Monday, May 30, 2011

A Sign of the Times

Not sure how I managed to miss this making the rounds on the internet, but here's a fantastic sign from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's Rally to Restore Sanity as seen on the Owen Abroad Blog.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Why Rapture 2.0 was meant to fail, or why climate activists ride airplanes

By Jordan Tam

Soon after the predicted End, the vast majority of us were still here. Like déjà vu, the next predicted Armageddon (note December 21, 2012) is likely to unfold like yesterdays and those already passed. Perhaps this Rapture was another mathematical mistake (the given reason for the first botched Rapture of ‘94 provided by Mr. Camping, the failed prophet).

More predictable was the immediate response of those who believed the end was nigh. As a BBC article reports, some “...followers said the delay was a further test from God to persevere in their faith”. Cue sceptic and atheist eye-rolling.

However, are any of us innocent of this sort of rationalization?

Here we turn to a classic study in the annals of psychology by Leon Festinger and colleagues. In 1954, Festinger et al. managed to infiltrate a doomsday cult named the ‘Seekers’ led by one Mrs. ‘Marion Keech’. According to Mrs. Keech, who was purportedly able to transmit messages from aliens residing on planet Clarion, the End would come by way of a great flood on December 21, 1954. Non-believers would perish, but those who held their conviction would be saved and transported to safety aboard UFOs. Though Mrs. Keech had already falsely predicted several other End dates, it only served to strengthen her followers’ beliefs when the dates passed harmlessly. Indeed, as the morning of December 21st dawned and none of the Seekers had been whisked away at midnight, the once insulated group began an uncharacteristic media blitz to promote their beliefs under the impression that God had spared humanity because of their strength of faith.

“Well Camping’s followers and the Seekers are nothing like me! They’re fanatics and I’m logical!” you might say to yourself. Read on...

Intrigued by the response of the Seekers to the failed prediction, Festinger took his study to the laboratory. In Festinger’s 1959 experiment, Stanford psychology undergraduates were asked to complete, with little instruction, two very boring tasks, namely “putting 12 spools onto a tray, emptying the tray, and refilling it with spools, and so on” for half an hour and then, on a board “containing 48 square pegs”, the participants were told to “turn each peg a quarter turn clockwise, then another quarter turn, and so on” using only one hand for half an hour.

Participants were then assigned to either: a control group who did nothing; a group in which the participant was paid a dollar to instruct the next waiting participant on the nature of the tasks and describe their experience doing the tasks as “very enjoyable, I had a lot of fun, I enjoyed myself....”; and another group who was asked to do the same for twenty dollars.

After lying through their teeth, the one dollar and twenty dollar groups, as well as the control group were asked to rate how interesting and enjoyable they found the spool and peg tasks on “a scale from -5 to +5 where -5 means they were extremely dull and boring, +5 means they were extremely interesting and enjoyable”.

The result?

While individuals in the control group unsurprisingly found the tasks boring, and the twenty dollar group found it a little less mind numbing, individuals who were paid a dollar somehow convinced themselves that organizing spools and turning pegs was exciting work!

The results illustrate a phenomenon known in psychology as cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance theory predicts:

1) If a person is induced to do or say something which is contrary to his private opinion, there will be a tendency for him to change his opinion so as to bring it into correspondence with what he has done or said.

However, 2) the larger the pressure used to elicit the overt behaviour (beyond the minimum needed to elicit it) the weaker will be the above mentioned tendency.

In other words, twenty dollars was enough to pay for a lie but one dollar was barely sufficient, putting the one dollar liar in a strange situation. On the one hand they knew playing with pegs and spools was tedious yet had agreed to tell waiting participants it was fun and enjoyable for only a dollar. Clearly, they rationalized “I must have liked the task at least a little!”

