21 Feb 2010, 9:12pm
Forestry education Politics and politicians
by admin

Ecology Politics and Crocodiles

In a post last week [here] we discussed certain aspects of a recent paper: Duncan, Sally L., Brenda C. McComb, and K. Norman Johnson. 2010. Integrating Ecological and Social Ranges of Variability in Conservation of Biodiversity: Past, Present, and Future. Ecology and Society 15(1): 5.

One claim made in that paper is worth deeper examination:

The role of burning by Native Americans is a subject of debate, but the general consensus is that humans individually and collectively had only a marginal impact on the creation of this [conifer early seral forest] condition.

There are at least three problems with that statement.

First, the authors are making a quantitative statement in a science paper. They claim a “consensus” exists. A consensus is defined as general agreement, unanimity, agreement in the judgment or opinion reached by a group as a whole. But the authors provide no evidence to support their claim. They did not take a poll of scientists, or if they did, they did not present the data or a summary of the data.

Second, the paper appeared in a peer-reviewed journal, Ecology and Society [here]. The editorial board is extensive [here]. Yet neither the unnamed peer-reviewers nor the editorial board questioned the claim. They did not request or examine the polling data, which frankly we do not believe exists. They accepted the quantitative statement in a science paper without question, a complete failure of the peer-review system.

Third, the statement is demonstrably false. We have posted numerous papers (and reviews of books) wherein the authors (who are environmental scientists) make the opposite claim; that indeed humans have individually and collectively had major impacts on the creation of a wide-range of vegetation conditions, including early seral conifer conditions, for millennia, across the continent. Therefore, the “consensus” claimed in support of the paper’s contention does not exist. QED.

This weekend we posted three more (excellent) environmental science papers that make the opposite claim, i.e. that human beings have had significant impacts on vegetation:

The History of Fire in the Southern United States by Cynthia Fowler and Evelyn Konopik in History of Western Landscapes

A Qualitative Study with the Eastern Band of Cherokee and Southern Appalachian Community Members by Nicolette Cooley in Restoration Forestry

How far could a squirrel travel in the treetops? A prehistory of the southern forest by Paul B. Hamel and Edward R. Buckner in History of Western Landscapes

A quote from the first, Fowler and Konopik:

Anthropogenic fires have been a key form of disturbance in southern ecosystems for more than 10,000 years. Archaeological and ethnohistorical information reveal general patterns in fire use during the five major cultural periods in the South; these are Native American prehistory, early European settlement, industrialization, fire suppression, and fire management. Major shifts in cultural traditions are linked to significant transitions in fire regimes. A holistic approach to fire ecology is necessary for illuminating the multiple, complex links between the cultural history of the South and the evolution of southern ecosystems.

Similar claims have been made by many other researchers for ecosystems found across North America, including western Oregon, and for other continents as well.

The statement in the Duncan, McComb, and Johnson paper is thus unsupported by any data, not capably peer-reviewed, and demonstrably false. What is the statement’s purpose? Why was this unscientific statement included in a scientific paper?

Answer: for purposes of science politics.

Not political science, but science politics. Scientists are a loosely organized political group. Science has its own internal politics. The statement in the Duncan, McComb, and Johnson paper is intended to convince, if not coerce, other scientists into accepting a scientific conclusion that is not widely accepted at present.

If scientists can be fooled into believing that their fellow scientists hold a consensus view, they may feel compelled to agree with it — via peer pressure. Scientists are only human, after all.

Further, the lay public, which by definition are not scientists and have not conducted research into the question, may also be fooled into accepting the claim, despite the fact that the claim is unsupported by any data and is demonstrably false.

In this case the target audience is not the lay public, however. The paper in question was not written for “popular” consumption; it was written specifically for forest planners, who are not scientists themselves (in most cases), but who rely on scientists for scientific judgments.

A  contrasting statement, also directed at forest planners, from Hamel and Buckner (the third newly posted paper listed above):

We conclude that no specific past time can be said to represent the true “original” condition of the southern forest, that human activity has shaped that forest for millennia and that the desired future condition of the southern forest has more to do with societal values than with some ideal past condition. We did not arrive at this conclusion easily. Our examination of the historical record of human inhabitation and forest development does provide an indication of the resilience of southern biota and offers hope to conservation planners and policy makers that desired future conditions can in fact be specified and achieved.

There is a somewhat hidden backstory in all this. The notion (hypothesis) that our forests have arisen naturally, absent any human influences, is old ecology. The contrasting notion (hypothesis), that human beings have had significant impacts historically, is new ecology.

The old ecology is dying. The transition to the new thinking has many implications, and not just for forest planners. It also means that the old ecologists, those that hold to the dying hypothesis, are on their way out. The life works of the Old Guard have lost relevance because they were based on malformed ideas that are increasingly rejected today.

There is some personal tragedy in that for the Old Guard. Nobody likes to be rejected, or to have their life work considered to be outdated and wrong. But science is not concerned with personal feelings. Like the wildebeest herd thinned by crocodiles while crossing the river, science marches on, indifferent to the fallen. Science is cold and hard that way.

We can forgive the Old Guard for their pleas, and sympathize with them in their tragic rejection, but the herd must move ahead.

Recognition of historical human influences on the environment is the future of ecology. Claims to the contrary are sad, pathetic even, but we cannot dawdle in the river with the crocodiles.

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