Kate Sherren

Landscapes - People - Global change

Tag: Geography

New Orleans in the rear view

The final of 50 parade floats in the Chalmette Irish, Italian and Isleno parade, where they not only throw beads and trinkets, but also vegetables, fruit, and here, toilet paper.

The final of 50 parade floats in the Chalmette Irish, Italian and Isleno parade, where they not only throw beads and trinkets, but also vegetables, fruit, and here, toilet paper.

It has a sprint since getting back from AAG in New Orleans. It was my first time at that epic event, spread across several downtown hotels. I was surprised to actually run into people I knew from other organizations like IASNR and topics like rangelands, ecosystem services and climate adaptation that I didn’t necessarily connect with Geography, including MES alum Paul Sylvestre, now doing a PhD at Queens. Didn’t lay eyes on my Dalhousie colleagues, however, without effort.

Geography is big enough in its traditional form, but it has expanded and become much more problem-based than the Australian Geographer’s Association meeting in 2005 after which I swore off Geography conferences (that one kept human, physical and spatial geographers in never-the-twain separate sessions irregardless of topic). Happily surprised, I attended four or five of the Climate Vulnerability and Adaptation special sessions organized by the Human Dimensions of Global Change Specialty Group, which had many highlights but particularly memorable were Hannah Gosnell’s talk on happiness and regenerative grazing (HM) in Australia, and Neil Adger’s speech after his lifetime achievement award, as well as his former postdoc Don Nelson’s moving tribute. I was pleased with the content if not the crowd size in the two sessions in which I participated, on Recycling Energy Landscapes and (via Mike Smit on our new SSHRC) in Computation for Public Engagement in Complex Problems: From Big Data, to Modeling, to Action.

Phase 3 of a 3-phase demonstration of the value of wetland buffers in protecting cities from storm action in the Cabildo Museum.

Phase 3 of a 3-phase demonstration of the value of wetland buffers in protecting cities from storm action in the Presbytere Museum.

It was grand to be back in New Orleans after 16 years, even through a deluge event with flood warnings. I was lucky to get into my old apartment which was wide open, being gutted for renovation. My old boulangerie is still there (though the fougasse is not as I recall), and the streetcars still charm. The French Quarter Festival was on – all local music – and the best food we found was offered by ex-military cajun Adam Lee out of a small pub kitchen uptown in Prytania Hall. A muffuletta sandwich from the Central Grocery, eaten in the sun in front of Jackson Square listening to a brass band, came second. Nothing else came close. Very cool to see ‘planning for water’ and the importance of wetland buffers highlighted in the Presbytere’s museum installation on Katrina.

Erstwhile Fazendeville, Chalmette Battlefield

Erstwhile Fazendeville, Chalmette Battlefield

On our last day in town we ventured east, Ubering through the Lower 9th Ward (hit hardest by Katrina) onward to Chalmette, which was having its Irish, Italian and Isleno (Canary Islander) parade (see top picture). For some reason lost to time those on floats pelt paradegoers with fruit and vegetables, as well as the usual plastic beads and trinkets. Potatoes, carrots, CABBAGES: I even saw someone holding a pineapple. We killed some time first at the Chalmette Battlefield, where American forces beat off the British in 1814. Alongside the straining levee, the Mississippi running high after the deluge, the cemetery and battlefield were very wet. Crayfish chimneys were all over the wet lawn of the former battlefield. I was saddened as much by the story of Fazendeville as by the earlier loss of life . Quoting from the plaque:

Jean Pierre Fazende, a free man of colour and New Orleans grocer, inherited land within the battlefield in 1857. After the Civil War, he divided it and sold it to freed slaves from local plantations. Eventually the community grew to more than 200 people and became known as Fazendeville. The National Park Service bought the land in 1966 after long, contentious negotiations.

Where did they move to? Mostly the New Orleans 9th Ward, that area so hard hit by Katrina. What a bad joke. The old main street is visible only as a linear depression today, but the plaque says the community still meets. Like the residents of Africville here in Halifax, or former residents of what is now the Gagetown weapons range in New Brunswick, they have reunions and otherwise somehow keep the community alive after being forcibly removed.

Chalmette Battlefield Cemetery, inundated

Chalmette Battlefield Cemetery, inundated

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.

 

 

What farm fragmentation looks like in Nova Scotia

Our typology of Nova Scotia farm fragmentation based on the number of non-contiguous parcels and the time to drive across the two furthest apart parcels.

Our typology of Nova Scotia farm fragmentation based on the number of non-contiguous parcels and the time to drive across the two furthest apart parcels.

When I moved back to Canada from Australia, and started interviewing farmers in Nova Scotia, I was surprised at how small and fragmented their holdings were. I found myself wondering how this spatial pattern influenced their management. Does it mean that it is harder to think of a farm as an ecosystem, and manage accordingly? Or is it a boon for biodiversity, as remoter parcels are left to nature? I threw a few questions about farm fragmentation on our Marginal Land survey last year, and those preliminary results are now in, recently presented on a poster at ISSRM, Farm as ecosystem: What is the impact of fragmented property ownership on farm management? It show us that fragmentation in Nova Scotia is intentional, the result of purposeful land acquisition by serious farmers. While it cannot be ascribed to fragmentation alone based on the data we collected, these high fragmentation farmers were less likely to have ponds and wetlands on their properties (as a function of farm area), though they had just as many woodlands, which are seen to have high ecosystem service value (timber, etc). Moreover, high fragmentation farmers were less likely to undertake biodiversity-friendly farming techniques. I think this is enough to suggest more research is warranted. Next time I want to look for diversity within farms. Does the farmer treat far-flung parcels differently than those closer to the heart of his operations?

Tectonic quilt

Students examining Tectonic Quilt, which they help to create with artist Ben Volta.

Students examining Tectonic Quilt, which they help to create with artist Ben Volta.

Becalmed in Philadelphia enroute to ISSRM, a highlight of my airport layover has been some time spent with the so-called Tectonic Quilt, an ink-on-paper public artwork collectively created by Ben Volta and local fifth grade students. The artists used country boundaries filled with abstracted national symbols and colours as overlapping puzzle pieces to reconstruct the continental shapes most of us find familiar. A close look causes consternation – are those watersheds? – and then surprise – is that New Zealand where Japan should be? Finally, however, it challenges this Geographer’s self-conception of familiarity with the globe. Plucked from their context, the shapes lose meaning. I think the students are suggesting perhaps our national differences should, too. I could take objection to the stars and stripes forming the ‘ocean’, connecting it all, but I think their heart is in the right place. There could be a wink here towards the notoriously poor knowledge of world geography of US citizens, especially youth. Frankly, I’m not feeling much more geographically literate, today. I couldn’t find Canada – maybe it was overlooked?

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