Statistical Solutions to Environmental Problems

News & Updates

Adelaide Coastal Waters Study - South Australia's illegitimate child.
December 15, 2016 
It's almost a decade since the completion of the Adelaide Coastal Waters Study. Project Director, Prof. David Fox shares some insights into how the study and the final report were managed.

Vale Brian White
21 October, 2016 
One of the country's best mathematics educators recently passed away.

Time to shut down tabloid journals and Academic Doping
19 August, 2016 
The academic and research communities are being swamped under a tsunami of junk journal invitations promising rapid publication in their "prestigious" publications.

Ten Simple Rules
June 21, 2016 

Statistics may be everywhere, but they aren't always understood, calculated, or communicated effectively. After a suggestion from the ASA, a group of leading statisticians penned "Ten Simple Rules for Effective Statistical Practice"  to help researchers avoid pitfalls of misrepresenting data or formulating hypotheses based on faulty statistical reasoning.

Joe Gani on CSIRO
June 10, 2016 
Professor Joe Gani was a distinguished mathematical statistician and was Chief of CSIRO's Division of Mathematics and Statistics between 1974 and 1981. In a 2008 interview he reflected upon his CSIRO years. What's extraordinary is how very little has changed with respect to CSIRO's penchant for change!

As we've long been advocating - it's time this endless, unproductive cycle of deconstruction and reconstruction ceased (or at least had a longer return period).

If you think all the current rhetoric about CSIRO needing to become more relevant, more commercially focused and 'customer' driven is new, reflect for a moment on Professor Gani's experience more than 40 years ago.

Climate Science on the Skids
May 30 2016 
CSIRO CEO, Dr. Larry Marshall makes another extraordinary claim.

New paper published
May 25, 2016 
Professors David Fox (Environmetrics Australia / University of Melbourne) and Wayne Landis (Western Washington University) respond to renewed calls to retain the NOEC in ecotoxicology.

Larry Marshall - Same dog, different leg action
April 11, 2016 
Although CSIRO has a new CEO in Larry Marshall, the 'innovation' rhetoric and restructuring is not. You'd think that with the passage of 10 years, the organisation (indeed any organisation) would be reaping the benifits of structural change. Regrettably, CSIRO never got off the slash and burn treadmill.

CSIRO suffers the bends after Deep Dive
April 08, 2016 
CSIRO in the spot-light again - for all the wrong reasons (again)

Hey Larry - it's not either / or
February 12, 2016 
CSIRO's boss, Larry Marshall takes the axe to climate research

Statisticians and (eco)Toxicologists Unite!
January 5, 2016 
As debates about the legitimacy of NOECs and NOELs continue unabated, we believe it's well and truly time to establish a sub-discipline of Statistical (eco)toxicology.

Revised ANZECC Guidelines officially released!
22 December, 2015 
It's been a long process, but the Revised ANZECC Water Quality Guidelines for Toxicants has been officially released.


SETAC Australasia - Nelson NZ
27 August, 2015 
"Toxicant guideline values for the protection of aquatic ecosystems -  an improved derivation method and overview of priority toxicants."

Rick van Dam, Graeme Batley, Michael Warne Jenny Stauber, David Fox, Chris Hickey,  John Chapman

Is data scientist sexiest job of the century?
19 April, 2015 
A few years ago, The Harvard Business Review hailed the burgeoning role

of data scientist  "The sexiest job of the 21st century" . With big
data technology driving the change, how does the new role stack up?

Social 'Science' - Science No More!
18 March, 2015 
This is not a bad dream - the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology has banned the use of statistical inference!

CSIRO and the Gutting of Wisdom
21 December, 2014 
Read Bridie Smith's story about the impact of funding cuts to the CSIRO.

Hello 2015. Goodby Linkedin
January 2, 2015 
Have you stopped to think about the actual value YOU derive from having a Linkedin account?

Statistical Janitorial Services
December 31, 2014 
We've written about BIG data before and while some reckon it's sexy, you better roll up your sleeves because you'll invariably need to do a lot of 'janitorial' (a.k.a. shit) work first!

The problems of very small n
December 4, 2014 
Professors Murray Aitkin and David Fox are invited speakers at the Australian Applied Statistics Conference (AASC) 2014.

BIG data is watching you
November 6, 2014 
Ron Sandland recently wrote about the new phenomenon of 'big data' - weighing up the benefits and concerns. Terry Speed reflected on the same issue in a talk earlier this year in Gothenburg, Sweeden noting that this is nothing new to statisticians. So what's all the fuss about?
Here's another take on the 'big data' bandwagon.

New Method for Water Quality Guideline Calculations
Sep 15, 2014 
The ANZECC (2000) Guidelines are currently being reviewed.

The Explosive Growth of R
Sept 3, 2014 
Have no doubts - R reigns supreme!!

R - the Wikepedia of statistical software?
August 20, 2014 
The R computing environment is feature-rich, incredibly powerful, and best of all - free! But to what extent can we trust user-contributed packages?

