Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Trevor Price's "Ecology of a Changed World"

Trevor Price is Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago. He earned a PhD in ecology from the University of Michigan and spent seventeen years on the faculty at the University of California, San Diego. He is the author of Speciation in Birds (2007).

Price applied the Page 99 Test to his new book, Ecology of a Changed World, reported the following:
Page 99 [inset below left; click to enlarge] consists mostly of a figure that describes the difficulty of making predictions about the future. The chapter is most original one in the whole book. We rely on anticipating future trends, but often get predictions wrong, exemplified by weather forecasting. Why is this, and what does it mean for planning going forward (hindsight is always 20:20)?

People would indeed get some idea of the book from page 99, especially coupled with the book’s title. The basic issue with this page is that there is no biology in it: Virtually every other page in the book would have a biological example.

The page is part of a chapter emphasizing how and why we need to include uncertainty in making predictions (i.e., make statements such as ‘the probability that a fire will happen this year is such and such’). Difficulties of prediction come in two flavors, as explained by the Inter-Governmental panel on Climate Change:

The first is called value uncertainty: a great number of variables affect outcomes, some of which we can’t measure accurately and others which we don’t even know. In the example on page 99, hypothetical factors that led to a fire starting in a certain town include someone dropping a cigarette (very hard to predict), and the number of dry days preceding. The number of dry days could be measured and used to make predictions that are not simply guesses, but still much uncertainty remains.

The second kind of uncertainty is termed structural uncertainty, which results from interactions between various factors, amplifying effects beyond what we might expect from considering each alone. For example, long droughts may create especially stressful times leading to more smoking, thereby substantially increasing the probability of fire . When several factors all get magnified at once we can enter a completely new realm (e.g., bigger fires than ever seen before), in what is colloquially termed ‘a perfect storm’ or ‘tipping point’.

We note that uncertainty can be reduced by considering averages. While 10 years from now, we can’t predict the temperature on a certain day or when a storm will happen, we know with near certainty that it will be warmer and sea levels higher. Likewise, we were virtually certain that there would be a pandemic this century, but could not predict it would start in 2019.

The role of multiple factors is quite important for understanding the unusual aspects of the mass extinction we are facing. Unlike past mass extinctions, a confluence of factors – Climate change, Over-harvesting, Pollution, Habitat loss, Invasive species, Disease (“COPHID”) – are all impacting nature at once. The importance of recognizing that it is ‘not just one thing’ threatening nature is an underlying theme as the book goes through COPHID.
Learn more about Ecology of a Changed World at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue