Tag Archives: uncertainty

Revisiting Uncertainty in Science After a Week of Reading Michael Crichton

Image Credit: Jurassic Park/Congo, 1993/1995

The topic of uncertainty in science fascinates me. Whilst like many scientists, I am constantly befuddled at the lack of trust in science by large swathes of the public, I’m equally troubled by the belief that science can provide all the answers to the world’s questions in a clean, timely fashion. The inherent uncertainty in the scientific method can make it frustrating for people who just want a nice clean answer to a problem, and instead get a rambling series of non-committal suggestions referencing likely outcomes and confidence intervals. We’re trained to think in uncertainties, but they’re difficult to communicate to a world whose faith in science seems to be wavering already.

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Policy for the Masses: Thoughts from a Day with IPBES

Bill Sutherland was one of two keynote speakers in last week’s seminar on biodiversity and ecosystem services (Image Credit: Øystein Kielland, NTNU University Museum, CC BY 2.0)

I’ve been on a bit of a policy trip lately. The latest Norwegian Ecological Society conference was heavily policy based, so much so that it inspired me to get in touch and set up a meeting with local freshwater managers in a country in which I do not speak the local language. So when the CBD hosted a one-day seminar on the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (mercifully usually referred to only as IPBES) rolled into town, I was right on board.

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Ecology in Media: Thoughts, Questions and the Insect Apocalypse

Recent reports of collapses in insect populations were eagerly devoured online. But were the reports exaggerations, and if so, how did they make it into the headlines? (Image Credit: Barta IV, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped)

Two weeks ago, an article on the Insect Apocalypse hit my Facebook feed. It popped up everywhere. People seemed genuinely concerned about the plight of the world’s insects, which was a first for me.

An hour later I was sitting at a conference seminar in which the speaker bemoaned the poor data that had contributed to the key statistic in the article: that biomass of flying insects had decreased by 75% over the last 27 years. The methods used in the report apparently show huge bias towards large bodied species, which may have exaggerated the findings significantly. So here lies our quandary. Read more

The Concept of Certainty in Ecological Science

Image Credit: qimono, Pixabay licence, Image Cropped

Go through any scientific paper and you’ll find it littered with uncertainty. Scientists qualify parameters, give standard errors, make way for random processes even when experiments have been planned to the finest detail. Even when we get the answers we want, we provide alternative explanations that fly in the face of the assumptions we’re trying to test. Honestly, sometimes it seems like we don’t really ‘know’ anything.

I’ve written about our reluctance to declare that we know things in science before, but here I want to try and answer a couple of questions. Why is uncertainty such a crucial part of science? How does this affect the non-scientific public’s perception of science? And does this relationship with knowledge need to change in the future?

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The Problem With ‘Carpageddon’

The Australian government has been throwing around the term Carpageddon for a while now. So why is it a problem?

The Australian government has been throwing around the term Carpageddon for a while now. So why is it a problem? (Image Credit: Ed Dunens, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped)

I think it’s fair to say that Australian politics can be guilty of a flair for the dramatic from time to time. From the recent spill crisis, to the name-calling that abounds in parliamentary displays, to Bob Katter announcing that he wasn’t wasting time on the marriage equality debate because “every three months a person is torn to pieces by a crocodile in Northern Queensland”, Auspol enjoys the sensational. So when they heard about plans to release a virus into Australian waterways to deal with Australia’s persistent carp problem, of course they named it ‘Carpageddon’. But is this in any way an appropriate title? And why is it such a problem that we use this sort of language to sell scientific endeavours?

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Avoiding “We Told You So”: An Appeal for the Reframing of Scientific Communication

The image of the lone polar bear has become almost ubiquitous in step with growing awareness of climate change. So why hasn’t the scientific community been able to convince the world to act accordingly? (Image Credit: cocoparisienne, Pixabay license, Image Cropped)

During the late 1970s, in the wake of intense scientific research showing that chlorofluorocarbons were leading to the depletion of the ozone layer, the world took action. By 1987, the world had seen the signing of the Montreal Treaty, which practically banned the use of CFCs, imposing significant economic costs on those who signed. Since then, the hole in the Ozone layer has retreated. It’s a powerful example of science identifying a problem, finding a solution, and then presenting both the urgency of both to the public. Scientific communication at its best, surely. So with recent steps backward in environmental conservation law worldwide, despite almost global consensus on the negative impact of well-studied worldwide environmental phenomena, is science communication no longer as effective?

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