16 July 2009

Society needs a range of alternatives

The following part of a recent letter appeared on Conservation Biology makes an interesting point about the role of scientists in presenting the problem and a whole range of choices, and then let the decision makers decide.

There may not be a 'best choice', and what is seen as best sometimes depends on the circumstances.

Suffering myself from an injured knee I understand all too well the reported difficulty in choosing among 'least worst' options.



(...) I recently injured my knee, so I went to an orthopedic surgeon. After subjecting my knee to several tests, the doctor gave me his diagnosis followed with descriptions of several treatment alternatives. Considerations included future condition of my knee (assuming the treatment was successful), relative likelihood of success, how long I might be incapacitated following surgery, and the risk of undesirable outcomes. There was no “best cure.” In fact, one alternative was to do nothing. The best cure was my choice—a choice based on my subjective assessment of multiple factors. I did not choose the treatment that would make my knee almost 100% functional. That treatment had the lowest probability of success, would entail many weeks on crutches, and months of physical therapy. The treatment I chose would make my knee about 80–90% functional (which is all I need at my age), had a high probability of success, and would have me on my feet in days. If I did not have medical insurance, then the monetary cost of each treatment would have greatly influenced my decision.

Scientists (and social scientists) should interact with policy makers in much the same way the doctor interacted with me. Scientists collect data and diagnose the current condition of a population or ecological system. If the current condition is thought to be “unhealthy,” then alternative treatments to improve that condition are proposed. The description of each treatment should include a projection of the future condition, probabilities of achieving those conditions, the relative costs, and other available information relevant to the decision. Like the doctor, our role as scientists is to provide comprehensive, accurate, objective information about a range of alternatives so that society (the patient’s guardian) can make the best decision regarding the conservation of biodiversity (the patient).

Wilhere G.F. 2009. Society needs a range of alternatives: a reply to Villard and Jonsson. Conservation Biology 23(1):4-5.

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