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Failures of Cognition and Conservation

August 22, 2011

Cognition. Even psychics get it wrong. (Scene from the Minority Report).

I recently pointed out that modern environmentalism correlates with rational and self-expression values.  Since that post I have been thinking about the ‘why’.   That is, why might we need these values?

My tentative answer is that we need a rational, scientific mindset to move beyond the failures of human cognition.  And, to the extent that this mindset is not prevalent among elites, we need a vibrant market place of ideas to speak truth to power.

I shared these ideas with a few friends this week and found myself mostly talking about cognitive failures that limit progress in ocean conservation.  I share with you today what I perceive as the top three offenders.

1. Sampling Bias

Sampling bias is a “systematic error due to a non-random sample of a population.” Though this sounds like something just for statisticians to worry about, we ordinary people make this error all the time. And this error in reasoning is a fundamental driver of disagreement between fishermen and fisheries scientists.  Daniel Pauly explains this well in an interview with Fisherman Life magazine:

There’s always disagreement between fishermen and government scientists about these issues [catch limits] because fishermen and scientists operate differently.  Imagine an overfished area of the sea in the shape of a hockey field with nets at either end. The few fish left therein would gather around the goals because fish like structured habitats…The fishermen would make a beeline to the goals, catch the fish around them, and say the scientists do not know what they are talking about. The subjective impression the fishermen get is always that there’s lots of fish – because they only go to places that still have them.

2. Confirmation Bias (or Ideology)

Confirmation bias is a “tendency for people to favor information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses”.  Put another way, it is the problem that occurs when we do not challenge our beliefs.  I think this has led to a problem of ideology on both sides of the ocean conservation divide.

Some fishermen think conservationists want to end all fishing.   For example, the Recreation Fishing Alliance was claimed that Wal-mart’s charitable donations to ocean conservation organizations was an attack on fishermen, yet the evidence is strong that MPAs support healthy fish populations:

Wal-Mart announced this week its efforts to help fund the demise of both the recreational and commercial fishing industry while also working to ensure that the next generation of sportsmen will have less access to coastal fish stocks than at any point in U.S. history.

Meanwhile, some conservationists think fishermen have conspired to ‘fish out’ the oceans.  Here – unexpectedly enough – I think Daniel Pauly has been at fault.  In the New Republic, he suggests that a criminal morality has been the fundamental cause of global overfishing:

Our oceans have been the victims of a giant Ponzi scheme, waged with Bernie Madoff–like callousness by the world’s fisheries…The scheme was carried out by nothing less than a fishing-industrial complex–an alliance of corporate fishing fleets, lobbyists, parliamentary representatives, and fisheries economists.

But isn’t there better evidence that fishermen have acted quite morally considering the ‘ideology of abundance’ that pervaded fisheries management until relatively recently? After all, few people understood that global fish stocks were in trouble until the late-80s, early-90s.  (Michael Weber is a good read on this).

3. Shifting Baselines or Dawkins ‘Middle World’

Shifting baselines is a term that describes how humans have a poor conception of how much of the natural world has been degraded by our actions, because of our short life-spans and faulty memories. Thus, what we see as pristine nature would be seen by our ancestors as hopelessly degraded, and what we see as degraded our children will view as ‘natural’.   This term was coined by Pauly (can I mention him enough?), expanded upon by Jackson and Knowlton, and even tested by a research team at Imperial College London.

While I like this term, I find Richard Dawkin’s concept of humanity living in a ‘Middle World’ far more encompassing of our cognitive problem. As he writes in The God Delusion:

[T]he way we see the world, and the reason why we find some things intuitively easy to grasp and others hard, is that our brains are themselves evolved organs: on-board computers, evolved to help us survive in a world – I shall use the name Middle World – where the objects that mattered to our survival were neither very large nor very small; a world where things either stood still or moved slowly compared with the speed of light; and where the very improbable could safely be treated as impossible.

Unfortunately, our survival is no longer just threatened by Middle World phenomenon, but also Big World phenomenon like ecosystem degradation and climate change.  Here’s Michael Conathan writing on that problem and the ocean’s ‘image’:

[T]he ocean has an image problem. Only it’s not a problem in the typical sense. When we think “image problem,” we think Charlie Sheen. Or high fructose corn syrup. Or Congress…The ocean’s image problem, however, is of the opposite kind. When we go down to the shore and look out at the waves, do a bit of bodysurfing, maybe watch a blazing orange and pink sunset, then swing by the fish market and pick up a fresh, local, sustainable filet of something white and flaky to bring home and fry up in the pan, we don’t see what’s really taking place beneath the surface. We don’t notice the decades of habitat degradation from coastal development and polluted runoff. We don’t see the microscopic organisms struggling to build their shells and skeletons in acidified water that dissolves them almost as quickly as they grow. We can’t comprehend that the populations of fish and marine life we experience today are such a far cry from the teeming ecosystems considered normal by even our parents and grandparents.

All the scientific analyses and drumbeats of overfishing and climate change notwithstanding, it’s hard to ask people to develop a different perception than what they see with their own eyes…Yet sometimes we must believe in the things we cannot see.

“Yet sometimes we must believe in things we cannot see.”  Very true, and an orientation to reason and science helps us get there.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. August 23, 2011 6:33 am

    “Environment may initially shape the range of choices available to a people at a given moment, but then culture reshapes environment in responding to those choices. The reshaped environment presents a new set of possibilities for cultural reproduction, thus setting up a new cycle of mutual determination. Changes in the way people create and re-create their livelihood must be analyzed in terms of changes not only in their social relations but in their ecological ones as well…” -Excerpt from the American Environmentalist

    A little gem I thought relevant to your shifting baselines concept. If only we could get people to think on broader scales, the environment might stand a chance.

  2. August 23, 2011 12:55 pm

    Here’s a good follow up on ideology and political polarization:

    “In the world of environmental regulation, where the hope is to write rules that both industry and science can live with, few areas are as contentious as fishing. Especially on the East Coast, fishermen attack scientists as mired in bottomless ignorance about how fish are actually caught. Scientists sometimes describe fishermen as racing to catch the last fish, regardless of the harm to vanishing species.”

  3. Melinda permalink
    August 25, 2011 7:16 am

    I recently wrote about people killing snakes and while doing so kept hitting up against the idea that some gap in human thinking must exist for so many to believe it’s okay and even necessary. I got stuck there, though, not knowing enough about psychology to know where to start. Your post has been very enlightening! Thanks for sharing!

    • August 25, 2011 8:29 am

      I think you’re absolutely right. I see the same thing in sharks. I think we may well be programmed by evolution to over-estimate the threat posed by potentially dangerous creatures, and thus the killer response. Meanwhile, many real threats to our well-being go unnoticed. Here is a great (and entertaining) article on things that kill more people than sharks:


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