The Power of Evidence

It is hugely reassuring to suggest that decisions should be evidence-based. It sounds safe, sane, sensible. It seems self-evidently right. What else could they be based on? Guesswork? Hope? Prejudice? As a result the concept of evidence-based policy is on the ascendancy everywhere. Politicians love it, because it sounds so reasonable. Policy makers love it because it implies that decisions can be rational, free of bias, proofed against sectional interest. Scientists love it because it offers the opportunity to feed ‘sound science’ into the ears of policy-makers. So it seems an obvious fact that evidence-based policy is a good thing: yet as Sherlock Holmes comments in The Boscombe Valley Mystery ‘there is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact’. Some caution may be warranted, for there are deceptive layers hidden by the term that are easily overlooked.

We have spent a lot of time in the last two years thinking about evidence and its role in conservation. We came into this area of thinking with certain preconceptions. We both work in an academic environment, and spend most of our working days trying to sort good arguments from bad, clear writing from muddle, sound data from detritus. But we have also both worked outside academia, not least with communities in remote rural areas who have had little or no access to formal education. We have found expertise and insight in unconventional quarters.

We have learned a lot through this process, and the result is a short paper published in the latest issue of Oryx‘Conservation, evidence and policy’. We are delighted that Neal Haddaway and Andrew Pullin, as expert practitioners of evidence-based conservation, have written a reply to this, in which they politely take issue with some of the points we make. Oryx have very kindly agreed to make the papers open access for the next two weeks or so, and we hope you might like to read them.

Our Oryx paper focuses on the first two words in evidence-based conservation, considering what qualifies as evidence, and the relationship between evidence and conservation decision making that is implied by the word ‘based’. We argue in favour of a broad definition of evidence from a range of sources, and call for a nuanced understanding of the science-policy relationship that is captured by the term ‘evidence-informed conservation’. The idea of evidence-informed policy is well established in the development literature, which has had a lengthy and public conversation about the role of evidence (there is a superb summary on Duncan Green’s blog). We hope that our paper might trigger a similar public debate in conservation.

As we have thought more about evidence-based conservation since finishing our paper, we have realized that different meanings and interpretations of the final word, conservation, are also important. Most writing on evidence-based conservation sees conservation as a set of discrete management interventions in habitat. For example, conservationevidence.com defines a conservation intervention as ‘anything you might do to manage, protect, enhance or restore biodiversity. Interventions include types of habitat or species management, methods of species or site protection, methods of controlling invasive species, species reintroduction, captive breeding, legislation, and education programmes’. Thus the interventions to benefit wildlife on farmland reviewed by Dicks et al. 2013 include hedges, ditches, stonewalls, protecting in-field trees and creating scrapes. We have a much broader view of what conservation is, which is not based on specific interventions. We see it as ‘social practices that reflect choices about relations between people and nature’. Perhaps our different reactions to evidence-based conservation are as much as anything about our different understanding of what conservation is. ‘Evidence’ in the quantitative sense is useful for understanding grass buffers, but less so for understanding corruption in a forest department, and we become worried when the methods for the former problem are applied to the latter.

Thinking about evidence in conservation has led us far beyond the conservation literature, into the sociology of science, the anthropology of expertise, and disciplines from medicine to development studies. We have enjoyed the journey, yet retain some skepticism. We would welcome discussion with thoughtful fellow travellers. 

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14 thoughts on “The Power of Evidence

  1. Conservation is as much about neglect as it is about evidence based action. I ask you this – Which policy maker is going to fund neglect?

