From data to decisions: Processing information, biases, and beliefs for improved management of natural resources and environments

by Gunnar_Zarncke1 min read8th May 20171 comment


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Our different kinds of minds and types of thinking affect the ways we decide, take action, and cooperate (or not). Derived from these types of minds, innate biases, beliefs, heuristics, and values (BBHV) influence behaviors, often beneficially, when individuals or small groups face immediate, local, acute situations that they and their ancestors faced repeatedly in the past. BBHV, though, need to be recognized and possibly countered or used when facing new, complex issues or situations especially if they need to be managed for the benefit of a wider community, for the longer-term and the larger-scale. Taking BBHV into account, we explain and provide a cyclic science-infused adaptive framework for (1) gaining knowledge of complex systems and (2) improving their management. We explore how this process and framework could improve the governance of science and policy for different types of systems and issues, providing examples in the area of natural resources, hazards, and the environment. Lastly, we suggest that an “Open Traceable Accountable Policy” initiative that followed our suggested adaptive framework could beneficially complement recent Open Data/Model science initiatives.

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Table 1. Some Problematic or Incorrect Assumptions Resulting from Human Biases, Beliefs, Heuristics, and Values (BBHV) The above assumptions, based on the perspectives of the authors, can influence the pursuit and conduct of science (including the production of models) and the implementation of science into policy.

  • The past does not inform the future, and earth systems science has no relevance to resource allocations or to the emplacement of human infrastructure. The records of tree rings, paleoflood deposits, tsunami deposits, historical accounts of infrequent natural hazards (earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, debris flows, volcanic eruptions, fire) can all be ignored.
  • Discount the future and address only immediate, local, human needs (or threats): human ingenuity will always rise to meet the needs of future generations. (And population growth is not a problem since it increases the gene pool and produces more talent that will solve all problems.)
  • Ecosystems (or parts thereof) do not have lagged responses: policy or management actions have only immediate effects.
  • Believe what you see, ignore what you do not: the invisible (e.g., groundwater, microbes) can be ignored when constructing models. (Groundwater and surface water are not connected and do not impact each other (or water quality). And only highly visible contaminants, or immediate acute health threats, matter: invisible contaminants, or slow-acting threats, do not.)
  • Pests, parasites, and predators have no useful functions, are always evil, and should be eliminated. Pets and charismatic biota are the only species, apart from humans (and food-providing biota), worth worrying about.
  • Because this is what people care about, the study of biotic species that are charismatic (or serve as a food or recreational resource) can be assumed to inform the assessment of environmental conditions in a region.
  • Nature provides only benefits to humans (whomever, wherever, and whenever those people may be); the disservices of nature do not need to be included in the design, quantification, and valuation of ecosystem services. (And the services do not include provisioning of mineral and energy resources.)
  • No modern day actions have irreversible consequences: resources are infinite, species can be resurrected, and past environmental conditions can be restored.
  • Humans are separate from nature, and their enterprise is superior to nature's. (Build the infrastructure, construct the levees, drain the wetlands.)