ICES Annual Science Conference 2022

Jason S. Link

Marine ecosystem, fisheries, social, economic, and ocean science: why do we keep missing key dimensions, focusing on the wrong scales, and committing other sins of reductionism?


Did you ever notice that scientists like to argue?  These debates seem to be particularly intense when they inform and are applied to develop binding decisions about the oceans, resources, places, and people that we all care about—a lot of what ICES does.  And did you ever step back and listen to what scientists (i.e., we) argue about?  Often what marine scientists tend to argue over ultimately amounts to minutia.  Without excessively delving into the history and philosophy of science, a lot of this very detailed focus of science-thinking stems from its development in the broader cultural, societal, cognitive, legal, and economic context, and hence analytical and technical capabilities, of any given period.  In large part, a lot of the basis for current science-thinking was formed in the context of needing to adopt a reductionist perspective due to limited data, information, knowledge, and analytical options; seeking to ascertain detailed and specific mechanisms so one could ignore broader sets of variables beyond experimental control; and as part of an agrarian, land-based economy where one could readily see and manipulate various plot locations and monocultured sub-populations.  None of which reflect conditions actually facing one, and none of which are conducive to conducting science, in marine ecosystems.  Hence, we might do well to (dare I say we even must) adapt our science-thinking to better accommodate the current, broader cultural context, and associated technical and analytical capabilities, for marine sciences, particularly with our current emphasis and need for networking, integration, and holism-based thinking.  To do so, I point out a few considerations that may help us, as a marine science community, to expand our focus and explore whether that focus should indeed shift. 

First, life is multivariate.  And by extension, so are socio-ecological systems.  There are multiple dimensions to marine science and science applications.  Yes, we certainly need to utilize means to reduce that dimensionality and complexity, but not to the point that we neglect major features and dynamics that drive marine ecosystems just because we couldn't analyze them simultaneously in the past.  We typically focus on one or two dimensions at the expense of others (that may not have even been considered). This essentially makes the case for, not only how imperative it is for a multi-disciplinary perspective, but also a fuller reconsideration of what drives major patterns in marine ecosystems.  Second, the scale at which we focus often obfuscates larger, more apparent and emergent patterns.  Entire fields of study in complex adaptive systems theory, such as systems science, hierarchy theory, network dynamics, portfolio theory, and emergence imply that at times our focus (in terms of resolution, scope, extent, and ordered or relational emphasis) has been on approaches that might work in agricultural or forest plots and are assumed to work in the ocean, but usually do not.  There are growing numbers of examples to demonstrate where this has been the case, and how adopting non-terrestrially oriented views at alternate spatial, temporal and especially taxonomic scales have led to improvement.  Third, many of the simplifying assumptions made by our scientific predecessors no longer hold.  One hundred-plus years ago these founders of marine science disciplines presumed that we would revisit their simplifying assumptions as more information and technical skill became available, and they presumed we would expand and include more extensive scopes, not remaining in such a reduced, singular emphasis upon which we still focus.   Not only are the simplifying conditions often inaccurate (e.g., stationarity, minor importance of other factors beyond those of historical emphasis, limited internodal interactions, “everything else handled in a catch-all quadratic mortality or recruitment steepness or similar term," etc.), they are often unnecessary given the level of computing power, observations, databases, knowledge, and ultimately information available to us today.  Not that we know everything that there is to know about marine ecosystems, but we don't necessarily need to for making wise decisions thereon.  

Which leads to the final observation.  We have fallen into the trap that reductionism allows us to obtain a high degree of precision in our understanding, and anything short of that is an unacceptable amount of uncertainty for us to act upon.  And the corollary, that any holistic view is thus inherently more uncertain than the uncertainty of the component parts (which will be addressed in the previously noted  scale discussion). This is manifested partly, as noted earlier, in the dimensions we ignore but also as decision-paralysis and hence defaulting to static choices as an extreme version of unexamined path dependencies.   I fear that largely we have become paralyzed by the hyper-rigorous expectations we have placed on our applied science, to the point that we have conflated accuracy with precision and missed moving forward despite the ubiquitous and never-ceasing uncertainty in the ocean.  We are probably fooling ourselves into believing the illusion that high precision is attainable based on reductionism, when in fact high precision and low uncertainty may not ever actually truly exist when dealing with highly connected, very complex, three-dimensional marine socio-ecological systems.  Fields of study in decision science and theory, such as risk analysis, cognitive training, psychometrics, criteria analysis, and scenario planning, all afford the opportunity to move beyond the false expectation of hyper-detailed, parametric data for every process, taxa and functional relationship and can deal with more realistic levels of (higher) uncertainty. They allow us to make much-needed, still very rigorous, and very much informed decisions, which are scientifically robust but are not entrapped in this precision-conflation trap.  That is, decision making does not need very precise, and certainly not falsely precise, predictions to be good decisions. 

By briefly noting these considerations, hopefully we as a marine science community can have an honest self-appraisal and envision pathways to move beyond their collective inertia, inertia that results in business-as-usual in our science-thinking, something which is imperative that we overcome.  Lest we forget, all of this is occurring as the Global Ocean is undergoing changes and rates of change that extend beyond anything we have ever observed, with consequences we have not yet begun to fully understand. In conclusion, I posit that while attempting to avoid the overuse of TLAs, one really can encapsulate all this thinking as EBM.  Fortunately, ICES is moving in this EBM direction, but will it be at a pace that is sufficient to address and overcome these considerations?

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​Dr. Jason S. Link is the Senior Scientist (ST) for Ecosystem Management at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Marine Fisheries Service  in Woods Hole, USA.  Read his bio.

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Jason S. Link

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