On Discourse and Evidence

A major problem that bedevils society as well as science today is the distinction between opinion and evidence. The world is awash in opinions and short of evidence for many questions that fill the news media as well as the scientific literature. In trying to evaluate this statement we should recognize that there are many important issues for which we have no evidence but only beliefs. A current discussion in the news media is whether or not any particular country should spend 2% of its GDP on military expenses. Much hot air follows from these discussions because as an individual person you have no evidence one way or the other for different points of view, spend more, spend less. You will have an opinion that everyone should respect but for this and many issues any evidence that can be cited is vague. Discussion on many issues like this example are important and should be civilized but often are not.

But there are a range of issues for which scientific evidence is available. The first rule of discourse on these issues ought to be that you as a person are allowed to have any opinion you wish but you must be able to present evidence to support your opinions. You should be allowed as a person to proclaim that the Earth is not round but flat and provide the evidence one way or the other. More serious issues with different opinions involve issues like vaccination for a particular disease. On these issues scientists can only advise and provide evidence. But if a vaccine X for example has a complex side effect rate of 1 person in 1000, you could always argue that you are that one person and you are opposed to vaccination X.

How does all this relate to ecological science? First, we should recognize that many of the arguments in the ecological literature are about opinions rather than evidence. In many cases this should lead to more studies of particular problems to gather more evidence. But as we see with climate change research the evidence is accumulating but varies greatly in quality and time span from area to area and from taxonomic group to taxonomic group. We cannot agree whether our research should be focused on the oceans or on land, or on birds rather than mammals or insects. We cannot do everything, and the consequence is that ecological research funding is driven in many directions depending on who is on the committee dispersing funding and what their opinions are. The result is that for large scale problems like climate change we have convinced most people that it is a reality, but we cannot agree on the details of future change. So, we build models with past data and try to project them into the future with uncertain confidence.

The consequence is that the ecological world is awash in opinions in the same way as other parts of society, and in support of opinions the evidence often gets lost. The main problem here is that opinions are generated rapidly while evidence accumulates slowly. We see this more readily in medical science in which the media trumpets treatment X rather than Y with opinions and little evidence. We cannot demand answers to important questions tomorrow when the problem spans years or decades for evidence to accumulate. 

Ecology like every science becomes more complicated with age, and a fisheries biologist trained 40 years ago lives in a different world from one trained today. The accumulated evidence from research changes our list of important questions illustrated well by the reviews of progress in conservation science by Sutherland et al. (2022, 2023) and Christie et al. (2023), in predator- prey dynamics by Sheriff et al. (2020), wildlife management by Hone et al. (2023), and in insect conservation by Saunders et al. (2020). Understanding and solving ecology problems must rely more on evidence and less on opinions.

Christie, A.P., Christie, A.P., Morgan, W.H. & Sutherland, W.J. (2023) Assessing diverse evidence to improve conservation decision‐making. Conservation Science and Practice, 5, e13024.doi. 10.1111/csp2.13024

Hone, J., Drake, A. & Krebs, C.J. (2023) Evaluation Options for Wildlife Management and Strengthening of Causal Inference. BioScience, 73, 48-58.doi: 10.1093/biosci/biac105.

Saunders, M.E., Janes, J.K. & O’Hanlon, J.C. (2020) Moving On from the Insect Apocalypse Narrative: Engaging with Evidence-Based Insect Conservation. BioScience, 70, 80-89.doi: 10.1093/biosci/biz143.

Sheriff, M.J., Peacor, S.D., Hawlena, D. & Thaker, M. (2020) Non-consumptive predator effects on prey population size: A dearth of evidence. Journal of Animal Ecology, 89, 1302-1316.doi: 10.1111/1365-2656.13213.

Sutherland, W.J. & Jake M. Robinson, D.C.A., Tim Alamenciak, Matthew Armes, Nina Baranduin, Andrew J. Bladon, Martin F. Breed, Nicki Dyas, Chris S. Elphick, Richard A. Griffiths, Jonny Hughes, Beccy Middleton, Nick A. Littlewood, Roger Mitchell, William H. Morgan, Roy Mosley, Silviu O. Petrovan, Kit Prendergast, Euan G. Ritchie,Hugh Raven, Rebecca K. Smith, Sarah H. Watts, Ann Thornton (2022) Creating testable questions in practical conservation: a process and 100 questions. Conservation Evidence Journal, 19, 1-7.doi. 10.52201/CEJ19XIFF2753

Sutherland, W.J., Sutherland, W.J., Bennett, C. & Thornton, A. (2023) A global biological conservation horizon scan of issues for 2023. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 38, 96-107.doi. 10.1016/j.tree.2022.10.005

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