Saturday, May 24, 2014

Capacity focus, 87: natural resources and hazards management -- the "Science sez" question vs the problem of known and unknown unknowns . . .

Management and decision-making concerns over natural resources, hazards and sustainability of development typically pivot on or are influenced by findings of or issues regarding science.

That means, that "Science sez" is  a major point of contention on these issues, in many possible ways. Which means that capacity building for sound management of natural resources and hazards in the Caribbean will have to address questions regarding specific findings, analysis and claims of science and the wider issues of science, worldviews and society.

Multiply by the ways in which these issues can intersect with economic questions and benefits/costs and social concerns, as well as interactions and gaps or fallibility in our knowledge and the matter easily becomes a deeply tangled or even daunting thicket.

A simple first step is to borrow again from the UN's FAO, a simple model for how the diverse factors relevant to living and working in an environment interact and challenge decision makers:

1--> Just by living and working, much less doing the range of activities we associate with a modern Caribbean lifestyle and economy, we put stresses on our environment, draw resources from it and run risks. 

2 --> Just think: pick and eat a mango (which is an imported food plant), drink some water, drive down the road in a car, build a factory, run it, generate electricity, draw water to run the public water supply, and so on and so forth. All, draw resources from and stress the environment.

3 --> So, the real issue is the balance between the stresses and resource draws, and the carrying capacity of the environment. Now, and in the long run. All of which, we at best only partially know and understand.

4 --> Closely linked, this month is May. Hurricane season looms, with all the hazards and risks that entails; with the likelihood that any given area will be hit hard once per generation, or more -- with relatively minor hits between. (BTW, over in much of the Pacific, they don't have a cyclone season, storms can happen any time.)

5 -->  Then, there is the debate over climate hazards and trends, and the degree to which we contribute to it, with questions on the long term reliability of computer simulation models. Multiplied by the extent to which we can make a difference to the trend lines, at what economic and/or social cost and more.

6 --> Where, on this debate, one side often says, there is no debate, there is a consensus of the science, it is irresponsible denialism  to ignore it; the other typically questions the degree to which we really understand, are able to get credible trend lines, and to what extent changes and trends are or can be human induced or human controlled. Some skeptics -- and remember, a significant fraction of these are qualified in relevant areas -- go so far as to raise questions on  "junk science"  or at least over-confidence and material error in certain aspects of the "consensus" view. (So far as I gather, that question addresses things such as Mann's "hockey stick" graph, in light of the Medieval warm period, the little ice age of a few centuries past, timing of recent rises and falls in temperature relative to CO2 emissions, adjustments to trend line values, the quality of some underlying weather station data, and longer term proxies for measured temperature, etc.)

7 --> Nor is this just on climate trends, when the volcanic eruption was in full swing here in Montserrat and for years after while it seemed likely to surge back up, there were contentious debates over what was likely to happen and over what should be done to reduce risks etc. Who was over-panicky, who was complacent, the degree to which the public was properly and promptly informed, what was going on behind proverbially closed doors and more are all relevant concerns.

 8 --> So, as we look at issues we frequently come to the challenge, "Science sez."

9 --> Should we simply hand over decision making to experts in lab coats? Is "scientific consensus" a good index of truth or soundness? 

10 --> What is it that:
(a) we know we know . . . to what degree of confidence or assurance on what grounds -- Mr Donald Rumsfeld's known knowns
(b) we know we don't know -- Rumsfeld's known unknowns
(c) we don't even know that we don't know -- Rumsfeld's unknown unknowns?
. . . BTW, it may be worth watching the pivotal moment:

(Cf. some further discussions here and here. And nope, despite a recent movie's title the idea of "unknown knowns" is both confusingly superfluous and self-contradictorily wrong. For, you will have to meet the condition of a reliable or tested and responsible warrant, in order to actually know something. That is, if you do not have well-warranted . . . i.e. reliable or tested and responsibly held . . . credibly true belief, you do not know; though you may suspect or accept or assume. And this holds, even in cases where we use "know" in the weak, fallible sense: reliable or tested, and responsibly held belief which is however subject to adjustment or correction. As, is true of most of science and many common sense knowledge claims.  If you only think you know when you really don't -- i.e. you don't have responsibly good, reliable warrant for your claims -- that is obviously at most an unknown unknown mistaken for something that is known. Of course, there are other types of unknown unknowns, such as an out of the blue sky surprise.)
11 --> Closely linked, given the 30 x 30 = 900 direct interactions that we can easily identify through a matrix based on:

. . . what are the onward interaction effects of these stresses, risks, knowns and unknowns that should affect our thinking?

