Uncommon Ground

Environment

Presenting science to the public in a post-truth era – implications for public policy

Last Friday I attended a very interesting symposium entitled Presenting science to the public in a post-truth era and jointly sponsored by the Science of Learning & Art of Communication1 and the University of Connecticut Humanities Institute, more specifically its project on Humility & Conviction in Public Life.2 The speakers – Åsa Wikforss (Stockholm University), Tali Sharot (University College London), and Michael Lynch (UConn) – argued that the primary function3 of posts on social media is to express emotion, not to impart information, that not only are we more likely to accept new evidence that confirms what we already believe than new evidence that contradicts it, and that knowledge resistance often arises because we resist the consequences that would follow from believing the evidence presented to us.

I can’t claim expertise in the factors influencing whether people accept or reject the evidence for climate change, but Merchants of Doubt makes a compelling case that the resistance among some prominent doubters arises because they believe that accepting the evidence that climate change is happening and the humans are primarily responsible will require massive changes in our economic system and, quite possibly, severe limits on individual liberty. In other words, the case Oreskes and Conway make in Merchants of Doubt is consistent with a form of knowledge resistance in which the evidence for human-caused climate change is resisted because of the consequences accepting that evidence would have. It also illustrates a point I do my best to drive home when I teach my course in conservation biology.

As scientists, we discover empirical facts about the world, e.g., CO2 emissions have increased the atmospheric concentration of CO2 far above pre-industrial levels and much of the associated increase in global average temperature is a result of those emissions. Too often, though, we proceed immediately from discovering those empirical facts to concluding that particular policy choices are necessary. We think, for example, that because CO2 emissions are causing changes in global climate we must therefore reduce or eliminate CO2 emissions. There is, however, a step in the logic that’s missing.

To conclude that we must reduce or eliminate CO2 emissions we must first decide that the climate changes associated with increasing CO2 emissions are bad things that we should avoid. It may seem obvious that they are. After all, how could flooding of major metropolitan areas and the elimination of low-lying Pacific Island nations be a good thing? They aren’t. But avoiding them isn’t free. It involves choices. We can spend some amount of money now to avoid those consequences, we can spend money later when the threats are more imminent, or we can let the people who live in those place move out of the way when the time comes. I’m sure you can think of some other choices, too. Even if those three are the only choices, the empirical data alone don’t tell us which one to pick. The choice depends on what kind of world we want to live in. It is a choice based on moral or ethical values. The empirical evidence must inform our choice among the alternatives, but it isn’t sufficient to determinethe choice.

Perhaps the biggest challenge we face in developing a response to climate change is that emotions are so deeply engaged on both sides of the debate that we cannot agree on the empirical facts. A debate that should be played out in the realm of “What kind of world do we want to live in? What values are most important?” Is instead played out in the realm of tribal loyalty.

The limits to knowledge Wikforss, Sharot, and Lynch identified represent real, important barriers to progress. But overcoming knowledge resistance, in particular, seems more likely if we remember that translating knowledge to action requires applying our values. When we are communicating science that means either stopping at the point where empirical evidence ends and application of values begins or making it clear that science ends with the empirical evidence and that our recommendation for action derives from our values.4

  1. A training grant funded through the National Science Foundation Research Traineeship (NRT) Program
  2. Funded by the John Templeton Foundation (story in UConn Today).
  3. Note: Lynch used the phrase “primary function” in a technical, philosophical sense inspired by Ruth Milliken’s idea of a “proper function,” but the plain sense of the phrase conveys its basic meaning.
  4. In the real world it may sometimes, perhaps even often, be difficult to make a clean distinction between the realm of empirical research and the realm of ethical values. Distinguishing between them to the extent possible is still valuable, and it is even more valuable to be honest about the ways in which your personal values influence any actions you recommend.

