Kate Sherren

Landscapes - People - Global change

Congratulations Yan Chen

Yan Chen, MES 2016

Yan Chen, MES 2016

Yan Chen defended her innovative SSHRC- and NSGS-funded MES thesis masterfully on Friday. She gleaned youth landscape values from a year’s worth of Instagram images from a 5-km radius of the actual and proposed headponds, respectively, of the Mactaquac and Site C dams. Being the first defense since a large new class of MES students started in the fall, the room was packed with supporters. Committee member John Parkins skyped in from the University of Alberta, and Faculty of Management colleague Jennifer Grek-Martin examined the thesis, which included wide-ranging discussions on landscape, sense of place, aesthetics, digitalism (our new religion as described by Yuval Harari), and virtual/augmented reality. It was everything you hope a defense can be: Yan spoke strongly in support of her work, and creatively about its potential implications and improvements. I look forward to getting her papers out in the literature, and building on it with a SSHRC Insight Grant that went in on Monday, led by colleague and expert in making Big Data matter, Mike Smit.


Low-tech cool tools for schools

Sample artwork from one NS south shore grade 4 student, before and after a 7-lesson climate change  module.

Sample artwork from one NS south shore grade 4 student, before and after a 7-lesson climate change module.

I was pleased to be invited last week to present remotely to a workshop in Vancouver run by Dr. Stephen Sheppard’s lab, Collaborative for Advanced Landscape Planning (CALP). He and his team have – among other things – developed the Future Delta 2.0 computer game for use exploring climate change challenges and solutions for the British Columbia lower mainland. Thanks to SSHRC connection grant funding they brought researchers, youth, government and teachers together to workshop the tool and its application, and discuss broader issues of climate change education. Branded a ‘Cool Tools‘ event, I contributed my low-tech work with MREM Jillian Baker and Jason Loxton using art in schools to teach and evaluate climate change modules. I was reminded of the lack of success we had getting our modules through the Department of Education and into teacher’s hands, perhaps because at the time there were only two learning outcomes in the entire NS curriculum that directly related to climate change. I hope things have changed now, five years later.

Tchau, World Congress on Silvo-Pastoral Systems

Guillermo Martinez Pastur questions Aida López-Sánchez during WG 1 at the World Congress on Silvo Pastoral Systems in Evora, Portugal.

Guillermo Martinez Pastur questions Aida López-Sánchez during WG 1 at the World Congress on Silvo Pastoral Systems in Evora, Portugal.

I am just back from Evora, Portugal, for the first World Congress on Silvo-Pastoral Systems. On the basis of my spatial background and postdoc work on scattered tree grazing systems in Australia I co-convened with Argentinian Guillermo Martinez Pastur working group 1 on mapping and assessing large-scale trends. But I myself presented in working group 14 on integrative approaches, synthesizing bibliometric and rhetoric work with Carlisle Kent last year on my new grant on holistic grazing management to outline three reasons for polarization on HM and five ways to avoid it. The conference was diverse and extremely worthwhile, showing the value of problem- or landscape-focused conferences over disciplinary ones. I enjoyed connecting to young and established scholars of cultural ecosystem services, integrative research, and landscape analysis. Paired keynotes by Guy Beaufoy (about EU policy interactions) and Ika Darnhofer (on farmer adoption) were particularly rich in insight.

Jesus rests on a cork earth in a diorama at the Igreja de São Francisco.

Jesus rests on a cork earth in a diorama at the Igreja de São Francisco.

A surprise pleasure was a day spent visiting pastoral/Montado grazing properties, riding the bus alongside Lynn Huntsinger, co-author of the 2014 critical commentary on my post-doctoral work that inspired my new grant on HM. Interesting combinations of livestock (cattle, pigs, sheep) and trees (cork, pine nut) were explored on the farms we visited. Later I saw signs of the importance of cork for this culture: cork used as a symbol of earth itself (right).

The UNESCO-listed host community of Evora is a fascinating place, and while we had little time amidst the events to explore, I managed to take in the Capela dos Ossos (bone chapel) during a quick trip to the Pharmacy for something to ease my now-characteristic if tiresome conference cold symptoms. I very much regret not making it to the Fórum Eugénio de Almeida, which:

…is a space designed for the promotion of artistic and cultural actions guided by social responsibility and sustainable practices, committed to a multidisciplinary, instructive and inclusive programme…

I was intrigued by the museum’s exterior, which sported a huge vertical banner reading “What’s Past is Prologue”, as well as writing along the fence at the rear saying “Everything is a Story”. Both were poignant, sitting next to ruins of a first-century Roman temple, along with more recent (but still old) water tower, cathedral, convent, and palace. It feels like a place that has found a way to layer history without much sacrifice of past or future.

