Data, not just for scientists

Early last year I wrote a post on ecology and mathematics that was inspired by an online discussion happening at the time. Although comprehensive advanced maths skills are not essential to being an influential or inspiring ecologist, a good level of mathematical knowledge and understanding of statistical analysis is definitely necessary to create honest science and communicate the importance of your work to others.

But it’s not just ecologists who need mathematical common sense. Anyone who deals with, or is interested in science needs to understand the ambiguity of an average, or the difference between a regression and a correlation. In fact, anyone who cares about the society they live in should be aware how deeply statistics and data now influence the way we live – policies and decisions on anything from what product choices you find in retail stores to how much tax you pay are all based on data.

Why does this matter to us? Well, if those data are a bit dodgy, or haven’t been analysed and presented appropriately, problems arise. And when these kinds of data misrepresentations are used to fuel public opinion or inform government policy, there can be serious impacts on communities, individuals and ecosystems. Continue reading

Nature is cooler than the Joneses

Have you noticed the wild flowers are becoming scarcer every year? It may be that their wise men have told them to depart till man becomes more human.

~ Okakura Kakuzō (1906) The Book of Tea

Nature doesn’t depend on Technology. There is not a single natural process or ecosystem that needs artificial technology to function or exist. But much of human society does rely on technology. It is surprising how much ‘artificial’ technologies are increasingly seen to be central to scientific research, by both scientists and non-scientists. This view is particularly mystifying in ecological science, which is arguably the least technological of the sciences.

In a 2010 critical review of using GPS telemetry in field biology/ecology research, Hebblewhite & Haydon ask “what insights into ecology and conservation has all this extra technology really provided us with?” The disadvantages they list outnumber the advantages and they reckon the strongest advantage is being able to collect data that aren’t biased by the human observer’s ability or presence – things like nocturnal animal behaviour, or migratory patterns. Fair enough…but we did collect information like that before the advent of technology. It just required much more patience, and therefore time, than we think we have now. It also often relied on traditional knowledge gathered from indigenous people or past civilisations, most of whom were much more connected to Nature than we are now. Continue reading

Scientific Evidence

Here’s an educational piece I had published on “scientific evidence” – that infamous term that so many politicians and corporations throw about, but so few actually explain to their audience! If someone tells us they have scientific evidence to back up their new product or proposed political decision, how can we trust the evidence they are referring to?

This piece aims to give a brief background on how research works, for those who aren’t familiar with the ins and outs of the industry. It also presents some questions to think about that may be of help to those wanting to check the facts themselves.

© Manu Saunders 2013

Science is not a corporate ladder

Public conversations conducted in the peer-reviewed literature recently indicate that many of the eco/biological concepts and terminology developed over recent decades have become lost in a minefield of public misunderstanding and policy pandering – often to the detriment of the causes they were intended for.

Catchphrases or concepts developed specifically to raise awareness about a particular issue, such as the keystone, umbrella and flagship species concepts (see Barua 2011), have been overused or misused in the public domain for too long. Some scientists now believe these concepts and catchphrases, developed for beneficial environmental outcomes, have the potential to negatively affect their relevant causes.  For example, recent comments highlight the over-emphasis of the “biodiversity” agenda, at the expense of recognising nature as a whole-earth ecosystem (Woodwell 2010); the mixed messages provided by recent studies apparently endorsing the biodiversity value of logged “degraded lands” – landscapes that were previously identified as biologically inhospitable in the literature (Didham 2011); and the potential for terminology from the field of restoration ecology to “create unrealistic expectations and perverse policy outcomes” (Hobbs et al. 2011).

To be fair, the science community is not solely to blame. Public misinterpretation of scientific concepts is fuelled mainly by scientifically illiterate journalists and limited general science education among the non-scientific public. These problems can be solved through changes to education curricula and social constructs, all of which are often beyond the realm of the scientist.

However, these comments raise the question: “Is Science being corporatised?” The answer appears to be “Yes”, with evidence shown partly from our own actions and partly from issues that are sometimes out of our control. Continue reading