Thursday, December 09, 2004

Evidence Mounts for Things Being Complicated

Scientists have uncovered shocking new evidence that certain actions can have multiple effects, some of which can persist over time. Previously, it had been thought that the effects of any action taken in the natural world were attenuated in both space and time by what the physicist Ernest Mach dubbed the "Refusing-To-Pay-Any-Attention Principle." Now, however, it seems possible that one of industrial society's guiding principles may have to be re-examined.

Scientists studying the broader effects of wolf reintroduction said a growing body of evidence suggests that killing off predators such as wolves and grizzly bears in the last century started a cascade of effects that threw ecosystems out of balance.

Researchers from Oregon State University found that a thriving wolf population not only changes where and how elk browse - it even reverberates down to the number of willows that grow next to streams.


Jim Peek, professor emeritus of wildlife biology at the University of Idaho, said it was too early to know whether the study's findings would hold up over time, but the observations were valid.

"It's important work, because it directs our attention toward things other than the fact that predators eat prey," Peek said.


Anonymous said...

Scientists studying the broader effects of wolf reintroduction said a growing body of evidence suggests that killing off predators such as wolves and grizzly bears in the last century started a cascade of effects that threw ecosystems out of balance.Um... Where the hell have these people been? Environmentalists have been telling them these things for a long time, since at least the 80s. Plenty of evidence has been found in certain instances of the effect that the widespread removal of snakes and bats have had on local environments.

I can only imagine the effect that the removal of wolves and bears would have on the ecosystem. I'm not even a scientist, and I understand this, simply because I know something of what these animals contribute to the environment. Why don't these morons know it?

Phila said...

You're asking the $1,000,000 question here. It's something that every third post of mine seems to be about...what kind of "science" do you have when you isolate data conceptually in this way?

Experimental science puts a lot of stock in context independence, which is fine in some cases, but disastrous in dynamic systems...and worse still when you've got living beings acting with any degree of intentionality. We understand this in terms of weather...we accept that weather systems are chaotic, and therefore unpredictable after a certain point. We need to grasp the same thing with regard to ecosystems. Instead, we seem to think that complexity gives us license to limit our attention, instead of increasing it. Very odd behavior. But yeah, I love the tone of the last paragraph..."This research suggests that stuff keeps happening after we stop looking at it."

echidne said...

Interesting. The thing works also in reverse, i.e., the effects of the larger and more diffuse environment affect narrowly defined events in reality, and the laboratory approach falsifies data by excluding this on purpose.

A prime example of this is the 1950s work on mother-child bonding which used monkeys or chimps that were studied in laboratory cages. Many of the results still affect what women are taught about bonding with babies. Yet these studies were the animal equivalent of putting a mother and a baby into an isolated cell in a prison with absolutely nothing to do. Only an idiot would think that this tells us anything about normal bonding or its absene. But this was what I read and never wondered about it then, having been already brainwashed in the "scientific method".

A more recent example has to do with the mating habits of rats. All sorts of fascinating and perverse-sounding results were based on caging rats in various sex proportions and then observing the orgies that might happen. This one scientist (whose name I don't recall as usual) thought this was silly and organized an environment for the rats that resembled how they would choose to live. Her rat sexuality findings were totally different.

Anonymous said...


The first post was mine. I'm kinda out of it today so bear with me here.

Yes, isolating to test things is okay for some aspects of science. Where would we be without the experimental groups and control groups to test the validity of, say, a medication's efficacy? This is the classic model for scientific research. But is it always the best for studying interrelationships in the biological world? Maybe not. Too many things are too dependent on other things for too much.

In a way, this is the same problem that sociologists and anthropologists face. It took them a painfully long time to grok that people didn't have clearly defined compositions, like elements of the periodic table. They also didn't operate in a vacuum.The smallest change (including the injection of the observer) could change the dynamics of the way the group operated, so your original theory is probably crap. The classic example of what one small thing can do to change an entire culture is that movie about the Kenyan who found the Coke bottle.

Perhaps the biggest problem I see here (boy, am I probably wrong), is that biologists studying animal behavior MIGHT need to stop thinking of animals as highly-evolved molecules and instead think of them as more Maybe they need to borrow a few pages from socio/anthro approaches for studying how they behave, and what contributions they make to the overall structure, rather than keeping blinders on and only looking at one aspect of one type of behavior (that predators eat prey remakr--OMG, how fucking stupid).

But I still wonder what the hell these people out there have been smoking not to understand concepts like, um, Keystone Species, which has been around for a very long time. Good grief, my son had a book about animals which discussed that when he was little. If nothing else, they could rent the damned Lion King and meditate on its circle of life theme, which had a pretty good grasp on it all, for a kid's movie.

Of course, to be fair, I do consider that the actual scientists may have a full and deep understanding of all of these issues, and it was the journalist who dumbed everything down so the ignorant masses could follow along. After all, the writer was from the AP, and they don't exactly write a wealth of intellectually-challenging fare. Intellectually-challengED, yes. But not challenging.

Just some brain-dead ramblings from yours truly.


Anonymous said...


I, too, first thought of that monkey and wire experiment when I read this, and the effect it's had on women ever since. As far as I know it's still being pushed in science/psychology classes, even though the research was primitive, at best. It was still in textbooks in the mid-90s, so I doubt that anyone's really challenged it. I think we know why it persists.

Phila said...

Just turning in, and am too out of it to type...but yeah, I did consider the idea that the journalist might've made the biologist sound more clueless than he is. The question of how different sciences get misrepresented through popularization is a whole other issue...that drives me nuts, too.