Why am I always the last to know?
Submitted by joel brown on Tue, 06/24/2014 - 10:52
'I have done that,' says my memory. 'I cannot have done that' -- says my pride, and remains adamant. At last -- memory yields. Frederic Nietzsche
It’s unlikely that Nietzsche could ever be thought of as a land ecologist. However, he seemed to have described the seemingly contradictory relationship between the information that we possess and the actions that we take. A tenet of land ecology is that better information begets better management. As professionals, we spend a lot of time defining exactly what information is necessary at different points in the decision process and how it can be accessed and used most cost-effectively. But there is plenty of evidence that information is not necessarily the limiting factor. There are plenty of examples from the disciplines that make up land ecology where objectivity remains elusive even though a substantial amount of effort has been expended defining the problem and collecting relevant data. This ‘hall of shame’ transcends land use, scale, management objectives and ownership patterns. In rangelands, support for a variety of rotational grazing schemes remains adamant despite a lack of evidence, both experimental and observational, spanning 30+ years. Effective management to preserve old-growth forests in the northwest proceeds at a snail’s pace, even though there is relatively solid experimental data supporting specific actions. The status of endangered freshwater fish species has been completely misinterpreted despite a large amount of data. See Biber 2013 for a lengthy litany.
How can the information that we believe is so crucial to improving management become so disconnected from the actual decision-making? If we can rule out nefarious motives, then it’s possible that even well-meaning people are failing to make that data:decision connection. These sorts of contradictory, but highly predictable, behavior are many and varied. The website www.youarenotsosmart.com has an entertaining and disturbing list of phenomena that would lead to the inescapable conclusion that we just cannot be trusted to make objective decisions even when supplied, or confronted, with overwhelming evidence.
We are still stuck at the question of how do we identify our own biases and more importantly, how do we manage them—or at least come to grips with them, when our task is generally to use limited resources in the most cost-effective manner? As a scientist-in-training, the practice of the steps of the scientific method (observe-hypothesize-design tests-collect information-revise hypothesis) was left pretty much to me as an individual, albeit it with a lot of oversight and direction. I still found myself making subtle adjustments in the field and frequently resorted to asking other graduate students (bribed with cheap beer) for help in the form of oversight to make sure I was following my own protocol. It is surprising how often your own colleagues can find fault in your work, even when you share the same goals and objectives. Although a lot of practitioners decry the emergence of institutional, collaborative science, it does introduce many more opportunities for questioning and correction at each step. The challenge is to introduce a philosophy of environmental monitoring that is systematic, transparent and allows for, and encourages, more professional tension.
Almost all of the authors who write about the primary form of bias, confirmation bias, recommend one very important action--don’t collect your own monitoring data. A few have even suggested that agencies responsible for monitoring, and then making management changes based on the monitoring results, be required to contract with 3rd parties to design and implement monitoring programs, with the agencies supplying only the objectives and ultimately required to respond to the findings.
That would be kind of interesting.
National Research Council. 1990. Managing Troubled Waters: The Role of Marine Environmental Monitoring. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
Eric Biber. 2013. The Challenge of Collecting and Using Environmental Monitoring Data. Ecology and Society. 18 (4): 68. http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol18/iss4/art68/