hits with such ferocity it uproots your shelter tree. You escape the falling fronts and other flailing debris but the waves are crashing over where you used to spend the night. The sea continues to rise on the storm surge and washes the banana boat out to sea. Despite any number of drenchings from what felt like walls of water you survive the tempest by clinging onto ancient coral that the water revealed under the sand.

The next day you limp around your island home. There are deep gashes in your hands and you have blurred vision out of your right eye. The spring is covered in sand and it takes an hour of digging to find it again. The water is salty.

In less than a week you die of dehydration. It was a painful, soulless end.

If you think this story is absurd, then of course you are right. It is ridiculous.

Only this announcement from the Australian government Minister for Environment on how to “save” the Great Barrier Reef is just as absurd.

The real problem is not about nutrient runoff or starfish, even though these are known risks, the problem is that the water is too warm, too often. And that cannot be easily fixed, if at all, without some serious forward thinking and a commitment to the reality of climate change.

On your island sunblock is not even useful, what you needed was a vessel to take you back to the real world.

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 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.