Professor Comments


....what if it is TOO LATE!!!

What if we have crossed the threshold of no return!!!

This brings to light an important environmental concept called the Precautionary Principle (PP). ?Its basis is that it is better to be conservative and pro-active, than to be reactive and liberal. For example, lets say we estimate that cutting down half the old growth forest will cause spotted owls to go extinct in 50 years. Whereas, cutting down none of the forest will ensure that spotted owls maintain and possibly increase their population. The PP would suggest that we should balance needs (logging income and owl preservation) by doing either something in between (cut a quarter of the forest) or develop an alternative. The latter is the strength of the PP. That is, developing alternatives.

When a group sits down and equitably, judiciously considers alternatives it is NOT uncommon that new opportunities arise. The group must move away from their positions and move on to what they really NEED, (income, owl existence). Maybe its not where you cut trees down or how much, maybe its the type of tree that has an influence. Conversely, maybe its not the type of tree, but rather how or where they are located (mountain top, slope, or valley). Which is why scientists usually want to 'study' or research the subject more.

Scientists work on confidence intervals.

As a scientist, you want to be able to say with 95% certainty that if all the factors for a given situation were replicated, the same outcome that was predicted would occur. In other words, I can ACCURATELY estimate the outcome, or judge how close the outcome will be to reality. In contrast, most policy makers want outcomes that are PRECISE. They would like the outcome to similar situations (covered by the same policy) to be very similar.

Think of it as a dart board: You could throw four darts, each landing in a circular pattern on the second ring from the bullseye (one above the bullseye, one below, one to either side). Your accuracy would be the same for all four relative to the bullseye - not so close, and your precision would be very low, each landing in a different direction than the center (bullseye). Now throw the darts again and they all land on the written #20 but well out side of the rings of the dart board. You are very precise, with all four landing quite close to each other, but your accuracy is very poor (far away from reality - being the bullseye).

We are trying, as scientists and policy makers to quantify uncertainty.

Uncertainty has three forms. Variance, Accuracy, True Unknowns.

Variance. That's the up and down scatter in the CO2/Temp plot for each year, or the daily up and down of the stock market around the average. We measure variance through PRECISION of our estimate (i.e. how consistent is our outcome) Accuracy. That is how close to the truth we really are. The average in the NASDAQ is half of what it was in March - reflecting the truth, or reality, that stocks prices overall are about 50% of their price in March.

True Unknowns. The uninteneded effects of those glowing potatos. For exaple, would they cause an alergic reaction to someone sensitive to seafood (since the gene for 'glow' is from jellyfish)[read the earlier conference comments if this seems strange].

Scientists try to answer all three and report thier results using the first two. We can never really know the third. That is where the PP comes into play. Managers, policy makers, and decision makers almost NEVER have more than 51% of the information necessary to make a sound decision. Why? Because we can't study every problem forever, most of the time we have to take action now. So it is better to be conservative, pro-active, and appreciative of the True Unkowns than to take action under the assumption that we will have the outcome we desire (ie. we want the desired outcome to be precise and accurate. But it nearly never occurs, correspondingly we use the PP to be prepared for uncertainties).

We don't know if we have crossed some threshold for adaptation rates because of global warming. We do know that we are loosing more species to extincition, by several orders of magnitude (10x, 100x, 1000x) than ever before in history, including the extinction of dinosaurs. Given this uncertainty, perhaps we should make our decisions using PP. If we are wrong what have we lost? If we are right (that global warming is having a devastating effect on Earth's living systems) and we take action to minimize that effect, what have we gained? You judge....