Proposed revisions to US Endangered Species Act regulations

On Monday I pointed out that the US Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Marine Service planned to propose revisions to regulations that affect how the Endangered Species Act is implemented. The proposed changes were published in the Federal Register today. There are three sets of changes. Here are links and the accompanying summary for each:

We, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) (collectively referred to as the “Services” or “we”), propose to revise portions of our regulations that implement section 4 of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, as amended (Act). The proposed revisions to the regulations clarify, interpret, and implement portions of the Act concerning the procedures and criteria used for listing or removing species from the Lists of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants and designating critical habitat. We also propose to make multiple technical revisions to update existing sections or to refer appropriately to other sections. https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2018/07/25/2018-15810/endangered-and-threatened-wildlife-and-plants-revision-of-the-regulations-for-listing-species-and

We, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, propose to revise our regulations extending most of the prohibitions for activities involving endangered species to threatened species. For species already listed as a threatened species, the proposed regulations would not alter the applicable prohibitions. The proposed regulations would require the Service, pursuant to section 4(d) of the Endangered Species Act, to determine what, if any, protective regulations are appropriate for species that the Service in the future determines to be threatened. https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2018/07/25/2018-15811/endangered-and-threatened-wildlife-and-plants-revision-of-the-regulations-for-prohibitions-to

We, FWS and NMFS (collectively referred to as the “Services” or “we”), propose to amend portions of our regulations that implement section 7 of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, as amended. The Services are proposing these changes to improve and clarify the interagency consultation processes and make them more efficient and consistent. https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2018/07/25/2018-15812/endangered-and-threatened-wildlife-and-plants-revision-of-regulations-for-interagency-cooperation

The period for public comment ends on 24 September 2018.

Proposed revisions to regulations implementing the US Endangered Species Act

The US Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service are charged with implementing the US Endangered Species Act. On Wednesday, they will publish three proposed rules in the Federal Register that modify existing regulations by which they implement the act. The proposed rules deal specifically with

  • Criteria for listing of species as endangered or threatened and for designation of critical habitat,
  • Aligning the way in which protections to threatened species are applied between USFWS and NMFS, and
  • Changing requirements and procedures associated with interagency cooperation on activities that affect endangered species.

If you are interested in how the Endangered Species Act is implemented in the United States, I urge you to read the proposed changes. If you want to comment on them, you have two options (on or after Wednesday, 25 July):

  1. Go to the Federal eRulemaking Portal (http://www.regulations.gov), enter FWS-HQ-ES-2018-0006 in the search box, click on the “Proposed Rules” link, click on “Comment Now!”, and submit your comment.
  2. Deliver a hard copy of you comments by US mail or hand delivery to
    • Public Comments Processing, Attn: FWS–HQ–ES–2018–0006; U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, MS: BPHC, 5275 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, VA 22041–3803
    • National Marine Fisheries Service, Office of Protected Resources, 1315 East West Highway, Silver Spring, MD 20910.

If you submit comments, they will be posted at http://www.regulations.gov.

I expect to review the proposed changes over the next few weeks and to post my comments on each of the proposals here. Then I’ll collect them into a single comment and post them at http://www.regulations.gov. If you read my comments and disagree, please explain how and why you disagree in the comments. Your comments will make my the comments I share with USFWS and NMFS much better.

Saturday afternoon at Trail Wood

OK. This is mildly embarrassing. I moved to Connecticut in 1986, I was one of the co-founders of the Edwin Way Teale Lecture Series on Nature and the Environment in 1996, I’ve read A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm at least half a dozen times, and Trail Wood is less than 30 miles (40 minutes) from my home in Coventry, but it wasn’t until Saturday that I finally visited. It won’t be the last time. I expect to return once or twice a year to the Beaver Pond Trail, to cross Starfield and Firefly Meadow, and to visit the Summerhouse and Writing Cabin.

Black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta) photographed at Trail Wood

A nice patch of black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta) greeted me near the parking area, which is just a short walk from the house at Trail Brook. Rather than following Veery Lane, I turned left and followed the path through Firefly Meadow towards the small pond.

Edwin Way Teale’s writing cabin at Trail Wood

The Writing Cabin is on the southwest shore of the pond. I turned right and followed the northeast shore to Summerhouse. From there I followed a path along the stone wall bordering Woodcock Pasture until it met the Shagbark Hickory Trail.

Spotted wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) photographed at Trail Wood

I found spotted wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) along the Shagbark Hickory Trail , which I followed to the Old Colonial Road. From their I followed the Beaver Pond Trail to the edge of the pond.