Let there be light!
May 22, 2014 
New Industry Standard for managing seagrasses during dredging projects.

Statistical Accreditation
May 20, 2014 
Make sure you're dealing with someone who knows their stuff!

Job losses at CSIRO bigger than expected
May 15, 2014 
Confirmed in a message yesterday from CSIRO Chief Executive, Megan Clark:

Australian Science takes a hit
May 15, 2014 
Joe Hockey's budget has not been kind to science

Information-gap decision theory creates a gap in ecological applications and then fills it
May 14, 2014 
You may not of heard of Info Gap Decision Theory (IGDT) but don't worry, not many people have.

Probability Weighted Indicies for Improved Ecosystem Report Card Scoring
May 09, 2014 
A new way for calculating an environmental index is described in an upcoming paper "Probability Weighted Indices for improved ecosystem report card scoring" has been published in Environmetrics. Click here.

New Report on Ecosystem Report Cards
April 4, 2014 
'Report Cards' and their associated scoring techniques are widely used to convey a measure of overall ecosystem health to a wide audience. However, as with most things, developing, testing and validating these metrics is not straightforward.

Revision of Australian Water Quality Guidelines
March 27, 2014 
The long-awaited review of the ANZECC/ARMCANZ (2000) Water Quality Guidelines is now well under way!

Turbidity Monitoring clouded by dubious science
February 17, 2014 
Regulators and industry around the country are using a potentially flawed method to set environmental limits on water column turbidity.

Breaking down the team barrier
21 January, 2014 
New research suggests that team effectiveness may actually benefit from tension and hostility.

Mathematics of Planet Earth
May 30, 2013 
Local and international experts come together to discuss how mathematical and related scientific disciplines can be utilised to better understand the world around us.

Canadian Environmental Science and Regulation under threat
12 April 2013 
The Canadian Federal Government is making drastic reductions in the reach and capabilities of its environmental science departments.  Read Peter Wells's Marine Pollution Bulletin article.

High Impact
15 March 2013 
The peer-reviewed journal "Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management" (IEAM) lists Fox (2012) as one of its most accessed articles in 2012.

New Predictive Capability for Dredging projects
29 November 2012 
Environmetrics Australia has developed a unique water column turbidity and benthic light forecasting system.


Information-gap decision theory creates a gap in ecological applications and then fills it
May 14, 2014 

You may not of heard of Info Gap Decision Theory (IGDT) but don't worry, not many people have.

While the theoretical foundations of IGDT have been well developed and articulated by its architect Yakov Ben-Haim at the Israel Institute of Technology, controversy continues to surround its legitimacy as a credible alternative to existing methodologies.

The issue has again resurfaced with the publication of a letter to the Editor of Ecological Applications by Professor Mark Burgman and Dr. Helen Regan arguing that IGDT is both useful and credible.

Professor David Fox, a one-time IGDT follower, weighs into the the debate. His views are expressed below.

In their recent letter to Ecological Applications, Burgman and Regan (2014) provide counter arguments to some of Sniedovich's (2012) severe, and mostly harsh criticisms of Ben-Haim's info-gap decision theory (IGDT) (Ben-Haim, 2006). While I have a deep respect for Professor Burgman and Dr. Regan, I believe their unwavering faith in info-gap theory is misplaced. As the title of this note suggests, I agree with Sniedovich (2014) that 'the gap' referred to by Burgman and Regan (2014) is illusionary.

For the record, I have worked alongside Ben-Haim, Burgman, Regan, and many others who (myself included) got caught up in a rather unscientific infatuation with a 'new' paradigm some ten years ago. I also plead mea culpa to having co-authored a paper on the application of IGDT to the problem of statistical power analysis (Fox et al., 2007). It was, in essence a case of a solution in search of a problem. On reflection, the problem we tackled was eminently solvable within existing frameworks - and possibly better handled by those frameworks (see for example Reyes and Ghosh, 2013).

Sniedovich has waged a vigorous campaign against IGDT which, as noted by Burgman and Regan (2014), has at times been "disingenuous" - a case perhaps of what we football-loving Australians refer to as playing the man and not the ball. Nevertheless, Sniedovich has played a pivotal role in stress-testing the theory as well as urging IGDT practitioners to think more carefully about their models and analysis.

