Best available mature science

This paper on ocean acidification has an element that is relevant for forest planning and litigation, and specifically the definition of “best available science.”

Ocean acidification has received much attention in the press, such as in a 2009 NT Times article, “Rising Acidity Is Threatening Food Web of Oceans, Science Panel Says.” The Times wrote that, “Now an international panel of marine scientists says this acidity is accelerating so fast it threatens the survival of coral reefs, shellfish and the marine food web generally.”

This month a study reported that a “Meta-analysis reveals an extreme “decline effect” in the impacts of ocean acidification on fish behavior.” PLoS Biol 20(2): e3001511.

A press release says the paper “demonstrates that the apparent severity of ocean acidification impacts on fish behaviour, as reported in the scientific literature, has declined dramatically over the past decade.”

The press release includes this passage (emphasis added]:

The researchers used meta-analysis to analyse trends in reported effects of ocean acidification on fish behaviour in studies published from 2009-2019. While early studies reported extremely clear and strong effects, the magnitude of those impacts has decreased over time and have been negligible for the past five years.

“A textbook example of the decline effect”, explains Dr. Clements, lead author of the study. “The decline effect is the tendency for the strength of scientific findings to decrease in magnitude over time. While relatively well-recognized in fields like psychology and medicine, it is lesser known in ecology—our study provides perhaps the most striking example of it in this field to date.”

To determine what might have caused the decline effect in their meta-analysis, the authors explored numerous biological factors, but found that biological differences between studies through time could not explain the results. Instead, common scientific biases largely explained the decline effect.

“Science often suffers from publication bias, where strong effects are selectively published by authors and prestigious journals”, says co-author Prof. Jutfelt. “It’s only after others try to replicate initial results and publish less-striking findings that true effects become known. Our analysis shows that strong effects in this field are favorably published in high impact journals.”

Maybe forest planners, litigants, and courts ought to use the “best available mature science,” not necessarily the latest science.

6 thoughts on “Best available mature science”

  1. Steve, I was just thinking about this in terms of journalism and the Marshall fire… original coverage seized on a few things and got carried around the news. Then as we find out more… no coverage because folks have moved on. Perhaps that’s a deeper human trait than just science. We are the crows of the primate world (new shiny object!).

    • “The media” also has a “decline effect” where studies that make attention-grabbing claims (Hansen, DelaSalla, etc.) get coverage, but the less sensational research in the same area doesn’t.

      • The medical field makes heavy use of meta-analyses to vet or synthesize sets of related claims studying the same topic, and it seems that professional forestry and lands management may benefit from moving in whatever kind of similar direction that it can.

        While lands management is inescapably political, the sciences that underpin it should minimize that influence, but the very claims or claimants you cite are those that get widespread attention and are operating from institutions that exist to advance political, not scientific claims. (what’s in a name, earth island…)

        • The political slants seem to have been ‘mitigated’ when Congress voted for more money for land management agencies. I guess we’ll have to wait to see who litigates which projects. My prediction is that litigants will want some sort of cumulative effects analysis, before any projects get stated. Failing there will surely lead to project-specific lawsuits, too. It might even come down to new lawsuits against Sierra Nevada thinning projects. I’m also still waiting for the inevitable claim that the new Congressional funding is merely a “giveaway for the timber industry”.

          • Larry, people have already said that it’s “a giveaway to timber industry..” I just don’t have the quotation at hand. I’ll post the next one I find.

        • A- I think the 10 Questions paper was the response of fire scientists to some of those claims, and perhaps our own meta-analysis.
          However there does seem to be a breakdown between who gets media coverage (which I attribute to some form of the good old person network) and what the boring old regular fire scientists say.


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