12 --> Are we dealing with stable, well damped systems that will be predictable, or things liable to break into oscillations or to snap and precipitate unpredictable . . . possibly catastrophic . . . new situations (as in what happens when the branch on which we are sitting snaps and suddenly drops us towards the ground)?

13 --> Very soon, we see that we need a significant understanding about the forces, factors, trends, possible changes and more in our environment, bio-physical, socio-cultural and economic.

14 --> Scientific investigations can at least help us with the biophysical factors, and can contribute to the other two.

15 --> But immediately, this raises issues as to what we know and don't know, and where the risks of ignorance (known and unknown) lie, as well as raising similar issues on whether or to what degree there may be things we think we know but are in error about -- an especially nasty form of unknown unknowns.

16  --> Consequently, scientific investigations, research, analysis and findings can be very important guides for sound natural resources and hazards management.

17 --> But that immediately leads to, what is science,and how do we tell good science from bad?

18 -->Another thorny issue, as there is no one- size- fits- all, generally acceptable definition of science or its methods, nor does the degree of warrant available for some types of scientific claims allow us to be complacent about or dismissive towards the possibility of significant errors or gaps being in our body of knowledge.

19 --> In turn, that points to the ethical questions of responsibility and prudence: where does the benefit of the doubt or possibility of error properly lie?

20 --> To get a basic understanding of science, we can first identify what it tries to do: accurately describe, coherently explain, reliably predict and support the control or at least influencing of natural objects, events, processes etc.

21 --> In basic terms, its methods can be summed up as "O, HI PET":
O  -- OBSERVE (and describe)  objects, events, processes, etc

H -- HYPOTHESISE about patterns, principles, candidate laws, also models or theories

IP -- INFER & PREDICT what will happen in new situations if such patterns hold reliably

ET -- EMPIRICALLY TEST to see how reliably the hyps hold
22 --> From this, we can give a "basic" extended generic definition that hopefully will not come in for too many objections:
SCIENCE: the unfettered — but ethically and intellectually responsible — progressive, observational evidence-led pursuit of the truth about our world (i.e. an accurate and reliable description and explanation of it), which is based on:
a: collecting, recording, indexing, collating and reporting accurate, reliable (and where feasible, repeatable) empirical -- real-world, on the ground -- observations and measurements,
b: inference to best current -- thus, always provisional explanations of the observed facts,

c: thus producing hypotheses, laws, theories and models, using  logical and mathematical analysis, intuition and creative, rational imagination [including thought experiments],

d: continual empirical testing through further experiments, observations and measurement; and,

e: uncensored but mutually respectful discussion on the merits of fact, alternative assumptions and logic among the informed.
23 --> Obviously, the process is not infallible, and we must be particularly careful to distinguish facts of observation from explanations and suggested laws etc that try to fit them together in a reasonable pattern. For instance, we simply were not there to observe the remote past so the reconstructions we make based on its traces must not be equated to the actual past, however confident scientists may be about their models.

24 --> Next, scientific investigations and analysis at any given time are limited by the state of the art, usually take considerable effort, may be quite expensive, and typically will not tell decision makers everything they would like to know.

25 --> And, that is before we get to the gap between highly nuanced delicately balanced technical discussions among the informed and expert (which is often conducted in highly technical and typically mathematically driven jargon) and summary findings and briefings for policy makers and popular reports for the general public.

26 --> In turn, we must face the issue of emergent fields, diverse views and schools of thought, ideological imposition on science, and the presentation to decision-makers and the public of a misleading "consensus view" that either suppresses significant alternative views, risks and uncertainties or projects an unwarranted degree of certainty regarding the dominant school of thought.

27 --> Sometimes, there is even coded communication among an in-group in the technical literature, on the assumption that certain things need not be said as qualifications . . .  as "everyone" who counts already knows them, and those who don't will not be attending to the materials anyway . . . leading to an implicit conspiracy of silence or "trade secrets."

29 --> Linked to this, can be suppression of access to underlying data, assumptions and statements regarding material limitations in models etc.

30 --> None of this is healthy; some is dangerous and unethical, especially when policy has to be based on technical information and advice of technical experts. Or, when trusting people are looking for reliable information or to be soundly educated by relevant experts.