...bringing us back to Seekers, the Rapture, and climate advocates. Often we act impulsively in ways that are incongruent with our internal beliefs and without anyone needing to pay us at all. And like Mr. Camping’s followers and Camping himself, we’re often forced to face contradictory evidence. In both these scenarios we are left with a sense of unease, motivating us to find ‘logical’ reasons why the Rapture failed to occur, or why it’s okay to fly around on airplanes for vacation even though we’re climate activists when we’re not on vacation. It’s not all that difficult to see how advocates for sustainable fisheries can indiscriminately gorge on sushi. Or why so many environmentalists just “needed” to buy their iPhone.

So while it’s easy to skewer and laugh at religious kooks, the conservation and environmental community would do well making case studies of their own behaviour, if only to better understand the challenges facing sustainability.

After all, people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

Festinger, L., & Carlsmith, J. M. (1959). Cognitive consequences of forced compliance. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58(2), 203.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

What's in a Number?

By Jordan Tam

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. The size of that first step might matter a great deal if psychological research is any indicator.

As I write, Parks Canada is currently trying to protect Canada’s oceans through its National Marine Conservation Area (NMCA) initiative. We should celebrate this effort, but it’s worth asking if we’re jumping off the starting block with enough strength.

The southern islands of the majestic Haida Gwaii archipelago off the North coast of BC have recently come under NMCA protection. Only 3% of this conservation area, called Gwaii Haanas, has been designated as fully protected from commercial extractive use (e.g., commercial fishing). In last week’s Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society report, scientists recommended that 30% of all habitats – not just NMCAs—be protected.

Three percent might not sound like a lot, and that’s the point. A small first step might make it harder for us to get where we need to go.

If you’ve ever negotiated your salary and felt like you were being low-balled by an employer, you’ve likely experienced the well-known psychological bias of getting ‘stuck’ around this first number. This bias is known as ‘anchoring and adjustment’ and was first theorized by psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman (Tversky & Kahneman, 1974).

Just how powerful is this bias? Consider a fantastic experiment by behavioural economist Dan Ariely and colleagues (Ariely, Loewenstein & Prelec, 2006) in which individuals supplied the last two digits of their social security number. People were then asked whether they would be willing to pay the number of dollars equal to these two digits for a bottle of fine wine and to indicate the most they would actually pay. What they found was shocking: people who had social security numbers with the last two digits in between the range of 00 to 19 bid on average $8.64 while those with digits in the range of 80 to 99 bid an average of $27.91.

In other words, even arbitrary numbers can completely skew our judgment, usually without our awareness.

Three (percent) isn’t just a number. Like salary negotiations, negotiating for greater protection in Gwaii Haanas and other developing NMCAs may be slowed or stymied by setting the initial bar so low. We may get to 30% eventually, but having three percent ‘imprinted’ in our psyche, as Ariely puts it, may make take our journey the long way around. Focusing on the greater protection afforded the oceans through California’s network of marine protected areas and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef protection should be the standard to which we measure our progress.

Ariely, D., Loewenstein, G., & Prelec, D. (2006). Tom Sawyer and the construction of value. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 60(1), 1-10. doi: 10.1016/j.jebo.2004.10.003

Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1974). Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases. Science, 185(4157), 1124-1131. doi: 10.1126/science.185.4157.1124

Jesus, Zombies, and Other Deep Questions for Conservation

Gerald Singh and Ally Thompson

The May 21st reckoning has been zealously touted by some, and ridiculed by others. We prefer to think that relevance can be found wherever you look.


He must be pointing at a true believer (

We Hope You’re Ready.

Today is the rapture. While true believers are rejoicing their ascendency to heaven and nonbelievers are either recoiling in horror, indifferent, finding business opportunities, or making fun of the whole story (who would do such a thing?), we – as environmental and conservation scientists – have conflicting thoughts on the matter.

Jesus comes back today after a two thousand year absence. A series of earthquakes will open graves of those who died in the past (zombies? If true then things may go completely differently then outlined below). True believers (about 200 million) will be taken to heaven and the rest cast down in shame to remain on a doomed planet. Undoubtedly the whole ordeal will lead to civil and industrial strife for those left behind. And – here’s the kicker – everyone else dies and is cast down to hell on October 21.

