Emergent Observations

One of the things that surprised Aníbal and I most when writing about technologically-aided data collection was how even the newest forms of technological observations are already decaying or disappearing.  We noted that the original 1000 year old Domesday book is still more readable than a 30 year old modern revised edition created by the BBC (and unfortunately stored on now incompatible with everything laser discs). We cited a paper by Scott Loarie and colleagues arguing that cuts to US satellite programs were jeopardizing their utility for conservation biology.  Now atmospheric scientist Kevin Trenberth has published a report (covered in the science press by NewScientist and Nature and others) arguing that cuts and delays in NASA’s Earth Observing satellite program will leave us with woefully inadequate abilities to observe and model climate change.

There will still be satellites in our skies, acknowledges Trenberth, just not enough of them.  That’s because multiple observers produce multiple emergent benefits, benefits that are disproportionate to the benefit of single observational platforms.

At the heart of his argument is Trenberth’s acknowledgement (one that undoubtedly will be seized on by skeptics with some appropriate justification, and by deniers with political motivations) that the reliability of satellite data is problematic because of uncertainty in the data, processing errors, and the inability to cross-calibrate observations between different sensors.  Because of this, having spotty observations, or even continual coverage from a single platform, can sometimes give you more uncertainty than clarity.

By contrast, an observational network with redundant sensory systems increases clarity by providing a multitude of vantage points, and fosters the emergent property that multiple observations can be used to validate and calibrate one another. Not surprisingly, such a redundant network is key to how almost all natural adaptable systems deal with uncertainty and change.  Just consider that we have eyes and ears and nerves and noses and an amazing tongue for sensing our world, and how difficult it becomes for us if we are impaired in just one of these senses. Multiply redundant sensory networks allow an organism to quickly sense change in the world, to find patterns in that change by viewing it in multiple dimensions simultaneously, and to cross-check and correct errors in those observations.  This is why animals are still better detectors of tsunamis than the most sophisticated tsunami alarms—they sense the changes wrought by a coming wave with multiple detectors (vibrational, chemical, sometimes even magnetic) and they continually resample to rule out false alarms.

Without multiple perspectives, the climatic trajectory in one variable, or in one place, might falsely give us a sense of the trajectory of the whole complex system.  Without resampling, an errant signal may raise false alarms.  In this way, more observers and observations become more than the sum of their parts.  They additionally imbue their resultant data with qualities—accuracy and holism, deepness and breadth—that simply cannot exist in singular perspectives.


About Rafe

Rafe Sagarin is a marine ecologist and environmental policy analyst at the University of Arizona. In both his science and policy work, Sagarin connects basic observations of nature to issues of broad societal interest, including conservation biology, protecting public trust resources, and making responses to terrorism and other security threats more adaptable. Dr. Sagarin is a recipient of a 2011 Guggenheim Fellowship and has recently published two books, Learning from the Octopus (Basic Books, March 2012) and Observation and Ecology (Island Press, July 2012), which show how nature observation--when extended across large scales and enhanced with both new technologies and greater deference to traditional knowledge sources—is revealing profound new insights about our dynamic social and ecological world. He was a Geological Society of America Congressional Science Fellow in the office of U.S. Representative (and later U.S. Secretary of Labor) Hilda Solis. He has taught ecology and environmental policy at Duke University, California State University Monterey Bay, Stanford University, University of California, Los Angeles and University of Arizona. His research has appeared in Science, Nature, Conservation Biology, Ecological Monographs, Trends in Ecology and Evolution, Foreign Policy, Homeland Security Affairs and other leading journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the editor, with Terence Taylor of the volume Natural Security: A Darwinian Approach to a Dangerous World (2008, University of California Press).
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