An Honest and Complete Assessment


Risks and Decisions for Conservation and Environmental Management . Burgman, M. 2005 . Cambridge University Press , Cambridge , United Kingdom . 488 pp . $60 (paperback) . ISBN 0-521-54301-0 .

Burgman begins his book with a blithely ironic photograph: an environmental activist scales down the front of a building next to a demonic looking effigy of genetically engineered corn. How is it that this same person, trying to make evident the perceived risks of products containing genetically modified organisms, is also willing to accept the risks attendant with scaling the face of a building? As this opening imagery suggests, humans probably are not that good at assessing risks, and Burgman presents an illuminating (for an ecologist) review of the psychology of risk in the opening chapter of the book. How people take the decisions they do is within the realm of cognitive psychology, but weighing the costs and benefits of taking risks is certainly apropos for conservation biology.

With this book Burgman “intends to create a professional standard for ‘honest and complete’ environmental risk assessments.” For Burgman an honest and complete assessment includes explicit statements about assumptions and uncertainties that are carried throughout an analysis. An honest and complete assessment also requires an acceptance of subjective opinion alongside more objective quantitative approaches. How people perceive the success of the intended mission probably depends on their background, as will become clear below.

Risks and Decisions for Conservation and Environmental Management can be broken down into three broad sections. The first deals primarily with the human dimensions of decision making and risk assessment. This includes a discussion of the philosophy of risk assessment, which essentially deals with risk perception and the values that influence risk ranking. This section also discusses the multiple sources of uncertainty that creep into any kind of analysis. One of us (A.J.T.) uses this taxonomy of uncertainty in an upper-level undergraduate class—it gives the students some common language with which to discuss uncertainty. A particularly useful chapter in this section deals with identification of stakeholders and the costs and benefits of using expert opinion as a source of information. This section pulls together a broad range of information in a useful way for the quantitative analyst with little background knowledge of how the social sciences have addressed the topic of risk analysis.

The second section deals with the computational and analytical issues embedded in risk assessments. These include discussions of various statistical distributions, interval arithmetic, and Monte Carlo simulation. Although this section does contain some fairly technical aspects of risk assessment, its generality should appeal to those without sophisticated statistical skills. The chapter on interval arithmetic was a particularly lucid introduction to this useful, but underutilized, technique. The common thread throughout this section is the necessity of making uncertainty explicit and consistently carrying it through one's analysis. Of course, detection of such risks requires monitoring of the stressor or its corresponding impacts. The final section of the book addresses additional analytical tools for dealing with issues of statistical power in monitoring and inference. The final chapter then links these inferences with policy and decision making.

The organization of this book certainly provides the reader with a gradual introduction to the idea of risk analysis, and is probably one of the few that addresses ecological risk assessments so comprehensively. Quantitative ecologists, like us, will probably feel that the quantitative chapters are too superficial; social scientists may well take the same view of the earlier chapters. Nevertheless, every chapter contains references to original material or more in-depth treatments. If particular topics require greater emphasis, the book provides ready access to supplementary material. Although replete with examples to illustrate specific details, this book could really benefit from at least one “case study,” where the ideas described earlier are carried through to the end. Most of the examples are drawn from ecotoxicology, probably because risk assessment is more thoroughly developed in that field.

Overall, the book achieves its aim to set a comprehensive, professional standard for environmental risk assessments. In his final conclusion Burgmann states that “[t]he best risk assessments involve stakeholders and experts in an iterative process, making a marriage of the technical and social dimensions of risk.” Perhaps by using this book to introduce undergraduates and graduates to both aspects of risk assessment, we can increase the frequency of successful marriages in conservation biology and ensure that future editions of this excellent book have plenty of conservation examples to draw on.