Advocacy and science

An excerpt from Peterson et al 1997 on advocacy, science, ecology and managers.

Peterson, G., S. Pope, G. A. De Leo, M.A. Janssen, J.R. Malcolm, J.M. Parody, G. Hood, and M. North. 1997. Ecology, ethics, and advocacy. Conservation Ecology [online] 1(1): 17. 

Ecologists are frequently confronted with situations that they feel are wrong. However, it is difficult to decide when advocacy is an appropriate role for a scientist. As informed individuals, ecologists abandon the duties of citizenship if we hide our values behind a veil of scientific objectivity. However, if ecologists use scientific standing to advance appealing, but scientifically unsound, arguments, we abandon professionalism and scientific ethics.

Science in the service of decision making requires different outputs than science done without such a goal (Walters 1986). Ecologists need to be especially aware of the possibilities of type I (accepting a false hypothesis) and type II error (rejecting a true hypothesis) when the consequences of these different types of error may be unequal. For example, if rejecting a true hypothesis would result in an action with a much higher cost than accepting a false hypothesis, it is sensible to design an experiment and analyses to take those considerations into account. Ultimately, ecologists should be driven by professional standards so that an ecologist would feel comfortable with her methods even if they were used by someone else to advance an opposing hypothesis (e.g., her work for Greenpeace should be held to the same standards that she would expect from ecologists working for Exxon). Our advocacy may direct us to particular questions, but it should not instruct our answers.

Ecologists are not the only ones who need to be held to higher standards. Often, in the face of deadlines or political pressures to act, management policy is developed by picking the politically expedient aspects of ecological theory (e.g., “disturbance is natural”). Ecologists need to hold managers, policy makers, and the public accountable to the full scope of an ecological theory, with all its alternative hypotheses, confidence intervals, and context specificity.

Managers cannot simply claim to be “practitioners” who carry out the plans recommended to them by the scientists and policy makers. Managers need to be both practitioners and scientists; they need to join ecologists in understanding how humanity is altering ecological systems. They need to learn to operate with alternative testable hypotheses and to work for change, rather than to build barriers against it.

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