[Coral-List] social and natural coral reef science

Kaufman, Leslie S lesk at bu.edu
Wed Apr 3 09:41:20 EDT 2013

Dear All-

The color of discourse might warm if everybody was aware that there does exist a discipline of ecological economics, and a science of coupled human and natural systems (CHANS).  Both are in their infancy, but they are real and are slowly grinding along in productive directions.  As a practitioner who happens to be a marine ecologist, I find the ecology much easier to deal with than the human behavior side of things; nonetheless we are attempting to broach that as well, as are many of our colleagues.

Ecological economics suffers under less unrealistic assumptions than classical economics, but any one model is fraught with hundreds of them- every equation is both an hypothesis, and an assumption depending upon your point of view and degree of religiosity about the model (ideally the modeler carries no such delusions).  I've noticed great reticence among some of my colleagues in abandoning old approaches for new ones that work better- for example, nonlinear mathematics to supplement structural equation models in complex systems.  Trying to parse even the ecological side of the system using only linear models is as suspect as any assumptions that economists have ever made, yet everybody does it...and they forget that it is an approximation only.

The problem we face is not one of social versus natural sciences, but of people's unique attributes as a functional element of nature.  The rest of nature evolves in a rational manner, strongly colored by chance, while people appear to operate by chance, with just a smidget of rational behavior.

This does complicate things a tad.

In any event, the problems before us involve both people and the rest of nature, and it is not just a matter of convincing people, but rather of anticipating how they might behave under different scenarios and taking that into account in designing policy.  Whether our subsequent actions are guided by wisdom alone or assisted by much fresh data and complicated models, the process is basically the same.   Science does offer a shot at avoiding past mistakes, and a lesser but still valuable chance of anticipating the unthinkable. ..but only if we stop avoiding the embarrassing inscrutability of human behavior.


Les Kaufman
Professor of Biology
Boston University Marine Program
Marine Conservation Fellow
Conservation International
lesk at bu.edu<mailto:lesk at bu.edu>

More information about the Coral-List mailing list