This is serious (

On the one hand, this is an unprecedented opportunity for nature conservation. Depending on what happens to the wretches left behind on earth, the entire biosphere will have varying (though in any case lower) levels of human impact. All other organisms not being made in the image of God will be spared the messiness of heaven and hell. With remaining humans dealing with issues of basic survival and infrastructure nonexistent, pressure on wildlife through pollution, introduction of exotic species and diseases and habitat degradation will probably go down (though hunting may increase with less certain food supplies). The entire ocean will effectively be put under one big Marine Protected Area. No more illegal trade for endangered animal parts. No more industrial carbon emissions. No more housing and industrial development leading to edge effects. All three components of Paul Ehrlich’s equation for human impact on the environment (Impact = Population × Affluence × Technology) will go down. With less dependency on technology and more so directly on the natural environment, will the value of ecosystem services increase?

Now that's a protected area (

On the other hand, what happens after the five month period of a Godless World (something that isn’t clear to us) raises some problematic metaphysical and metaethical concerns. If existence itself is destroyed, nature – by definition – is also destroyed. However, if just people get cast down to hell and the world remains, that raises the truly interesting questions. If nature goes back to a pristine state but there is no one left to appreciate it, does it matter? Can you have value without a valuer? Because “pristine” necessitates the absence of humans, is this truly a desirable goal for conservation? Besides these fundamental concerns about the existence of intrinsic values, the other issue is that the world will lose those interactions between people and nature that are worth conserving. The ties to nature and deep sense of place that local fishers, farmers, and others that derive their well-being and livelihoods will be gone. Humans have helped shape the world that we admire, and human loss will lead to a very different place: it will be a return from a socio-ecological system to an ecological system.

Wait. We'll lose this?!?!

A Short (Serious) Digression on Prediction

The human attraction to eschatological stories is an interesting one. For one, it affects the religious and non-religious alike. Stories of biblical Armageddon are widespread, but works by scientists like James Lovelock and Paul and Anne Ehrlich also discuss “end-times” situations. Both sides may not have their most extreme predictions come through, but the scientists in this case have some evidence and insights worth considering (such as overpopulations contributing to increased starvation). The problem is that the evidence-lacking, religious “authorities” get more press, more followers, and more impact. There are countless stories to be found covering the “rapture” predictions, and people seriously believe it. These stories do affect people’s views and actions, and this has important implications for conservation. Why should any care or concern be put to environmental concerns when the world is ending soon anyway? Can this kind of mindset be successfully challenged and changed? Conservation is a real world problem with diverse issues to face. Many of the most pressing issues relate to human behavior. What can conservationists learn from doomsayers?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Marine Protected Areas—Reality Check from Scientists

In a report released today by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), fourteen leading Canadian researchers and CPAWS staff sent a sharp reality check to government officials working on the protection of ocean and Great Lake ecosystems, simultaneously shining a beacon of hope.

In brief, current marine protection efforts fall far short—shockingly short—of what is likely needed to achieve what Canada has sought in various laws that enable the creation of marine protected areas (MPAs). On the flip side, it is possible to design, implement, and manage networks of MPAs to achieve great benefits for marine ecosystems, potentially restoring a bounty of nature that has disappeared from the memories of all but a handful of seasoned salty dogs.

Falling short

The protection of ocean ecosystems in MPAs is far short of the protection of terrestrial ecosystems globally, and marine protection in Canada lags well behind marine protection in numerous other countries. Less than 1% of Canada’s ocean territory is protected in MPAs [1], whereas approximately 12% of the Earth’s land surface is under some form of protection. Even more stark is the contrast with what seems to be needed to achieve the objectives and benefits of MPAs: my colleagues and I have recommended that at least 30% of Canada’s waters should be strictly protected in order to have a high likelihood of success [2]. (By strictly protected, we mean without extractive uses, except constitutionally protected First Nation food, social and ceremonial harvest.)

