Evidence based conservation or turning the non-scientific chaos into a scientific chaos?

by Tibor Hartel

I recently re-think about the evidence based conservation. In short, evidence based conservation means creating scientific evidences for conservationists because one can never be sure about the validity of ‘non-scientific knowledge’. Indeed, there are many, often contradictory ‘non-expert’ opinions about the very same thing because people differ in their perceptions and the amount and quality of information and experience also may differ between them. And science, with its rigorous methods aims to create scientific evidence: this is something clear, grounded in theories and methods, analysis and objective interpretations.

This is great, basically. This presents science as something good to make some ‘order’ in the chaos/disorder of non-expert opinions.

But is this really the case? I think that broadly, not necessarily. Doing science is somehow a kind of depicting a detail from the whole and documenting it. In (conservation and restoration) ecology, each scientific team does this depiction according to the resources they have. The very same type of research may be based on one year surveys, two year surveys, the number of sites may differ, sampling design may differ, the spatial scale may differ, the variables considered important and recorded, the experimental setup, the analytical framework may differ and so on. And they all generate scientific informations based on the multi ‘spatial-temporal-logistical-informational-perceptional-ecological’ hyperspace they work.

Ideally (?) each little detail/information of a system is turned into scientific evidence by being documented as such. (an absurd extreme is when information of the system which are not turned into scientific evidence will be considered as hypotheses to be tested – and till this will happen a kind of ‘pending situation’ may appear)

We witness an explosion of scientific informations in conservation biology. All with the major aim to create evidences about species decline, restoration success and so on. The number of pages written is probably several thousands of pages yearly.

My feeling is that this huge accumulation of informations dont solves the chaos. In fact, the only thing which certainly is turned into (still not scientific) evidence seems to be this: the non- scientific chaos is now ‘complemented’ with a scientific chaos and the two dimensions go nicely in parallel. Besides the non-scientific Babel tower we now have a scientific Babel tower too.

It would be interesting to check how much modern science contributes to solving problems and how much non-scientific knowledge contributes. My experience in Romania is that people which have virtually no high level education and had nothing to do with science are able to ‘push’ a social-ecological system in a better path (or keep it in good patch) – just with passion, enthusiasm, knowledge (not scientific, true, but knowledge can be valuable without being scientific – I guess) and a lot of work.

If we look for some concepts which are considered as ‘basic’ in ecology like ‘habitat’, ‘population’, ‘connectivity’, ‘habitat fragmentation’, ‘habitat loss’ the chaos seem to increase (i.e. there are many interpretations – all scientifically documented and published). The situation seems to not be better regarding the ‘best’ management strategy for a given species and habitat.

I am not suggesting that science is bad or wrong. But what seem to be certain is that it becomes harder and harder to ‘fish’ the best information from the increasing multitude of scientific informations available.

I am afraid to not be too trapped in science and make confusions between the beautiful statistics and high impact factor papers (which are generally based on short term research – therefore are just a drop in the big sea of informations no matter how nicely they look) and the real world.

If this very simplistic diagnosis about the scientific evidences is broadly right, then what should be done?

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