Thursday, April 23, 2015

Happiness Is … When Someone 'Gets It'

Too often, the fruits of years of research effort yield peer-reviewed publications that are greeted by the resounding echo of … silence.
We were therefore extremely pleased to find our recent article was not only read, but genuinely understood and actively supported by the most exacting of all readers, the Editor in Chief of the highly respected journal BioScience. The article in question was our recent review article entitled Leaps of Faith: How implicit assumptions compromise the utility of ecosystem models, wherein we examined how assumptions and uncertainty were treated by the 60 most popular articles describing ecosystem models that were intended to inform management.
In his editorial Models are Not Toys, Dr. Timothy Beardsley focused squarely on our article, (re)articulating our main points with such eloquence that it was clear he fully and completely "got it". Rather than confuse his message by paraphrasing, we simply reproduce the bulk of that editorial directly.
"Mathematical modeling has become central to much of biology and related sciences, to the extent that ecosystem studies that omit to describe a model of their phenomena of interest might even seem underdeveloped. The power of well-constructed models hardly needs defending—their ability to provide a vivid sense of what is going on in a complex situation is felt intuitively. Yet the fascination of modeling can easily lead the unwary into a fantasy of neatly interacting parameters that cease to meaningfully represent the messy, hard-to-measure real word. The temptation is to test just the most interesting model predictions and assumptions—the ones that yield the results we hope to find—and to forget possibly unwelcome complications at the interpretation stage.
For sure, there may be good reasons to ... develop a model that captures some important features of the world even when the model is incomplete in significant ways. Science has made vast strides by employing this reductionist strategy, as Gregr and Chan acknowledge in their important article ... Yet when attempts are made to draw management conclusions from models that are described without a full account of the assumptions and uncertainties that went into them, danger lurks.
Gregr and Chan's survey of articles purportedly relevant to ocean ecosystem management yielded results that can fairly be called “shocking.” “Ecosystem” articles left all assumptions implicit 39 percent of the time, and “social–economic” articles articulated no assumptions 68 percent of the time. The problems may be linked to the increasing fragmentation of modelers into specialized communities that are familiar with their own assumptions—but fail to explain them to outsiders. Gregr and Chan also remark on the “widespread faith in data quality and suitability.” Understandable, given the difficulty of gathering custom environmental data, but faith should have no place in science.
The authors provide a valuable typology of assumptions and uncertainties that all ecosystem modelers would do well to use as a checklist when planning and reporting their research. Unstated assumptions and uncertainties, besides causing unwise management actions, could bring this vital field into disrepute. And there is no reason to think the ocean scientists are more at fault than those who study other ecosystems."
We could not have said it better ourselves. But we are thrilled we articulated it clearly enough, and that this topic was seen as critical enough, for at least one senior Editor to find the work compelling enough to recognize the importance and contribution of our review. It is that sort of validation that keeps scientists motivated, and makes us feel that our work, however slowly, is making its way into the fabric of scientific understanding.
The complete editorial is accessible online at BioScience. The article is available on request from EG.
Beardsley, T. M. (2015). "Models Are Not Toys." BioScience 65(1): 3.
Gregr, E. J. and K. M. A. Chan (2015). "Leaps of faith: How implicit assumptions compromise the utility of ecosystem models for decision-making." BioScience 65(1): 43-54.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Depolarizing the Supermarket: Taking Responsibility (and Feeling Good about Yourself) on a Sliding Scale

by Maayan Kreitzman

This blog originally appeared on the UBC blog site for the course Global Food Security and Sustainability taught by Dr. Navin Ramankutty

It's a familiar scene: I stand in front of the garlic at the supermarket, motionless, my mind a complete blank: organic garlic, 17.50/pound, “normal” garlic, 9.00/pound. I have about as much agency in the situation as the pile of bulbs staring me back – it seems like my choice is totally random, depending on how generous or maybe how guilty I'm feeling that day. Actually, I know a lot about garlic. I've grown it in two different countries, in three gardens and two farms; I've picked garlic scapes, I know what the flowers smell like (garlic, actually). I know how a bulb looks when it's fresh, and how to braid the leaves and hang them so that they cure properly. I put garlic in just about everything I cook, as well as raw in salads. But this wealth of garlic-love still leaves me empty when confronted with those two price signs. If I choose the organic, have I chosen something more wholesome, more likely to be local, grown by a farmer I would be happy to support, who is a good steward of wildlife and minimized pollution on her farm? If I choose the conventional garlic, will it be laced with unregulated chemicals that apparently run rampant in the far east? Was it grown by a sinister multinational agribusiness corporation that uses energy-intensive farming practices that pollute and destroy biodiversity?

