This is a very short video about our work and the questions that we ask. Courtesy of the Academy‘s Visualization Studio.
Remember the Deepwater Horizon drilling disaster? It’s been a few years now. This video is a brief update on some of our research on how the spill might have affected, and may still be affecting oysters off the coasts of Louisiana, Alabama and Florida. This has been very slow and difficult work, mostly because we have been monitoring the oysters for several years, and have had to develop protocols for the tissue analyses. But it is now moving toward publication.
This blog might seem an odd place to find a piece related to the recent U.S. presidential election, were it not for the fact that one of the highlights of the electoral drama was the polling scene and all those wonderful data. Many of you, numbers geeks like me no doubt, probably followed one or more of the excellent polls analyses online as the whole thing unfolded. Prominent among those were the analytical poll aggregators, my favourites being Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, Votamatic, and the Princeton Election Consortium. The sheer audacious accuracy of those folks was a stinging indictment of political punditry, basically handing the talking heads Algorithms, Statistics, and Science. For those of you not familiar with what I’m talking about here, the numbers guys basically took the data being gathered by the armies of pollsters out there, and algorithmically decided what they meant.
And the pundits weren’t the only ones left lying about on the battlefield. If any of you were following the polls, the swings, disagreements and discrepancies left many of us scratching our heads sometimes. What one earth was wrong with them?! I certainly do not have an answer, but apparently some of the pollsters do. Frank Newport, Editor-in-Chief of the seriously (but apparently not fatally) wounded Gallup Poll offered up an explanation, which you can read in it’s totality here. He makes three main points (as far as I can discern). First, Gallup’s poll does not try to determine the winner of the election. It’s actual objective is to assess the popular vote. Okay, but then it is rather pointless in a republic based on an electoral college. No harm done, but I’ll scratch them off my RSS feed in 2016. Second, the political campaign game really has changed, what with the invention of these things called cell phones and social networks. They promise to get caught up before the next election. Third, and this is the one that I really want to address here, Newport backhandedly slams the aggregators as parasites, but he couches it in a somewhat clever reference to the Tragedy of the Commons. Okay, my turn to get analytical.
The Tragedy of the Commons, based on Garrett Hardin’s ground breaking 1968 essay published in Science, makes a simple argument: In a situation where a resource has multiple rational users, actions that benefit an individual can bring ruin to all. For example, consider a group of herdsmen. It seems reasonable that when he is able to, a herdsman will add another goat to his flock. The benefits of the additional goat are to the herdsman only, but because all herdsmen share a common pasture, the costs are distributed to all. This is quite a favourable arrangement for all the herdsmen, except for the fact that as herd sizes increase the quality of the pasture declines until it can no longer support any goats. Ruin to all. Newport, who refers to the concept as the Law of the Commons, claims that the statisticians are operating under a reverse tragedy. His argument is that you have these polling companies out there, such as Gallup, who are doing their business as best as they can, but by releasing their results the parasitic statisticians can then aggregate multiple datasets, crunch the numbers, and come up with a better answer than any single pollster could. In other words, and here’s the reverse, each pollster incurs all its own costs while distributing the benefits to all. Good point, right? No, not so fast, and here’s why.
Therefore, if Gallup and others are serious about providing insight, they would each take advantage of all the data, conduct proper analyses, and produce useful results. Then the reversal of the tragedy would indeed be complete: the actions of the individual bring success to all! Oh, but I forgot something: They weren’t interested in the outcome of the election. Never mind.
p.s. You can read one of our food web-related arguments on the Tragedy here:
Roopnarine, P. D. and K. D. Angielczyk. 2012. The evolutionary palaeoecology of species and the tragedy of the commons. Biology Letters 8:147-150. DOI:10.1098/rsbl.2011.0662
Therefore, please stop using phrases such as, “Extinction is the fate of all species”. True, maybe 99.99% of all species that have ever existed are now extinct, but that is a frequency, not a law. Extinction results from a failure to acclimate on a short timescale, or to adapt on a longer, evolutionary timescales. The apparent extinction of species on the long run is the result of those failures, and is neither a requirement nor a certainty.
“Sea stars are important members of marine ecosystems, especially in the tropics. We may think of tropical coral reefs as being home mainly to fish and corals, but in fact these habitats are home to a huge diversity of ecologically important invertebrates…”
An interesting bit on the increasing size of marine reserves. Though these mega-reserves comprise only a fraction of the total number of reserves, they actually account for most of the area (power law distribution of reserve size?). This can only be a good thing. My only concern, though, is that the size of a reserve is a function of, and naturally limited by the size of the oceanic zone of the nation implementing it. Smaller nations tend to be the ones with the most critical needs regarding marine conservation, for both biodiversity and economic reasons. I wonder what the distribution of impact per unit area looks like? These giant reserves serve many if they act as sources of refuge and replenishment, but they won’t be as effective if they do not cover, geographically or biogeographically, regions of high impact but low potential for large reserves.
PLoS Biodiversity Hub: Curator’s Note
It is truly shocking how little we know of the ecologies of many important species. Those ecological data are critical for both species as well as ecosystem conservation, and we essentially need several thousand more studies like this one, covering a range from large-bodied, high metabolism species such as dolphins, to smaller but more abundant primary to secondary invertebrate consumers. Peter Roopnarine
Lovely little commentary.