31 --> In short, we must beware that "Science sez" may be less than take-it-to-the-bank reliable, and in some cases may unfortunately become little more than a cover for ideological manipulation. (The "Scientific" racism of a past generation that saw black people as less evolutionarily advanced so inferior is a sad classic in point. Some awful things were done to perceived racial inferiors, and too much of it was dressed up in lab coats and doctor's coats.)

32 --> A wiser approach would be to try to capture the range of credible, qualified scientific opinion, and to act in light of prudence and a conscious ethical decision as to which side would be wiser to err on. 

33 --> So, a majority view, concurring views and dissenting views can be recorded and communicated to decision makers, and to the public; preferably with some estimate of odds where outcomes may be more or less probable, depending.

A typical C1 Roman Merchant ship
34 --> As a classic "simple" case study, we can consider the situation in Fair Havens sometime about the middle of October 59 AD on that fateful ship. It was desired to sail out to a better and more comfortable port down the coast, after many delays and opposed winds. But, the concern was, it was getting close to the time when the first winter storms could hit, with potentially lethal consequences.

35 --> What if, the Centurion had identified a range of informed, experienced opinion, and then got them to estimate odds on reasonably possible outcomes, maybe by comparison with the odds for tossing a pair of dice or the like . . . perhaps, constructing a "payoff table" for playing a "game" against nature:

36 --> We could identify three reasonably possible "moves" by nature, and say assign 1/3 to each, then adjust. Let's say, the odds of good weather then bad . . . state 3 . . . are like 1/6, and that good weather is more likely, so we now have states of the world: 1: 3/6, 2: 2/6, 3: 1/6.  (This can be at least crudely estimated by getting a picture of when the first winter storm is likely to come up.)

37 --> Now, let us rephrase the decision: With life and fortune on the line, would you willingly load one cylinder of a six-shooter, and spin the cylinder, then put to the head and pull the trigger, hoping to get a bit more comfortable or to win a bonus?  (Late wheat cargoes at Rome were given a bonus.) Of course, I have just described a version of Russian Roulette, a proverbially dangerous, foolish and illegal gambling "game."

38 --> Stated that starkly, the answer is obviously, no. And yet 276 reasonably intelligent and rational people, hearing the issue of the risk being run, went ahead with folly and it was only the grace of God that they only lost fortune, not life.

39 --> As an extension of the "game" we can consider short term and longer term consequences based on how our decisions intersect with the possible states of nature. Indeed, the pivot of sustainable development decision-making is to project to the future on "business as usual" vs. "alternative" approaches, and to bring to bear the range of stakeholders so we can get a better idea of overall costs and benefits across the society:

40 --> So, now we can come full circle, carrying out a scientifically informed analysis of the activities in our community and proposed developments, and how they interact with our environment, stressing it and drawing on resources. Then, we can think in terms of hazards and risks, as well as resource exhaustion. Assigning odds, we can then think about likely outcomes of BAU and ALT paths, then motivate sustainable development strategies.

41 --> In that analysis, when we turn to experts and panels (including scientific panels), we need to carefully factor in the limitations of what they say, and the issues such as: 
  • Are we hearing all the material factors we need to hear? 
  • Are we running risks we ought not to?  
  • Do we have to make a decision and act "now," or can we buy some time to find out more information at a reasonable cost relative to costs and benefits/ consequences and trends in the situation?
  • What are the possible costs and benefits of delay or inaction or continuing to do "business as usual"?
  • Are we stressing the environment in dangerous, potentially catastrophic ways? 
  • Are we draining resources that other creatures depend on or that our children will need, in ways that may be destructive? 
  • Are we missing out "black swan" events . . . of low probability, but with highly damaging impact . . . that could turn our decision into a Russian Roulette game with a loaded revolver? 
  • Are we too sharply discounting long term consequences? 
  • Are we dismissing impacts on the marginalised, the poor, the voiceless? 
  • What about precedents we set, are we setting out on a slippery, crumbling slope near a cliff edge? 
  • And, more . . .

The bottom-line is, like it or not, we ARE playing a game with nature. That means we need to take time and make the reasonable effort and investment to have a good grasp of the range of realistic possibilities and outcomes, while bearing in mind the sustainability challenge to better and more fairly meet our needs today without compromising the ability of our children to meet their needs tomorrow.

So, let us be prudent in listening to scientific advice in managing natural resources and hazards, not fool-hardy or gullible. END