Friday, July 8, 2022

Are Scientists Saving the World, Or Just Making Work for Themselves?

Ecologists have a lot to do. We are busy studying a rapidly-vanishing natural world and trying to figure out how to save it. But I am increasingly frustrated because a lot of “ecological research” is just a repackaging of what we already know, and which can have no easily-imaginable impact on saving the natural world.

What we need more of is research such as what I am now finishing—a study that demonstrates that temperate trees are opening their buds sooner in the springtime due to global warming and doing so at an amazing rate. My data set has 6,068 observations, all of which I made individually. They show that Oklahoma deciduous trees (in this case, of 22 different species) are opening their buds on the average one day earlier each year. This makes them more vulnerable to the occasional late-spring frosts such as the deep freeze that descended upon Oklahoma and Texas in February 2021. Back when buds opened in March, such a freeze might have had little effect, but buds are now opening in February, and the effect of the freeze on them was profound. I know many other scientists, such as Carol Augspurger, recently retired from the University of Illinois, who are also conducting important research.

I very much doubt that my findings, or Carol’s, would make any difference to politicians, who pay attention only to the contributions made to them by oil corporations who want us to burn baby burn as much carbon as possible, regardless of what the effects might be at some future time—or, as we now know, what the effects might be right now. Oil executives are rich and do not live where wildfires or hurricanes can harm them.

But I ran across a scientific paper—alas, there are many papers like this—in which 12 authors wrote about a phenomenon that they think they discovered called nonstationarity. [] What, you may ask, is nonstationarity? It is the confounding of changing properties that govern ecological phenomena. Ecological systems, they claim, are under constant change and exhibit spatially and temporally varying trends. Do you follow me? They claim that ecological research needs to accommodate spatial and temporal variability in ecological patterns and processes.

All of which we already knew. The authors just developed some new software to study it differently. No new data, no new discoveries, just a new kind of analysis that tells us the same things that we already knew. They had no new data about real trees, or real birds, or real lakes, or real oceans.

What is an example of temporal nonstationarity? The fact that tree rings are sometimes thicker and sometimes thinner. They even have a photograph of some tree rings to prove their point. We have known this for almost a hundred years. It is very interesting, but not new. They claim that their work is “key to…translating findings to local policies and practices.”

Politicians, interested only in money, would not be interested in the results of my analysis of 6,068 budbursts and their climatic correlates. But they would be utterly hostile toward the idea of professional ecologists and academics using taxpayer money to repack old news into new conglomerates. The authors list six National Science Foundation grants that went into their paper. The authors came from numerous academic institutions and even from a taxpayer-funded National Laboratory. I suspect that the main effect of this paper is to advance the academic careers of the authors. The paper was prominently published by the Ecological Society of America, the major scientific society of ecologists, which should have a better idea of what ecologists should spend our time doing.

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