Beaver Pond at Trail Wood

After sitting for a while on a nice bench at the south end of the pond, I backtracked on the Beaver Pond Trail and followed the Fern Brook trail through Starfield back to the house and then to the parking area. The whole walk was less than a mile and a half, and the total elevation gain was only 55 feet. It was definitely an easy walk, not a hike, but it was very pleasant, and it was nice to spend time on the old farm where Teale spent so much of his time.

So to anyone from UConn (or nearby) who reads this and hasn’t been to Trail Wood yet, take a couple of hours some afternoon, drive to Hampton, and explore. Trail Wood is easy to find, and it’s open from dawn to dusk. It’s a gem in our own backyard. And if you haven’t read A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm, do it now. You’ll enjoy your visit to Trail Wood even more if you do.

Climate change and Pelargonium in South Africa

For more than a decade my colleagues Margaret Rubega and Bob Wyss have co-taught a course to graduate students in science and engineering and undergraduates in Journalism.1 The purpose of the course is to help science students improve their skills in working with journalists and to help journalist increase their skills in interviewing scientists and developing stories from those interviews. One of the projects in this fall’s edition of the course was for the journalism students to interview one of the science graduate students and produce a short video describing the student’s research. Daniela Doncel interviewed Tanisha Williams, a PhD student in EEB whom I co-advise with Carl Schlichting. In addition to interviewing Tanisha, Daniela also interviewed Cindi Jones and me. She assembled a video that explains Tanisha’s work very well. I think Daniela did a very nice job of weaving the disparate interviews into a compelling story, and I think the video looks very good (even though it has me in it). I hope that you agree.

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Rediscovering Adonis cyllenea

Adonis cyllenea

Adonis cyllenea – Photographed at the 8th International Alpine Conference, Nottingham, UK. Photo by Todd Boland (from the North American Rock Garden Society)

Adonis cyllenea was described in 1856 from a specimen collected in the Peloponnese Mountains of Greece (http://bit.ly/2xgG1lS). It was thought to be extinct in the wild until 1976 when it was rediscovered (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adonis_cyllenea). It was recorded in the Giresun province of Turkey in 1867 and was just rediscovered there (http://bit.ly/2vfDPcO). Occasionally, there is good news about plants that were thought to be extinct. Mostly when they disappear, they are gone for good.

Discussing privilege in environmental conservation

I last taught my graduate course in conservation biology in Fall 2015. Holly Brown, my teaching assistant in the course, had to fill in for me a couple of times because of commitments that took me out of town. She designed a creative and powerful exercise for one of the times I was out of town. In written evaluations of the course, almost every student reported that it was eye opening and, quite possibly, the most useful exercise in the course. What was this creative and powerful exercise? Holly’s version of a privilege walk. If you don’t know what that is or you want to know how she used a privilege walk in the context of conservation or both, it’s your lucky day. A paper describing the exercise recently appeared in Conservation Biology. Here’s the citation and a link.

Brown, H.M., A. Kamath, and M. Rubega.  2017.  Facilitating discussions about privilege among future conservation practitioners. Conservation Biology 31:727-730.  doi: 10.1111/cobi.12810

Science, doubt, and the need for action

From Merchants of Doubt, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway:

All scientific work is incomplete—whether it be observational or experimental. All scientific work is liable to be upset or modified by advancing knowledge. That does not confer upon us a freedom to ignore the knowledge we already have, to postpone action that it appears to demand at a given time. Who knows, asks Robert Browning, but the world may end tonight? True, but on available evidence most of us make ready to commute on the 8:30 next day.

“A demand for scientific proof is always a formula for inaction and delay, and usually the first reaction of the guilty. The proper basis for such decisions is, of course, quite simply that which is reasonable in the circumstances.” Or as Bill Nierenberg put it in a candid moment, “You just know in your heart that you can’t throw 25 million tons a year of sulfates into the Northeast and not expect some … consequences.”

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A thought on science and public policy

From Merchants of Doubt, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway:

if science is about studying the world as it actually is—rather than as we wish it to be—then science will always have the potential to unsettle the status quo. As an independent source of authority and knowledge, science has always had the capacity to challenge ruling powers’ ability to control people by controlling their beliefs. Indeed, it has the power to challenge anyone who wishes to preserve, protect, or defend the status quo.

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