A fence is blazoned with Everything is a Story, bookended by a Roman temple and a water tower.

A fence is blazoned with Everything is a Story, bookended by a Roman temple and a water tower.

The 16th century University of Évora itself was a luxurious space to spend extended time, with marble arches and floors, half-tiled walls and many, many tiny cups of coffee. We were there during a period of extensive hazing of first years by upperclassmen and women, the latter wearing full black suits and capes (unthinkable in the heat). Their classrooms are a tourist attraction, as well as a conference location, which must be strange for them. I snuck into the 18th century Geografia room, which had an impressive raised pedestal for the professor and tiled murals representing the elements, the seasons and the continents (see America, below).

I would have liked to be in this American Geography class.

I would have liked to be in this American Geography class.

MES Scholarship opportunity: How can we learn to love the renewable energy landscapes of the Anthropocene?

Wind turbines near Amherst, Nova Scotia, with train passing

Wind turbines near Amherst, Nova Scotia, with a train passing.

I have a new Legacy scholarship opportunity open for very high-GPA domestic students aiming for MES entry in September 2017.  Please get in touch if you think you might be a good fit, or to discuss other opportunities that close this fall such as Nova Scotia Graduate Scholarships (also open to international students) and SSHRC (domestic only).

Landscape impacts are oft-cited barriers to changes that are otherwise agreed to be necessary, such as those implied by a transition to renewable energy sources. Many examples exist, however, of deep attachment to man-made and otherwise purely functional landscape features such as lighthouses, factories, hydroelectric dam headponds, that in some cases extend far beyond their utility. The landscape of the Tantramar Marshes, the low-lying area that links New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, presents a unique opportunity to explore how people attach meaning and form attachments to large, utilitarian infrastructure. A natural experiment is occurring in the region, by the overlap of the 2014 dismantling of the Radio Canada International (RCI) shortwave transmission towers (constructed in 1944) and the construction of 15 2.1 MW wind turbines in Amherst in 2012 by the Sprott Power Corp. Prospective students might use interviews, archival data, social media and/or spatial analysis to:

  • Understand the process by which attachment is formed to man-made, functional landscape infrastructure, over time;
  • Understand what drives the acceptance of and attachment to functional landscape features by locals; or,
  • Build insights about how to facilitate functional landscape change without sacrificing sense of place.

When to call a social scientist (or how to fool one)

In science, when human behavior enters the equation, things go nonlinear. That’s why Physics is easy and Sociology is hard. (Neil Degrasse Tyson, Twitter, 5 Feb 2016)

It is heartening to see increasing support for interdisciplinary applied research from funding bodies. Some countries (like Canada) still largely divide funding programs by discipline, requiring researchers to carve out feasible standalone disciplinary research subprojects within more interdisciplinary projects and subject them individually to the rigours of granting bodies. By contrast, places such as the European Union welcome large, integrative and synthetic research projects. It seems clear, however, that such opportunities do not necessarily increase the likelihood of interdisciplinary team research. In fact, sometimes it seems to encourage members of more disciplinary teams to extend into unfamiliar domains to meet granting requirements. It is human nature to want to work with people similar to us, who we understand and share language, methods and a sense of what consititutes good evidence. Specifically, based on what I have recently been asked to review from numerous journals over the past year, it is common for teams of biophysical scientists to engage in social science research, in a way that would be unheard of in reverse. In many cases the first authors are students, themselves ‘converted’ from biophysical research to take on the social angle, poorly mentored by a team of biophysical scientists.

I am very sympathetic of the drive to reach outside familiar domains in research. My own career is not linear, and my set of interests and methods broad. I have many times felt the terror of the dilettante at the conferences of various disciplines into which I ‘dipped’ (before I learned to stop going to disciplinary conferences). My first degree was Geography, so I am a natural ‘borrower’. I find my natural home at applied conferences and in problem-based journals, where researchers and readers alike are more concerned with answering an important question, than within which paradigm the answer was found. Unlike many, I am enthusiastic about the creative mixing of methods and theory as appropriate to solve problems, but believe that there is a blindness and an impotence to social science that is done in the image of biophysical science, and without building on (or even awareness of) an extant rich body of understanding about how people think, feel and behave.

Purity, a great (and relevant) webcomic by xkcd.

Purity, a great (and relevant) webcomic by xkcd.

