The Data Speak

Part 1 of 3 in the Series “Get to know your fry-entists”

It is impossible for a biologist, ecologist, environmental scientist not to think about conservation. The problems our planet is facing are so concrete, so quantifiable, so visible that to ignore them would be to betray the very thing we’ve dedicated our lives to studying. I always chuckle when scientists are portrayed as cold, calculating, and heartless, when the truth is that they’re more committed to understanding their system than any one else. Science is a labor of passion and scientists dig deeply into the inner workings of their world.

Alviniconcha and Ifremeria - two of my study organisms tattooed on my back

So when someone says we don’t care about something, just because we have a more analytical view of how it works, or doesn’t work, I get angry.

There is a flip side to that though, with passion must come temperance. As scientists we are positioned to understand how the world works, but that is not all of science. Unless your discoveries are communicated to society, they mean nothing. In an ideal world, nobody owns knowledge, information is the property of the whole of human society. But this is not an ideal world, and it is up to everyone who does science (and that really is almost everybody) to make sure they disseminate their knowledge to the rest of the world.

So what happens when your knowledge is loaded with the political baggage that is fundamentally and irreversibly associated with conservation biology? Do you trust the data of a climatologist more if they’re active advocates of global warming or temperate, objective observers saying “this is how the system is changing”? On the flip side, do you trust a climatologist who says global warming isn’t happening? Can biased observers give unbiased data?

The answer is yes, but with caveats. An ecologist who’s ravenously opposed to drilling in ANWAR is going to be biased in the same way that someone well paid by a pharmaceutical company is biased. They may be totally objective, doing good, robust science, or they may not, but I would approach either data set with the same level of skepticism and caution. And a policymaker, not well versed in scientific literature, would probably be more skeptical (or less if they agree with the researcher) than I.

So there’s a delicate line that must be tread. On one hand we are deeply passionate about our research, on the other hand, in order to get the best conservation results, we have to present the best objective unbiased data. Conservation asks the questions, but rigorous, critical, unbiased science has the best chance of yielding meaningful results. That means that the best conservation biologists will try their hardest to prove themselves wrong. If you’re looking at a system on the verge of collapse, you’re methods must show that you went out of your way to test the hypothesis that the system is stable, and your data needs to show unequivocally  that you could not confirm that hypothesis.

I’m deeply embedded in conservation biology, yet you’ve never heard me advocate within my field precisely for these reasons. My role is to asks questions about the system, figure out how changes, both natural and man-made will affect it, and report the data. The data speaks while the scientist remains silent. That is the only way managers can trust the desicions they make.

So how can a scientist be an advocate? How can we further conservation goals if we remove ourselves from them? We are advocates of Science. Our duty is to make sure people have access to information, can analyze and interpret it for themselves, and are equipped to make those management decisions. We have to ensure that policy makers can see through the deception of global-warming denialists, anti-vaccinationist, creationist, and make those calls. Our highest commitment is to education, everything else flows from that.

Without science advocates fighting for education, bringing science into the public eye, and taking bad science to task, we can’t make good management and conservation decisions. There would be no movement to slow global warming without convincing data. Without rigorous analysis there would be no evidence for ocean acidification. Without the predictive power of unbiased, objective science we can’t anticipate problems and search for solution until it is too late.

~Southern Fried Scientist

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