  2. I have a great deal of sympathy with what is said by Bill Adams and Chris Sandbook in their Oryx article Conservation, evidence and policy. What is a challenge for a practitioner is to understand what this might mean in application.
    I have not seen it clearly explained (with examples) what the advantages are for the increased use of traditional knowledge. I don’t reject the use of traditional knowledge at all but fear an unfocussed well meaning liberalism is the motivation which could result in ill informed decisions unless there is clearer understanding on how to combine technocratic and traditional knowledge. In practice a real challenge with “traditional knowledge” unlike “science” is there is no clear audit trail for its creation and no recognised methodology to contest it. In part of my career I was grassland specialist for the Nature Conservancy Council and on several occasions have been with farmers on wonderful herb rich fields which they have sworn have recently been under cultivation, regularly fertilised, herbicided, etc. On occasion this has been mendacity but in many cases they actually believed what they said. How can this be contested – by calling them a liar or a deluded fool? Just as this local knowledge is not constructed in any clear basis of evidence it similarly is not easily contested by other “traditional” evidence.
    I hope this does not come across as a naive defence of science as a purely objective set of practices. I fully accept, amongst other things, that science is also affected by cognitive bias.
    What practitioners need to understand is what does this increased emphasis on traditional knowledge look like in a real world situation? In terms not just of policy but of practical local decisions. In academic terms what I mean is how do the institutional arrangements of laws, regulations, customs, organisations, etc. i) influence the types of evidence employed and the weight given to each in decision making and ii) where and how can we do things better.
    I have been very interested in several papers I have come across about environmental co-operatives in the Netherlands. My understanding is that these co-ops have autonomously developed environmental protection schemes co-designed by the farmers (who understand aspects of their land holding and its management better than any expert), working with technical specialists in their employment. The aim of the schemes is to seek potential government funding for environmental improvement. It would be interesting to look at the various types of knowledge employed in these and similar processes. For example what are the commonalities and differences between European examples of environmental decision making and rangeland management decision making in sub Saharan Africa? John Hopkins

    • How I would love John Hopkins to come to my farm. How can I conserve my grasses when I can’t identify them? If conservation is this hard for the passionate then what hope is there for convincing the hard hearted. Forget the schemes and the government funding – this is a sick culture. If you want to support conservation then you must support emotionally those who are willing to sacrifice all for the cause. It is they who will show the world the way.

  3. John Hopkins: for practical discussions of the questions you have, seek out works by Glenn Davis Stone, Paul Robbins, and most especially, Arun Agrawal and Elinor Ostrom. Although Ostrom engaged less in the classification of some knowledge as “traditional”, her Nobel-winning research on how communities can self-organize to effectively govern sustainable systems points to the incredible power of “traditional” knowledge–the many, many case studies she examined and typified were not sustainable resource use systems because of scientists’ involvements, but rather because of more traditional socio-cultural institutions. Dean Bavington has also written on traditional knowledge systems, arguing that in many cases (of course not anything like “all” cases) a sense of “enough-ness” and cultural limits on the types of activities and equipment limited people to more sustainable approaches.

    Further, I would point out that “traditional” communities are under far more selection pressure for effective practices than contemporary scientists–communities that do not or have not managed their resources in some more-sustainable-than-not way by definition wouldn’t stay around for long, unless of course they expand onto new territories. This of course has commonly happened, but what is interesting is that it is not what universally happened–some communities (as Ostrom has found) really do behave in very pro-social, sustainable ways *given certain reguarly-occuring patterns/institutional arrangements.

    There is ample literature that might give you ideas on how what you ask about might look in practice, though perhaps access is an issue as many of them are behind paywalls.

    • Thanks for this. I am familiar with the work of Ostrom and have thought a good deal about it over the years. Having worked most of my life in the UK or in official EU fora it seems to me the conditions where it has relevance in NW Europe are everywhere in retreat (e.g. collapsing of commonning systems in England, Wales, Scottish Hebrides and other parts of Europe). One might argue new eye-catching institutional arrangements for community management are emerging in urban and other contexts but these are relatively trivial in terms of size of natural resources involved. The reality in the UK is that the largest part of the natural resource is on farmland (c.70% in England) and very many decisions are made in a context of farm businesses profit-and-loss accounts. Indeed there is I recall some of evidence that agri-environment schemes which make payments to influence these decisions increase this commodification.(in line with Marxist theory about reification I guess). On a depressingly large area of land in the UK lowlands the knowledge community involves i) land managers who have little hands on involvement, ii) contract agronomic consultants and veterinarians whose advice is routinely followed ii) contractors who manage the land and its crops under short term contracts, iii) representatives of several regulatory bodies. This represents a significant fragmentation and erosion of relevant natural resource knowledge. My interest in the Dutch experience is that it seems to offer some limited reversal of the current trend and reengage land managers with natural resource management, .

      • Well, I think the spaces where it is easily/widely applied are in retreat, but the places where Ostrom and her successors’ works are *relevant* are as significant & large as ever. However, I also think we shouldn’t take our personal experiences and impressions as canonical evidence. The “retreats” also get far more attention than other cases, and the cases of advances or resistance are as often noted for praise as they are for critique–when what I think is most useful is not critique purely oriented at “the system isn’t perfect” (of course it isn’t) but rather oriented towards “what does it tell us about what works somewhat, what is practical, and what can be built on.” Yet, as Donella Meadows long ago pointed out, it’s considered far more “savvy” and scholarly to deconstruct/critique than it is to advocate/build on. Every system has flaws, but this often blinds us to progress.

