Monday, October 22, 2012

Talking to the public about risk just got riskier!

6 Italian seismologists have just been found guilty of manslaughter in an Italian court (see New Scientist story). This is causing severe angst amongst science bloggers everywhere. However, it is important to keep in mind that they were not charged with failing to predict the L'Aquila quake. What they were charged with was failing to adequately communicate the risk. Some of the background suggests to me that the scientists involved weren't solely at fault with failing to communicate with the  public. Nonetheless, this should serve as warning to all of us involved in the business of communicating stochastic phenomena - the consequences can be severe. It's worth noting that engineers have had this sort of professional liability for decades, maybe centuries. Maybe its time we started following their lead on certifications and professional liability?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

It's who you are, not what you know

Writing in the New York Times opinion page law Professor Cass Sunstein had this to say
Here, then, is a lesson for all those who provide information. What matters most may be not what is said, but who, exactly, is saying it.
He was summing up his review of the effect of "biased assimilation" - the fact that people give more weight to information that matches up with their initial beliefs. Big implications for SDM approaches to structuring science for decision support, I think.

Hat tip to Paul Barret on the SDMCOP list for this link.

Friday, July 13, 2012

It's not about the science

A Scienceinsider piece reviews a new article in Bioscience on how the USFWS ignores scientific advice when making critical habitat designations. The commentary on the article by a number of authors shows clearly how ecologists are used to acting as "stealth issue advocates". As the statement from the USFWS indicates, it isn't about the science in the end. Sorry folks.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

A video post from the AMCS

Just as an experiment. The link to the Institute for computational sustainability in the video doesn't work, so click here.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Wildlife Services pushes back

A few weeks ago I pulled apart the letter from the American Society of Mammologists to Wildlife Services asking them to redirect their efforts. At the time, I concluded it was pure stealth issue advocacy on the part of ASM. Now a response from Wildlife Services has been brought to my attention. It appears to strike a fairly balanced tone, pointing out factual inaccuracies and providing some larger context to the big numbers in the ASM letter. Notable by their absence however are any citations to work demonstrating the efficacy of predator control operations of any sort.
I've been a bit intrigued by the whole coyote/sheep damage thing, and have been rooting around looking for peer-reviewed science on the issue. Yesterday I came across a special issue in Journal of Wildlife Management from 1972. A couple of quotes that together warmed my heart:

"... the application of what we know is limited by the accepted sociopolitical, economic framework or climate."
Jack Berryman , JWM 36, 395-400

"I cannot agree with Berryman (1972) that we have better scientific knowledge and data than we can apply because of social and political pressures."
Maurice Hornocker, JWM 36, 401-404

Berryman's point was that we knew enough to solve the problems scientifically - what was needed was a rethink of how society governs predators, not more science. Hornocker disagreed, and then goes on to say that  not only do we need more science but we need to communicate it better ... oh, where have I heard that refrain before? Reluctantly, I conclude that we have learned almost nothing in 40 years. We have more science on coyotes being ignored in the political debate than ever before. It is more available than ever before - a Google Scholar search turned up dozens of scientific articles on coyotes and coyote control, many available free as full-text. And yet it is not being used. Why? Because its political. Berryman had it right in 1972. 

AM in the Grand Canyon

Yesterday the Department of Interior announced 2 new plans for actions on the Grand Canyon through 2020. What's interesting about these plans is that they codify some adaptive management based actions. The first focuses on creating a framework to allow the testing of duration and height of pulse flows, while the second focuses on actions specifically intended to benefit native fish populations while respecting native American perspectives. The Grand Canyon is an interesting case study for AM because of its size and scope. These two action plans come from different intellectual backgrounds as well - the flow plan started out as Experimental Resilience AM way back, and the native fish plan emerged from a structured decision making process led by Mike Runge (I suspect it is the same plan). Comparing these two plans and how they play out over the next few years would be instructive.

Monday, May 7, 2012

AM and the courts

No study has comprehensively explored and extracted lessons from what likely matters significantly to the natural resource agencies practicing adaptive management—how is it faring in the courts?
This is how Ruhl and Fischmann kick off their 2010 article in Minnesota Law Review on Adaptive management in the courts. They give a brief introduction into the theory of AM, focusing pretty much exclusively on the historical source of the "Experimental Resilience" school. They then give a very useful review of the regulations and agencies that at least purport to use AM. I was surprised to find out that the USACE requires adaptive management as part of the 404 permitting process. However, they conclude that agency implementation of AM "... has descended into a vague promise of future adjustments without clear standards." They do speak relatively highly of the Department of Interior's technical guide, but even that is regarded as an inadequate and vague standard. Ouch.
They then searched for court cases that involved adaptive management in some form. As of May 2010, they found "...thirty-one federal court decisions do grapple with the legality of adaptive management." However, they also found that "[t]he United States lost more than half of these cases, a poor record given the deference accorded to agencies under administrative law." OUCH. They take great care to point out that the courts seem really interested in AM, but generally find it lacking, particularly in meeting "substantive legal criteria". In addition, they point out that just because an agency wins a court case involving AM doesn't imply that the AM plan in question is good. All it means is that the court couldn't find any violations of substantive legal requirements.
The biggest problem they find is a disconnect between the "predict decide implement" model assumed by administrative law, in particular the National Environmental Protection Act, and the iterative model underlying AM. Ruhl and Fischmann describe AM as "twiddling a dial", while NEPA and administrative law require "throwing a switch". I like this imagery. In the end they conclude that as long as the dial twiddling process is well described prior to throwing the switch, AM is compatible with administrative law. The key is specificity: "...[t]he lessons for an agency embarking on a/m-lite require it to restrain its enthusiasm for discretion: the plan must be as detailed as practical."
For example, in the Missouri River AM plan for restoring emergent sandbar habitat, the possible range of restoration actions are laid out quite explicitly as alternatives in the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, where each alternative represents a different targeted level of emergent sandbar habitat on the system. In addition, the AM strategy specifies how often recommendations will be made to shift to different habitat targets (see pg. 24). It does not specify the degree of certainty for not meeting a target before the shift will be recommended. I tried, is all I can say! The whole ESH PEIS is a good example of the strategy of "tiering" site specific projects off of a programmatic EIS that is recommended by Ruhl and Fischmann.
This specificity is also the cure to another problem Ruhl and Fischmann raise about getting buy in from the public and regulated interests. "Private regulated interests have expressed concerns about the capacity of adaptive management to add continually to the conditions imposed by resource development authorizations
without the security of finality." Specificity in the plan at least limits the scope of AM adaptation that can be carried out without additional public input.
They have some points for Congress too. An interesting idea is that the appropriations process should be modified to allow purchase of annuities that would provide funding guarantees over longer spans of time. In addition, "Congress should explicitly require adaptive management plans to (1) clearly articulate measurable goals, (2) identify testable hypotheses (or some other method of structured learning from conceptual models), and (3) state exactly what criteria should apply in evaluating the management experiments." Other than feeling a bit of distaste towards the idea that experiments should be required, I think these things would be great. They conclude however, that "adaptive management in practice would remain a somewhat grotesque hybrid of conservation policy’s complexity theory and modern administrative law’s approach
to pluralism and finality." I like the idea of a grotesque hybrid - I want to use that phrase in a paper sometime.
At the end they sort of go a bit off the rails on the benefit of AM to climate change policy, but leaving that aside I like their conclusion:
Our assessment of adaptive management in the courts suggests there is a good model in place. If agencies follow it and courts enforce it faithfully, it may serve as a potent component of climate change policy notwithstanding its flaws.