Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Is anything new under the sun?

I was just re-reading Carl Walter's 1997 article "Challenges in adaptive management of riparian and coastal ecosystems", and I was struck that so many of the issues that he raised there still plague efforts to develop adaptive management now. It was also fascinating to see many of the same problems about the utility of models raised by Orrin Pilkey raised! By a modeller! But the conclusion drawn is oh so different - not that models are useless, but rather that we must be careful about how they are used.

It is interesting to me to see Carl's scepticism about prediction and forecasting from complex models given the emphasis the North American school places on such models. His assertion that the models are there to explore and generate hypotheses, which are then tested using management experiments, is very interesting. I think the biggest issue that I can see is that management experiments carry a risk of failure, or at least represent a tradeoff between what the best that is expected (given current knowledge) and what the experiment will achieve. Quantifying that risk could be critical to selling the idea of a management experiment.

It seems as though the North American school emphasis on developing a shared understanding, or at least alternative hypotheses about how the system works, is appropriate if stakeholders actually hold different views about how the system works. However, in the case that interests me the most, there actually isn't any disagreement about how the system works. Fundamentally the stakeholders (federal agencies, in this case) have different tradeoff curves between two key objectives. Rather than engage with that debate, the focus is on measuring whether the alternative preferred by one agency (the most risk averse one) is "adequate". That's fine, but the real debate will resurface as soon as the analysis demonstrates that it isn't.

Hmmmm, interesting times ...

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