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Copyright ©1999 by The Resilience Alliance*

Duke, C. 1999. Asking the right question. Conservation Ecology [online] 3(1): R1. Available from the Internet. URL: http://www.consecol.org/vol3/iss1/resp1/

Response to Holling 1998. "Two cultures of ecology"

Asking the Right Question

Clifford Duke

The Environmental Company, Inc.

Thank you for posting the Two Cultures article. I found it insightful, especially as a sometime research scientist turned environmental consultant. Your concluding remarks about precise answers to wrong questions, and the converse, bring to mind a classic lawyer joke that perhaps needs a new protagonist. Two balloonists, lost and drifting over a field, spy a gentleman on the ground. They shout, "Where are we?" The gentleman replies, "Why, you're in a balloon!" One balloonist says to the other, "That man must be a lawyer," and the other replies "Why?" "Because he just gave us information that is perfectly accurate and perfectly useless." Too often, I fear, the gentleman on the ground is a scientist, not a lawyer.

The beginnings of a solution to the problem may be for scientists to be less literal minded and to recognize questions that underlie the one apparently being asked. For example, the essentially unanswerable question "Is it safe?" contains questions that scientists can help to answer -- "Which option is less risky?" "What tools can I use to decide among different courses of action?" "How can I participate in the decision process?" If Conservation Ecology can provide a forum not only for prospective answers, but also for reshaping questions, it will truly help to bridge the two cultures. I applaud the editors and contributors for making the attempt.

Published March 11, 1999.


Responses to this article are invited. If accepted for publication, your response will be hyperlinked to the article. To submit a comment, follow this link. To read comments already accepted, follow this link.

Address of Correspondent:
Clifford Duke
1611 N. Kent Street, Suite 900
Arlington, VA 22209 USA
Phone: 703-527-5703
Fax: 703-527-5745

*The copyright to this article passed from the Ecological Society of America to the Resilience Alliance on 1 January 2000.

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