statistical scientific sandbox struggles


I came across this quote recently, in a book about fishing communities and economies in Iceland: “Coastal Economies, Cultural Accounts…” by Gísli Pálsson:

The scientist and the fisherman dwell in the same social world, and if they represent it differently it is not because the latter [the fisherman] remains trapped within his cultural conceptions whereas the former [the scientist] can see the reality beyond, but because their respective positions within the social world constitute them as parties with different and often conflicting interests.

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Related to this, some other recent research… a book called “Battles over Nature: science & politics of conservation” edited by Vasant Saberwal and Mahesh Rangarajan:

…any form of knowledge is embedded within a specific social context, a context that influences the process by which information is generated, processed & disseminated. Science in and of itself is no more objective or neutral than the knowledge generated and sustained within communities that use a particular resource.

The collection of information through the former [science] takes place in a more formally defined context than the latter [local knowledge], but both, ultimately are products of specific social contexts.

Further along, they suggest:

“It is when science claims to be necessarily better than other forms of knowledge, basing the claim on notions of objectivity and neutrality, and where this superiority is used by the scientific community to claim primacy of decision-making — then there is cause for concern.”


… despite the ‘rigor’ of science — a series of studies has demonstrated that the questions asked by scientists are influenced by many factors including scientific concerns of the day, priorities of funding agencies, one’s own social context, and that experimental data may be interpreted to conform to existing paradigms.

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Going back to Pálsson and his studies of Icelandic fishing communities and their move from small local fisheries to fully globalized factory fisheries and now?…. depleted runs and ‘fisheries…

(tough concept… I know… ‘no fish, no fisheries’…complicated… complex…)

… and in recent time their return to more hook-and-line fisheries as opposed to the factory mothership vacuum cleaner, by-catch tossed overboard model employed by much of the rest of the world (and supported by green-washing initiatives such as the Marine Stewardship Council)…


…I emphasize that ecological knowledge — the knowledge of scientists no less than that of indigenous theorists — is inevitably socially constructed.

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to the philosopher, philosophizing… Nietzsche:

… the base thought of science is that man is the measure of all things. Otherwise said: all natural science is nothing but an attempt to understand man and what is anthropological; more correctly, it is an attempt to return continuously to man via the longest and most roundabout ways.

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To another recent book picked up in rambling research: “Handbook of Economic Anthropology” edited by Bill Maurer:

… a mathematical formula cannot be interviewed; its makers and users can, but the results it produces can have effects unintended by and outside the control of those human agents.

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And a gool ‘ol Canadian puzzler, John Ralston Saul and his plea for common sense, albeit sometimes in a contradictory form of shouting for simplicity in some pretty dense verbiage (at times), however this rings with some ‘sense’ (from his book “On Equilibrium“):

What is common sense if not shared knowledge?

It is not understanding. Many may find this a difficult idea to accept — that we can know something we don’t understand. Not only can we know it, we can use the knowledge. We must simply be careful not to slip into superstition…

…Superstition is indeed an innate force within us. But we have qualities to help us control it. The shared knowledge of common sense is one of them. You can’t banish superstition. You deal with it. There is a surprising calm in common sense, a stubborn calm which resists the negative aspects of panic.

Take what are presented as natural economic forces. They can only exist to the extent that humans exist and therefore are not natural. The market in software would be surprisingly quiet if put in the hooves of sheep. Cattle have minimal interest in e-mail.

Economic forces must take their appropriate place as dependents of humans; more precisely, as dependent upon human characteristics in order to be shaped appropriately to our circumstances. And those human characteristics are themselves inferior to and shaped by human qualities.

Ralston Saul continues his appeal to common sense as ‘shared knowledge’ suggesting that “the complexity of shared knowledge reminds us that, if one globalization model claims to be the voice of inevitable forces, a dozen other models will appear which don’t. If humans deal with their superstitions and ideologies in an unpanicked manner, then the sensible not-inevitable models will predominate in the long run”

All of this is tied to common sense as ‘shared knowledge’.

What are these apparently “inevitable forces”?

Look no further than the “invisible hand of the market” — good ‘ol Adam Smith’s theory of economies and markets. Leave things to the free market and the ‘invisible hand’ will guide them right… (sheez, doesn’t reek of Christian Ghad overtones at all…)

Yet, the ‘inevitable’ forces of globalization, free market economies, and subscription to science as truth, are what many ideological forces fully subscribe to — especially various governing regimes such as the one currently in Canada.

Ralston Saul:

“We often think of definition as the cornerstone of reason – as our protection against superstition, prejudice and ignorance. A definition is therefore intended to clarify things, to free us from action. But what we have seen in our society is that a definition can just as easily become a means of control, a profoundly reactionary force.”