Not long after the publication of our own IGDT application paper (Fox et al., 2007), I began to have reservations about the utility or, more correctly, the necessity of the whole approach. To be clear, I don't think there is anything fundamentally wrong with IGDT, but when you strip it of its rather obtuse mathematics, it is essentially little more than the formalisation of a deterministic sensitivity analysis (a fact readily acknowledged by Ben-Haim himself). While I expressed concerns about the use and interpretation of the robustness metric and questioned the ability of IGDT to handle simultaneous (and correlated) uncertainty in more complex multi-parameter models (Fox, 2008), a more fundamental question is "do we need IGDT at all"? I believe not. As noted by Burgman and Regan (2014) there already exists a plethora of 'conventional' tools to deal with uncertainty and, unlike IGDT these come 'certified' by virtue of their long history of use and acceptance by the broad scientific community.  Outside the isolated pockets of support for IGDT, the theory remains largely unknown. Certainly within statistical circles, no one I've spoken to has heard of Ben-Haim or IGDT. In 2009 I sent a post titled "What is Info-Gap Theory" to Andrew Gelman's blog (http://goo.gl/EPKp3h). Gelman, a highly-credentialed Bayesian statistician at Columbia University and co-author of the popular text "Bayesian Data Analysis" (Gelman et al., 2013) frankly admitted he had never heard of IGDT and after having looked at some of the material concluded that the complicated mathematics "appeared to be a distraction from the more important goals of modelling the decision problems directly".  Another contributor to the blog noted that "there seems to be interesting sociological questions about how such theories come to be dominant in certain narrow fields" to which Gelman offered the following insight:

Regarding the sociological question, I have a theory, which I believe I mentioned in the rejoinder to my recent Bayesian Analysis article. The theory is that (a) there are a lot of ways to get a good solution to any particular statistical problem, and (b) people will often attribute the success to the method rather than to the analyst. The result is that, first, people in applied fields can become easily convinced of the efficacy of any particular method, if applied by a charismatic practitioner; and, conversely, said practitioner will become even more confident of the virtues of his or her method, once it is endorsed by practical researchers in applied fields.

Ben-Haim is charismatic, articulate, and intelligent. These qualities resonated within the newly conceived Australian Centre of Excellence for Risk Analysis (ACERA) at the University of Melbourne whose mandate was broadly to provide knowledge, tools, and advice to better manage and understand biosecurity risk. And so it was that IGDT rapidly embedded itself within ACERA as a tool of choice for assessing 'risk' although to be fair, ACERA project 0705 was commissioned to review the role and treatment of uncertainty in risk assessments (Hayes, 2011). Section 4.4.3 of this comprehensive review examined the role of IGDT in a biosecurity context. In his introduction, Hayes (2011) notes that "IGT is different because it offers a non-probabilistic approach to decision-making under uncertainty" although later acknowledges that "deterministic models ... have limited utility in a risk assessment context".

For me, the 'IGDT debate' has largely been a technical one that has been dominated by one protagonist and one defendant and a small, but loyal bunch of supporters. What appears to be lacking is evidence in the form of case studies where the superiority of actual decisions made on the basis of an IG analysis can be demonstrated when compared to decisions that would have be made had more traditional methods been employed. If this evidence exists and stands the scrutiny of normal scientific review, then I believe IGDT has a rightful role in the risk analysts' tool box - even if it shares features with or can be subsumed within other, more established paradigms. Mathematicians and Statisticians are used to the rebadging of their techniques. Genichi Taguchi cleverly repackaged ANOVA for engineers by using familiar terms such as signal-to-noise ratio in place of Mean Square Error and orthogonal arrays instead of fractional factorial designs while Multi Criteria Analysis (MCA) is a favoured tool of environmental scientists -  otherwise known by its original name of Goal Programming (which interestingly utilises the concept of satisficing as does IGDT!).

In the end, it doesn't matter what you call it and how it's packaged if it leads to more informed decision-making. If practitioners find Ben-Haim's IGDT and concepts like robustness easier to use and interpret than Wald's maximin criterion -  so be it. But I doubt it!

                                                               Prof. David Fox
                                                               May 14, 2014

Literature Cited

Ben-Haim Y.  2006 Info-Gap Decision Theory: Decisions Under Severe Uncertainty. 2nd ed, Academic Press, Oxford, UK.

Burgman, M.A. and Regan, H.M.  2014  Information-gap decision theory fills a gap in ecological applications.
Ecological Applications 24:227-228.

Fox, D.R. 2008  To IG or not to IG? -  that is the question. Decision Point, 24:10-11.

Fox D.R., Ben-Haim Y., Hayes K.R., McCarthy M., Wintle B. and Dunstan P.  2007.  An Info-Gap Approach to Power and Sample-size calculations. Environmetrics, 18:189-203.

Gelman, A., Carlin, J.B., Stern, H.S., Dunson, D.B., Vehtari, A., and Rubin, D.B.  2013.  Bayesian Data Analysis, Third edition, Chapman and Hall/ CRC.

Hayes, K.R.  2011  Issues in quantitative and qualitative risk modelling with application to import risk assessment ACERA project (0705).  Australian Centre of Excellence for Risk Analysis, University of Melbourne.

Reyes, E.M. and Ghosh, S.K.  2013.  Bayesian average error-based approach to sample size calculations for hypothesis testing. J. Biopharmaceutical Statistics, 23:569:588.

Sniedovich, M.  2012.  Fooled by local robustness: an applied ecology perspective.  Ecological Applications 22:1421-1427.

Sniedovich, M.  2014.  Response to Burgman and Regan: The elephant in the rhetoric on info-gap decision theory.  Ecological Applications  24(1):229-233.