Red flags

There are five common flaws that I see in social science papers led by biophysical teams, though of course they also are committed more broadly. Together, they are indicators of a positivistic mindset that has been set to a post-positivistic task – quantitative social science – without adequate recognition of the ways that people differ from biota, and that many scholars are already working in that space and have made substantial headway.

  1. Focus on sample size above instrument design. It is critical in any research using statistics to acquire a large enough sample of the desired population that inference can be made. Occasionally, however, it is clear that the design of the research instrument and its application has been sacrificed to the pursuit for a large sample. The sample is assumed to be the ultimate mark of quality, and used to generate blinding amounts of statistics, perhaps in the hope that the logic of the task that generated them is not interrogated. Sometimes, the pure distracting power of such academic ‘flashbang’ means editors publish the work, assuming that the presence of such tables indicates the work is rigorous. Protesting to one editor, I was told that the use of complex statistics, so long as the tools are used with technical correctness, renders the work valid even if the insight is minimal because of poor instrument or research design.
  2. Use of convenience samples. A common sacrifice in the quest for a large n is the nature of the sample. In ecological work it may take a long time to find the species of interest, but once you have done so, the only limit to finding enough to sample is time. As long as individuals meet the criteria you can take what measurements or observations are needed to suit the study. By contrast, one of the great challenges of social science is how to find your population – define them and determine their prevalence for sampling – and find a way to gather information ethically from a robust number or diversity of them. You can’t force people to participate, unless your study depends entirely upon observation in public places. You can send surveys and reminders, you can go door-to-door, you can set up desks in high-traffic areas, but people are busy and can still say no. Social scientists focus on justifying survey effort and the validity of the sample achieved, and thus the insight, but would not simply ask different people in order to fill a deficit. A biophysical researcher, by contrast, may assume a person is a person, regardless of context, and turn to a convenience sample (e.g. tourists instead of residents) even when to do so renders the question they are asking utterly nonsensical. The salience of the question, the respondents’ ‘stake’ in the subject and the outcome of the research, is critical for generating meaningful responses.
  3. Ignoring context. Context is also substantial in how the data is collected from the chosen sample. When questing for a large sample size, it is common to use multiple interviewers. Rarely, however, do biophysical researchers doing such work account for (or even seem to recognize) the ways that interpersonal dynamics may bias the resulting answers. This is not surprising, as the gender and age of someone doing biotic samples does not generally impact the measurements taken. The gender and age of different interviewers will create biases within subsets of the data, however, as research participants respond differently to one then they may have to another. Moreover, research participants who are interviewed alone may respond differently to those who are interviewed with their partner and/or their children at their elbow, listening to what they say. These biases must be recognized and discussed when working with people.
  4. Gaming Cronbach’s Alpha. Another red flag is the misuse of a common social science metric to generate indices (often called ‘scales’) based on responses to related questions. Cronbach’s Alpha is was developed to help social scientists assess whether responses to a set of questions were consistent enough across the sample for them to be collapsed into a single measure. That is, is each person’s set of responses internally consistent, even if the responses range widely across the sample? An acceptable Alpha suggests reliability, but not necessarily validity, i.e. that the index measures what it is intended to. Many researchers ‘game’ this metric (not just biophysical converts), testing various sets of their questions to identify the ‘best’ score, and simply dropping the questions from their set that are being answered differently. Biophysical scientists seem particularly prone to trusting the statistics over the respondents. The danger comes in the blind acceptance that the questions left standing – those that give the best alpha – are a genuine measure of the phenomenon that was previously represented by a larger set of questions. The remaining questions must be interrogated to generate a meaningful index name that reflects the new conceptual coverage, and some attempt made to understand why other questions were not answered similarly. There may be a logical set of unidimensional subconcepts embedded within the question set that could be converted into their own indices. Moreover, it may be that a set of questions that more comprehensively cover the phenomenon may still be better than a subset, even if the alpha is lower than it could be. Such statistics are meant to be an aid, not a replacement, for sociological thinking.
  5. Lack of engagement with social science literature. The final red flag is a lack of engagement with existing social science research, assuming that there is nothing that exists to build on, and this is very characteristic of biophysical researchers undertaking qualitative or quantitative methods. This lack of literature review is evident in the design of research, for instance not using established scales, concepts, theories or typologies from related work in survey design, leading to weak instruments. This is also evident from discussion sections that ignore existing social science research on the same or related topics, for instance discussing whether survey responses were correct in relation to the biophysical phenomena that the questions cover, instead of how the responses relate to what we know about what guides human behaviour.

Of course social scientists do this stuff sometimes, too. But we should know better.



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