And he uses a great example for pointing to the point I’m niggling away at…

… the whole idea of a society of winners — a place known above all for its best — leads with surprising speed to a narrow pyramidal social structure. And then to division and widespread passivity. That in turn leads to false populism and mediocrity; to a world obsessed by bread and circuses [think current political circus… or, professional sports… or, Hollywood starlets], Heroes and the need for ‘leadership’.

He suggests that the variety of competitions between ‘certainties’ (think of the opposition of politics and political parties in Canada), has led over the past two hundred years towards: “a civilization of structure and form over one of content and consideration. The way we come at every question is structural, managerial.

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Let’s look at a salmon issue for example… the Terms of Reference (structural, managerial) for the Cohen Commission, as summarized in one of the interim reports:

Cohen Commission Terms of Ref.

That’s about as ‘structural’ and ‘managerial’ as it gets — and scouring the pyramids of scientific reasoning and bureaucratic bafflegab.

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Ralston Saul’s example:

…In 1997 the World Trade Organization ruled that the Europeans were wrong to ban American beef raised with hormones because there was no convincing scientific case that the hormones represented a health risk. Put aside what you might think about hormones and beef. The central question is elsewhere.

It begins with an absolute certainty: that social policy in a democracy must be based not on popular will — the legitimacy of the citizenry — but on proof; in this case scientific proof. In other words, that our choice must be based on science. But in fact the science in question is not exactly science because it is limited by an initial question formulated in the context of commercial interest.

In other words, food should be considered first as a commercial object, second a scientific object and only third a matter of social, health, cultural or, indeed, of personal choice.

Hormones or no hormones. Health or sickness, sickness or health. The question on both sides is commercially constructed. Is the producer to be permitted to express the right of absolute ownership — that of maximized profit? Or is the producer to be punished by the cost of health needs? And in that context, what is the definition of a health need? No other important, non-commercial questions is admitted to.

[Do you see much difference with the current raging debate surrounding industrial-based open-pen salmon farming on the BC coast and other coastal areas of the world?]

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So let’s put some of this in a current light…

This headline coming out of the Alberta election:

Wildrose leader booed at Alberta debate for doubting climate change science

EDMONTON — A live audience heckled and booed Alberta Wildrose party leader Danielle Smith at a leaders’ debate Thursday after she said she isn’t convinced that climate change is real…

…“We’ve been watching the debate in the scientific community, and there is still a debate,” Smith said. “I will continue to watch the debate in the scientific community, but that’s not an excuse not to act.”

Really… is this a surprise?

A candidate funded right out of the oil patch — similar to Canada’s current PM — a climate denier!… say it ain’t so…

And is this really all that much more of a surprise coming from someone like Smith, whose husband ‘Dave’ is a senior executive with the Sun Media Group, which owns and runs a bunch of Alberta newspapers and the fine, full of journalistic integrity TV Station SunTV with the likes of Ezra Levant hosting a regular talk show…?

…the same Levant that wrote the book “Ethical Oil” and essentially coined the term for the Harper regime to shop around the world how “ethical” Canada’s oil is…

i’m shocked… (you probably can’t read how firmly planted my tongue is in my cheek…)

Oh, but hey, you can go read a similar story at Sun Media (you know the same place where Ms. Smith’s husband works…):

Smith stares down global-warming cultists

Shocking revelations have come to light about Alberta’s Wildrose party.

Leader Danielle Smith has solidified her views on the theory of global warming: “The science isn’t settled and we need to continue to monitor the debate. In the meantime, we need to support consumers in making the transition to cleaner fuels.”

“The science isn’t settled.” That’s it. Pretty ho-hum if you ask me, nothing earth-shattering. A legitimate statement of the situation.

Because, despite what the global-warming cultists would have you believe, the debate isn’t done — not by a long shot. And the breathless mainstream media has jumped all over Danielle Smith like she was a heretic confessing before an inquisition…

Yup, there you have it… the “global warming cultists”… hmmmm…

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The problem here, goes back to the rational dependency on “science”… of which all sides of debates are guilty of… from the green flapping left wing to the blue flitting right wing.

Yet both trying to demonstrate the ‘righteousness’ of their flight path… e.g. opposite the other wing…

The problem with that… it’s not very conducive to flying anywhere… especially if you’re responsible for being ‘governments’… and thus an electorate… and thus average & not average every-day folks.

Ralston Saul lays this one out well, suggesting that obsession with structural and managerial approaches have done away with common sense and shared knowledge. He uses the example of homelessness and the divide between rich and poor in democratic societies.

We could actually do something about it… maybe even with little effort and little money… however we insist instead on pouring money and effort into things after the fact. After people and families (you know the same families that every politician blubbers on about these days as being so important…) have fallen off the edge into the zone of the excluded, marginalized, and in a situation of not being able to afford housing, necessities, etc….

… efforts focus on pouring money into homeless shelters, emergency services, food banks, drop-in centres, etc. as opposed to simply providing the means (e.g. affordable housing) to get back over the ledge away from the exclusion.