There’s no doubt that this high target for protection will invite substantial push-back, particularly from ocean users, as to the realism of ‘setting aside’ so much productive space. To such charges, I have three responses. First, the 30% minimum is a statement of the science of what’s necessary for particular outcomes sought by laws and policies on the books, not a statement of preferred policy. Some of our recommendations would likely require new laws and policies to support the existing ones (the Oceans Act, the National Marine Conservation Areas Act), but it is not the place of scientists to modify science-based targets in the name of political feasibility [3].

Second, MPAs aren’t ‘set aside’ in the sense of being locked up without production. MPAs are hard at work producing diverse benefits for people, both within and beyond their boundaries.
The Big Eddy, a high-productivity site that CPAWS has
advocated to be protected, off the west coast of
Vancouver Island.

Third, humans adapt. We have only just begin to think seriously about marine protection, and such big challenges typically seem impossible until they are started with conviction.

Beyond the proportion of the seascape that we recommended for protection, we have also recommended substantial changes to the processes of designing, implementing, managing, and governing MPAs. For example, we’ve underlined the critical importance of embedding MPAs in seascapes that are managed with an ecosystem-based approach, accounting for the cumulative impacts of multiple human activities on ecosystems and the services they provide people (see the Sidney Consensus for a multi-stakeholder consensus on the meaning of ‘ecosystem-based management’ (EBM) for western Canada) [4]. This is critical for MPAs because patches of ocean are not islands—they are intimately connected to surrounding seascapes, in ways that both make them vulnerable and also allow export of the benefits they provide, including fish, shellfish, and other organisms.

A second critical process we’re recommending as necessary for MPAs—paralleling the Sidney Consensus regarding EBM—is adaptive management: designing policies and management explicitly for the sake of learning, in order to improve future management. Current management is generally not adaptive in this strong sense, but it must be in order to disentangle the cobweb of interacting impacts on marine ecosystems: commercial, recreational, and subsistence fisheries, warming, acidification, pollution from both land-based and marine activities, sedimentation and erosion from coastal development, etc. It’s clear that adaptive management requires a major shift in mindset, but it’s also clear that without a structured adaptive approach, management is flying blind.

What’s new?

In recommending 30% as a minimum area for strict protection, our team is keeping with past recommendations, such as from the University of Queensland in Australia [5], and from a team of scientists regarding the California Channel Islands [6]. It's also in keeping with the actual percent protected in the Great Barrier Reef. But this is also a leading edge recommendation, because it rests upon an extensive review of the science in support of areal targets for marine protection.
The yellow areas in this map are high-priority areas
for MPAs, according to the BC Marine Conservation
Analysis. Well under 1% is currently under strict

Although the numbers are not exact, the available evidence strongly suggests that the benefits of marine protection will often not be fully realized unless at least 30% of the ocean is strictly protected. And these studies generally consider a small number of well-studied impacts on ecosystems, whereas we know that marine ecosystems are threatened by a wide variety of impacts, many of which are very poorly studied. Similarly, the existing studies generally consider a simplified set of the ecological processes—like migration—that sustain populations and ecosystems. Recognizing that there is always a suite of impacts and multiple essential ecological processes that might be degraded by those impacts, arguments for less than 30% protection are simply not supported by current science.

The hope

Our message is at its heart a hopeful one. Marine ecosystems are invisible to most of us, even though we benefit greatly from them in the form of seafood, climate regulation, cultural values and more. As invisible common property, ocean ecosystems have been subject to no end of insults over the past few decades, without eyes to see the resulting devastation. The implication is that the oceans that you see now are a pale shadow of the oceans that once graced this planet, and a meager version of what is possible. Numerous studies of marine populations in many ecosystems suggest that historical levels of abundance were manifold greater than current levels [7,8]. Such bountiful abundance is not beyond our reach unless it is also beyond our imagination. Restoring ocean ecosystems is no easy task, but a robust network of MPAs is a superb first step towards that end. And the payoff could be immense.