Biological Sciences

The Renewed Power of Observation


Rafe Sagarin, Associate Research Professor
Institute of the Environment
University of Arizona


My book “Observation and Ecology: Broadening the Scope of Science to Understand a Complex World” (Island Press), co-authored with Aníbal Pauchard, discusses changing trends in science . It is essentially a “Back to the Future” story, where the old ways of doing science— intensive natural observation informed by the awareness that biological studies  are directly relevant to human societies—meet today’s enormous environmental challenges and modern observational technologies. We argue that observations of the world–whether handed down through the hunting stories of tribal elders, taken by citizens counting neighborhood birds, or compiled from millions of satellite observations of a rain forest–have enormous potential to help us understand a rapidly changing planet. Above all, the book tries to convey the current excitement in life sciences as we enter a new era of discovery, driven as much by urgency as natural curiosity.


My research has always focused on questions that are difficult or impossible to address with controlled, small-scale experiments in the field or laboratory.  I rely on historical data, long-term monitoring, literary records, sometimes even the results from gambling contests, to understand patterns and processes in ecological systems.  For my very first scientific study, my colleague Sarah Gilman and I counted tide pool invertebrates such as sea urchins and anemones, and compared our results to a survey at precisely the same locations in the 1930s.  This simple study was one of the first to reveal the impact of climate change on a specific ecological community.  Essentially, I am trying to demonstrate, in my research and writing, that observing nature without manipulating it is still an  enormously powerful tool in the present era. Using old tools in new ways, we can achieve a robust and scientifically defensible understanding of our changing world.


We are entering both a scary and exciting time in the life sciences. It is a scary time because we now recognize that the last 50 years of studying ecology under the controlled, “strong inference”, mode, where we propose hypotheses before we conduct studies.  We expect our results to simply confirm or disprove these hypotheses, and this assumption has left us woefully unprepared to deal with anthropogenic effects on natural systems. In many cases it is logistically impossible, not to mention ethically inappropriate, to deliberately create even small-scale replications of the destructive human activities that now affect our planet.  For example, historical observations strongly suggest that climate warming is shifting the ranges of species. However, it wouldn’t be ethical to test this experimentally by transplanting species outside of their native ranges, since they might become invasive in their transplanted range.

However, this is also an exciting time for the life science because, for the first time in history, we have observational tools such as remote sensing, animal borne cameras and sensors, as well as genomics all of which allow us to perceive the changing world in unprecedented ways.  Moreover, there is a new openness to interdisciplinary and non-academic methodologies—for example, learning from fishermen and foresters who hold deep “local ecological knowledge,” or gathering data in large-scale networked “citizen science” projects where non-scientists pool observations of natural phenomena like bird migrations. These methodologies will help us address, scientifically, some of the major challenges we face.

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