How’s that old saying go about an ounce of…. errr… ummm… oh right… “prevention”…

Ralston Saul does the same with explaining famine. Rather than proactively identify the possibility of famine before it happens, we wait until there is a body count and then governments respond with air drops of food, troops, cash… errrr… loans, etc.

As he suggests: “It isn’t that those responding are unwilling to address the issue of civil wars and landownership. But before they did so, they would have to address key structural problems. For a start, most international aid agencies have one department for dealing with development issues and another for emergency issues such as famine. As if one did not lead to the other….”

He continues:

The same could be said about our response to global warming. For every problematic statistic a theoretically rational reply can be made with a reassuring statistic. The North Pole melts and there’s an immediate chorus chanting that it has happened before. Specialists say polar ice has reduced by forty percent in recent years and continues to shrink by four percent a year. Someone funded to argue the opposite pumps out a reply from an ‘independent’ source.

In an era of utilitarian facts, each side argues its numbers, like little boys caught up in an analytic sandbox struggle.

And thus, folks like Ms. Smith and her girl gone Wild denial Party can come out with easy statements suggesting that the ‘science’ is not conclusive.

Yea… well of course it isn’t, it never will be.

This of course isn’t assisted by the fact that Oil companies now fund various University Research Chairs, including at the University of Alberta and Calgary. Not tough for theses types of positions to plant a little seed of doubt.

Off goes Charles Adler at Sun Media in his opinion piece quoted above:

Regardless of what you think of global warming, oilsands emissions make no difference. Canada produces 2% of all emissions, with our oilsands contributing only about 0.2% of global CO2. We could cripple our economy tomorrow, shut down the oilsands completely, our country could take itself back to the Dark Ages and it just wouldn’t matter. Yet the global-warming alarmists treat the people who question their stupid demands like heretics.

Yup. there’s a couple of the little boys and girls in the sandbox… throw stats like handfuls of sand… or the more damaging Tonka truck.

“ouch, that’s gonna leave a mark…”

See… when ‘scientists’ choose to enter this realm of tossing handfuls of statistics, and sand… it will most likely meet one of those ‘laws’ of physics.

‘every action is met with an equal and opposite reaction’

And thus, the ‘science’ can in fact become a part of the problem. Ideological, populist regimes such as the ones rising to governing status can simply put up a mirror and throw the stats back, planting seeds of doubt, and down the drain goes some common sense.

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I tend to float close to Ralston Saul on this one:

You could describe our obsessive overfishing as a sort of institutionalized panic — a terror before the idea of simply looking at all we know, putting it into an integrated consideration and then acting upon the resulting probabilities…

…Panic is brought on by a denial of shared knowledge. It feeds on the absence of belief in a larger good. And results in an urgent conviction of the absolute necessity of apparently utilitarian, narrow, short-term actions…

Gee does this ring of Conservative/Reform Joe Oliver, Canada’s Natural Resource minister this week, in the previous post on this site:

“We are at a critical juncture because the global economy is now presenting Canada with an historic opportunity to take full advantage of our immense resources,” he said. “But we must seize the moment. These opportunities won’t last forever.”

Let me put that bit from above in again: “…And results in an urgent conviction of the absolute necessity of apparently utilitarian, narrow, short-term actions…”

Ralston Saul continues:

What common sense provides is a clear sense that nothing is inevitable; that we belong to a society. Panic of this sort is therefore unnecessary. We are too intelligent for that.

What prevents us from acting as if we were that intelligent is our unwillingness to insist upon integrated thought — that is, to act as if we shared knowledge with others in our society.


yea, what a thought… ‘integrated thought’….

Here is a drawing I did recently to try and show that in relation to some current work, especially in relation to what the Cohen Commission probably should have spent a lot more time focusing on in trying to understand declines of Fraser sockeye:

integrated thought?


Of course the moment this image is put on paper it captures and represents something static… the reality is that these circles… well… they shouldn’t be circles… but whatever they are, amoebic, fluid… they should be flowing back and forth, thus increasing and decreasing the “somewhere in between”.

both at the same time, increasing and decreasing, flipping and flopping, hurtling and crawling through space.

You might think you’re still, but you’re spinning at about 1600 km/hr as the earth spins, and you’re blasting through space, in the journey around the sun, which is also rocketing around the galaxy at some 220 km/sec.

(… or so say the scientists … i’m often curious what the point of reference is for measuring those apparent ‘speeds’…)

Life is always a struggle of dynamic balance, and impossible balance really because when can you say you hit the sweet spot? As the moment you try to define it, it’s gone.

A mere image… or is it a mirror image…?

Like the age old problem of trying to define the position and speed of a particle at the same time… fixity out of flux… dynamic equilibrium as the saying goes. Constant movement, yet a search for placement; stillness.

Yet once placed, then seeking movement. Once moving, seeking rest…

In the words of shampoo bottles, and consumer culture… Rinse and repeat if necessary…

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