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Science Chronicles September 2014: Knowledge


Great Bear Rainforest, B.C. by Flickr user **604*250** via Creative Commons

Table of Contents

3   Sterling et al: Multiple Knowledge Systems
8   Game: The $115 Billion Question
11  Kareiva: Nature as a Problem Solver
15  Adams: Counting Elephants
19  Drinking from the Fire Hose
20  Announcements
21  New Conservancy-Authored Publications

Editor's Note

A long time ago, I thought I wanted to be a philosopher. This may come as little surprise to many of you, but it did not last long, less than a semester. The sad truth of the matter became clear when my philosophy professor bluntly informed me that a minimum of common sense would do away with the ideas I was attempted to foist upon him. The class was in existentialism and I was not aware, and am still less than clear, whether existentialism, despite its myriad attractions, and common sense ever truly overlapped. So it was probably fitting that my career in philosophy went nowhere.

Despite the lingering disappointment, I am still interested in one of the key questions raised in that classroom: how do we know what
we know? But perhaps more urgently, should the “how” part of the question concern us as a practical matter, or is it better to just accumulate more knowledge, more information, that will help solve pressing problems as quickly as we can?

This, it turns out, is far from just an academic question. What we know clearly matters. How we know may matter just as much.

This month’s lead article, by Eleanor Sterling and colleagues from the American Museum of Natural History and the Heiltsuk First Nation, addresses this question head on. Their experience in the Great Bear Rainforest of British Columbia demonstrates how traditional
knowledge can be a critical complement to our Western, scientific mode of understanding the ecosystems in which we work. Their study should also force us to consider more carefully something we readily acknowledge in theory but often lose sight of in the tumult of
deadlines and deliverables: just as science can never eliminate all uncertainty, scientists themselves can never, despite all their best
intentions, eliminate all biases. Turning not just to other sources of information but to entirely different ways of knowing can help fill the gaps and balance the scales.

The other articles in this issue highlight different aspects of the knowledge question. Science will play a central role in solving problems like food security, air pollution, and elephant conservation, but that role may not be as straightforward as it seems. In each case, science will benefit enormously from the change in perspective that comes from seeing the world through the eyes of a farmer or an engineer or even an elephant. Epistemology may not be something we have time to explore, but we can only improve conservation by understanding
that our way of knowing is far from the only way and is far from complete. As ever, your comments are more than welcome. 

Photo: Great Bear Rainforest, B.C. by Flickr user **604*250** via Creative Commons