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Spurious Certainty: How Ignoring Measurement Error and Environmental Heterogeneity May Contribute to Environmental Controversies

Reinette Biggs, Stephen R. Carpenter, and William A. Brock. BioScience 59: 65-76 (2009)


Disputes over conflicting information from different studies play a prominent role in many environmental controversies. Rather than resulting from flawed or fraudulent science, we suggest that conflicting findings may often result from the complex nature of environmental systems and the limitations of our analytical tools. Using heuristic simulation examples, we show how environmental heterogeneity and limitations in our ability to measure and model environmental systems can give rise to conflicting inferences even for very simple systems. Although analytical tools are improving, individual studies will remain limited in their ability to describe complex environmental systems. We suggest that, instead of being a curse, multiple studies with conflicting findings often provide an opportunity to expand and refine our understanding of complex environmental systems. Using hierarchical Bayesian techniques, we show how pooling multiple studies can enable us to generate a broader, richer, and more accurate understanding of the dynamics of a system and to better estimate our uncertainties.

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Keywords: hierarchical Bayes, meta-analysis, measurement error, environmental heterogeneity, complex systems

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