These are the natural associations conjured up. Yet I now know that many of these dichotomies are false ones. That organic farming doesn't necessarily imply sustainability, that for greenhouse gas emissions, the way food is produced usually trumps the distance it travels to market, that chemical-free food isn't more nutritious, and that intensive farming can use less land, sparing other land for nature. The many trade-offs I've learned about engage and fascinate me, yet at the supermarket, I'm still faced with one choice (or at most two): organic or conventional. China or California. Only two tradeoffs in a matrix of other factors.

So I would need more data. I would need someone to reliably report on the social-climate-ecosystem impacts of food production (or any production for that matter). I'm not talking about yet another do-gooder certification scheme which appeals to a niche market and justifies premium pricing. So what am I talking about?

It's an information-supply scheme. An across-the-board mechanism for scoring products from regions on a sliding scale with a full range of values. These scores would then be summed up into a single social-climate-ecosystem impact score, to be displayed on the sign above the bin. This score would apply to organic and conventional products alike. The advantage of information-supply is that it does not imply a separation of physical supply chains and thus higher prices, as certification would. In fact it can be seen as a market integrator or leveler: regardless of which niche a product belongs in, it would be subject to the same evaluation. In this way, blanket decisions like “organic is better” would be unnecessary – we could make mixed choices based on our priorities.

Of course, this doesn't come free, or easy. First, while engineers and food systems scholars have made strides in estimating greenhouse gas emissions from the full life-cycle of food products, these studies are time consuming, very specific, and typically do not include ecosystem impacts or social dimensions of production. We need faster, better estimation methods that include all three of these axes.

Second, gathering data costs money. For some reason, active monitoring is not something we associate with the agricultural sector – yet in other industries (fishing, finance, airlines, government) independent observers/auditors/safety inspectors are an accepted part of doing business. Transparency requires both expertise and money. I would argue it's worth it.

My assertion that “it's worth it”, of course, assumes that consumer-choice driven changes are the path towards change. Some might argue that using the data to tax producers for their impacts is more efficient; others would favor command-and-control style regulations that mandate stricter management practices and limits. Maybe those measures can yet come about. But in a political climate which is inimical to taxes and suspicious of direct regulation and enforcement, the consumer approach is the best place to start.

This scheme allows people to act in accordance with their existing goodwill and sense of responsibility. A simple act which is connected to real wants and specific values is not to be underestimated – it stands out from the arbitrary choices that result from pervasive cognitive dissonance. Such acts are the seeds of cultural change that may eventually grow into more formal avenues of decision making in our society. Right now, all of my time in the garden and on farms, all the courses I've taken in university, and all the articles I've read on Grist, all the petitions I've signed on SumOfUs, and all the farmer's markets I've frequented, still sum up to a blank stare into the abyss of the garlic display every month or two. That should change.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Conservation Social Sciences: What, Why, and How?

Publication News: CHANS lab post-doc Nathan Bennett co-led the production of new report, Conservation Social Sciences: What, Why, and How? 

The report aims to stimulate dialogue among conservation organizations, foundations, agencies, practitioners and researchers about the role of the conservation social sciences. It is intended to build capacity, promote knowledge and foster engagement with conservation social sciences in order to improve conservation practice and outcomes.

A detailed overview of the report can be found on his website, and the report itself can be downloaded here

Citation: Citation: Bennett, N. J. & Roth, R. (eds.) (2015). The Conservation Social Sciences: What?, How? and Why? Vancouver, BC: Canadian Wildlife Federation and Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, University of British Columbia. DOI: 10.13140/2.1.2664.3529