Saturday, 30 October 2010

Uncertain things

Just after I had posted up the last section about uncertainty in the natural world I was reminded of this section of the Tao Te Ching:

'Not-knowing is true knowledge.
Presuming to know is a disease.
First realise you are sick;
then you can move towards health.'

Friday, 29 October 2010

Topic 1: Uncertainty in Ecology

‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing’

My first karate instructor once told me this, as he looked at me straight in the eyes. In my mind he was massive, a towering figure that had survived feudal Japan and somehow manifested as an East Londoner. Once I had looked back at some old photos I realised he was 65 and probably around 5.4ft. Nevertheless, he left a very distinctive mark on my young mind. I took the advice at face value at the time; learn more martial arts before you start running around thinking you know it all. Yet I recently found myself applying this statement to my own scientific musings.

The study of ecosystems is a young field, with the synthesis of underlying ideas from geography and natural history occurring gradually (somewhat ecologically even!) at the end of the 19th century. For a long time the study of biology was restricted to the gathering of samples in order to document which species existed, to describe their physiology and record their behaviour. The new science of ecology sought to analyse the numbers, births, deaths, movements and all manner of changes in organism’s populations. This is all very exciting and ambitious stuff, and it relies on vast quantities of information. You need to go out and find animals and plants, record where they are and where they are not at regular intervals over extended periods of time, this is no mean feat.

I am often struck about how little we actually know about the world’s animals and plants. OK, so many species are hard to spot, present in very small numbers and in remote locations. The places where lots of humans live and work have been transformed and many animals and plants we historically shared habitats with have gone. Even so, the amount of knowledge we have today is pretty small, when compared to other fields.

The marine census being carried out worldwide at the moment is presented as a breakthrough, a global stocktaking of what we have in the world’s seas. I am surprised and shocked that no one has considered anything of such a nature before. Individual nations have records of fisheries abundance as this is something that has direct economic concerns but these records are weak and patchy outside of certain states and particular fish stocks. Censuses of human populations have been carried out for thousands of years, analysis of voting trends and consumer information has reached amazing levels, stock taking and yield analysis in agriculture is widespread, yet so little time and effort has been placed globally on the millions of other species that share the earth with us.

The fact that we know little is worrying, the fact that we are trying to predict things when we know so little is even more worrying. The acknowledgement that our knowledge of ecological systems and the data behind them is often uncertain, patchy or biased has dragged behind the science of modelling these systems.

Modelling methods developed in economics, statistics, physics and engineering are all being applied to ecological problems. Yet very few address the fundamental issue that we only know a tiny fraction of what is going on out there. Natural systems are very different to nearly all man made systems; if we build an energy grid or transport system we know all the links in it. The same cannot be said for a food web, there are so many uncertain links. Ecology is a big deal; other organisms determine what we eat, the air we breathe, our climate and our water supply. All these things are essential to human life. Essential, that is the important word here, the consumer price index, the nature of radioactive decay, advances in oil drilling efficiency, IPods, medicine, transport and money are all useful, all make life easier (In many cases a great deal easier) but are not essential every day for humans to live. Ecology is the science of food, air and water security. I am still surprised that there is little knowledge, because it is becoming an increasingly dangerous thing.

Introduction to Greenview

The aim of writing this blog is to clarify some of my political, social, economic, scientific and philosophical views in my own mind and to invite criticism, curiosity and development through interaction with others.

In order to understand what I have to say I think it would be best to introduce the main areas that I see my ideas springing from. There are essentially two sides to my thoughts about reality (and non reality...), the empirical scientist armed with reason and logic and the eastern mystic wielding beard stroking and humour.

While I was originally Christian (well not really originally...we don’t start life with very many pre set ideas about anything). I gave that up in school when I was presented with two separate phenomena a) a scientific understanding of the creation of the world and the evolution of life b) religions and philosophies that had completely different ways of thinking and value sets to which I had been previously exposed.

For a long time these two parts of my life were somewhat mutually exclusive. I could put on my science hat when I needed to solve integral equations and put on my philosophy hat when off to tai chi class. It is only recently that I have begun to see not only profound similarities in modern science and some eastern mysticism but also had the internal courage and conviction to attempt to work through some of the differences.

Even so, you will no doubt still be able to spot the manifestations of my binary brain (partly on purpose!). Some posts will have a more zen like flavour and others will be hard sums (I initially promise no equations...we shall see how this holds up!).

I really would enjoy plenty of comment and discussion. Please feel free to post up links to relevant reading and materials, but try to keep all discussions related to the topic of interest.