        Deep and direct democracy appears to still be around and common, and I think it’s open question as to whether it is simply less studied and less publicized for its successes, or whether they are indeed actually less common. (To be sure, successes/stable cases deal with smaller swaths of landscapes and resources, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be built upon). See my recent review of the Localization Reader for some further ruminations and references. See also: Fung and Wright (Deepening Democracy), Tom Princen (The Logic of Sufficiency), and Robert Putnam (Better Together), and Bowles and Gintis (A Cooperative Species).

        By no means are things going well or assured to do so. But the “raw materials” are amply present.

      • Also: Wright and Wolford (To Inherit the Earth) and Annette Desmarais (La Via Campesina) on rural movements; there is substantial work on governance and democratic innovations in urban enviroments, but I’m less familiar with this work.

    • I think we are drifting away from the issue of evidence. You say: “However, I also think we shouldn’t take our personal experiences and impressions as canonical evidence.” I would broadly agree with this but not unequivocally. The original point I made is that local knowledge (I don’t know what “traditional knowledge” is in the UK context) is formed in this very way and so difficult to contest. By this statement you seem to be arguing that “traditional” knowledge should be discounted or given lesser weight.
      Having spent a good deal of my time advising on issues of national/EU policy or on decisions which have significant social and economic impact I can assure you, of habitat, I seldom write an opinion without reflection upon the evidence. I consider the views I express above, although possibly flawed, are supported by evidence.

      • Fair enough. You’re quite right that traditional/local knowledge, which is based on experiences and impressions, would be questioned given a strict interpretation of what I said.

        That said, I’m always hesitant (or try to be) of using my own experiences to draw conclusions about larger-scale trends, as it is so easy to fall into recency and frequency illusions, among other things (http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/002407.html). I don’t know anything of NW Europe, so it very well may be collapsing there–i.e., I have no evidence either way, and I’m inclined to take you at your word pending learning more about it! But my work in Latin America, and bits and pieces I’ve seen from elsewhere (including about participatory budgeting’s use in England, and people using allotments for publicly-accessible food gardens) make it seem to me that the spaces for good commons governance are possibly still being created or spreading in (“cracks in the pavement”, as it were), even as they are being lost at larger scales (nothing to sneeze at). The (possible) simultaneous retreat and advance gives me hope that the advances can be increased and the retreats stabilized, though of course that is neither a fait accompli nor necessarily the current trend.

  4. I take it you are talking about science versus tradition. Any government who doesn’t understand that they are of equal importance has no business governing. Why in the 21st century are we having discussions about what systems are better than other systems. The ecologists have given us the insight of the benefits of biodiversity, many systems working in unison as a team. So why do governments keep backing the one horse race. I pity your task trying to convince fools.

  5. Do you not think that tradition is rooted in thousands of years of hard earned evidence?
    Scientific evidence is as flawed as traditional evidence. Both must work in unison – belt and braces. Stop talking ecology and preaching monoculture.

  6. Pingback: If you can’t beat them, join them | Ideas for Sustainability

  7. I enjoyed a treat of arguments and counter-arguments but still go out what I might take as an acceptable understanding of conservation when explained using varied approaches. our farming communities in Uganda knew how to stop diseases or pests using rotational farming, it seems, (coz am no scientist or botanist) rotational farrowing deprived the organisms of their primary crop varieties which helped to cut back the natural load of these organisms. this knowledge is what, if I get it correctly, the traditional knowledge well talked about. since the discussion was low on cases/examples and more on plain arguments, that might help.

    then, in comes the scientist, loaded with herbicides, elaborate on methodology, and empiricism!, why discount local knowledge when all the scientists have done is recycle what has been known already? I bet you, open any agriculture textbook, all the scientist has done is ‘invent’ a term to describe what real farmers have done for millennia, I don’t suppose that things must not change or improve.
    there is more danger in always advocating for herbs, fertilizer and injections, to divert further punishment on bio-diversity by scientists? scientist commit offenses on nature all the time, such as selective targeting of organisms in medicines which has led to more severe species, then they set themselves on a never-ending cycle of re-offending as they manufacture higher versions of drugs etc. traditionalists’ only flaw, but which benefited conservation was sleeping on the job believing one solution was enough, but then again, solutions were given time to mature and new techniques were devised in place of old techniques.

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