Saturday, December 5, 2009

The black box of risk

I've been interested in the nature of risk and uncertainty for awhile now - this is one of those areas where ecologists are coming late to the game, so I'm playing alot of catchup. I just came across a really nice editorial on the perils of risk modelling in the financial world by Roger Pielke Jr. from earlier this year. Here's a nice quote that I like (for reasons that should be obvious):

The general lesson to take from such experiences is that it is rarely the models that are at fault; it is instead the use of those models in ways that are inappropriate and can lead to flawed decisions, sometimes with very large consequences. Too often the models are treated like black boxes and their use is overlooked as being the domain of technical experts. To make better use of risk models in business decisions, we need to open up the black box and better understand the role of models in decision making. Because of the potential for conflicts of interest, it is important to have independent eyes looking at the models and their use, a role that too often goes overlooked.
Although Roger is talking about hedging investment funds, I think the same could be said for models of risk to endangered species. Building the models is easy - even incorporating risk, error and uncertainty is not difficult. But understanding the outputs of those models demands a certain level of knowledge. And worst of all, we have not worked hard to understand or develop decision making in applied ecology, let alone understand the use of models in decision making. The politicization of climate change science should stand as a warning to us - as the stakes rise the challenges of honestly providing scientific advice and maintaining credibility become much greater.

What do we do about it?
  1. Ecological managers at all levels must recognize that they are making decisions.
  2. Making decisions implies some effort, however implicit, to forecast what will happen in the future after the decision is made.
  3. We have excellent theoretical tools for forecasting the future of populations and ecosystems (not communities, unfortunately).
  4. Ecological managers should be trained in using those tools while making decisions.
As an educator I can try to fix 4 for future managers. The rest of you are on your own!

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