young woman deep in thought

Playing the ‘nobody knows’ card

At sustainably FED we are often tempted to play the ‘nobody knows’ card. But really we shouldn’t ever have to play it…

Audiences love trivia especially when it’s delivered by smart, funny people.

The wonderful Stephen Fry hosted the popular panel show QI — Quite Interesting — for over a decade and the equally delightful Sandi Toksvig has filled his oversized shoes with aplomb since 2016. 

In one of the many series of QI the producers introduced the “nobody knows” card. This is a card that panellists play when they think that one of the questions is so crazily obscure that nobody now or through recorded history knows the answer. 

Stumped for an answer someone will suggest that this especially obscure question is indeed so wackadoodle that ‘nobody knows’.

Hilarity usually follows because panellists rarely play the card correctly.

In one of my past day jobs, I advised governments on the science behind natural resource management. This involves helping a range of public servants who might have legal, policy, technical, management or political proclivities to understand the ecology behind the best use of the landscape for human needs and wants.

You would be quite surprised at how many times I was tempted to play the ‘nobody knows’ card on their behalf.

Here are a few choice examples. 

It seems that nobody knows…

  • how many koalas there are in Australia
  • if cutting down some trees will result in saline soils 
  • what the economic effect of drought will be on the social fabric of rural communities
  • if some invasive shrubs that folk like to call woody weeds are thinned, will it increase grass cover and improve livestock production
  • what the majority of people think about removing paddock trees from the landscape
  • if the swift parrot will go extinct anytime soon
  • that ‘weed’ is a label for plants and not something innate to certain plant species
  • how to reliably identify a critically endangered ecological community

I will stop as the list could career down a rabbit hole of cynicism and become very boring, but you get the idea.

Gorilla in a thinking pose
Thinking is not confined to Homo sapiens

Environmental ‘knows’ are often values

Take a close look at the ‘nobody knows’ in the random list above.

They are just examples and yet they are fundamental to key policy planks that governments of various flavours have promoted over decades. It might be acceptable that nobody in the room knows, but surely somebody would have to know or could find out before a new policy is developed.

Only there is a snag.

As you can see, many of these ‘nobody knows’ questions are part factual and part value because that is what the use of natural capital — what Australians call natural resource management — sets up. 

There are always challenging choices around the balance between using nature and basking in it from your villa on the coast that you purchased with the profit from last year’s bumper crop. 

Even questions that could be answered specifically, like the number of koalas, are precursors to qualify perceptions of value.

And the thing about value is that everybody knows

The human condition is that we are value-laden. Only what each person knows is different to the next person, so in fact, it is true ‘nobody knows’ because there isn’t one value but many, as many as there are people answering the question.

This is not a new revelation or some outstanding insight. It is the basis of all policy development. There are values, lost of them, and the balance between them is what makes the political landscape interesting. 

Interpretation of the ups and downs in politics is easy enough, but there shouldn’t be too many unknowns in the policy that develops. By the time the law is made the value proposition needs to be clear. 

Now we should explain why it rarely is.

Nobody knows… yet

There are things about natural capital that we should know and are knowable, like the number of koalas or what happens to the chemistry of each different soil type if the trees growing on it are cut down and replaced by a wheat crop, but we don’t because we have not set enough of our IQ on finding the answer.

You can imagine how hard it is to provide advice when most of the questions asked of you are either value-laden or lack research evidence. 

It is very easy to become frustrated and even begin to question your own knowledge, especially if you are trained as a scientist, the discipline of the sceptic.

Here is what a scientist would like to do to answer any of the questions in the list above.

She would pull together what humanity knows about the subject matter of the question by reading everything she can get her eyes on from the literature on the topic. Only she doesn’t have all the time since Noah’s flood so she is selective and actually relies more on her past understanding of the literature refreshed by reading a few more recent examples.

Next, she thinks carefully about the question. 

What does it mean? How is it constructed? Can it be made into a meaningful statement or hypotheses that could be tested? Great if it can and if not, how can it be broken down into a series of smaller questions that could be answered?

Once she has some hypotheses she figures out if they are testable through the structured gathering of evidence in an experiment. And if this proves too difficult she will adopt the less popular approach of observation without specific manipulation. Arguably the latter approach — inductive thinking after the fact — is all you can do in landscapes but she will try for the experimental approach if she can. 

Next, she will design her study that will gather the evidence and go on to complete the work using whatever specific methods her training has skilled her up to use. She might go to the bush and throw some quadrats around or survey at night for the reflectance in marsupial eyes or stay in the office and instruct the computer to play with the millions of coloured pixels on a remotely sensed image.

After some time she will return to her question with the new information she has gathered. She will let the question guide the way that she looks at the information and will conduct some analyses, typically involving something to do with probabilities. 

This turns the information into inference.

Finally, she takes the inference and applies it to her question. 

If everything went well and her design was tight, her study well-executed, and her analyses on point, she will have an answer. 

She sets her answer down in a research paper explaining how she came to it and putting it into context. Much of the context discussion will be about the quality of the inference. Remember the scientist is a sceptic, so she will not be sure about the answer. It must be qualified by the sources of error in both the design and the data. Most likely she admits that her answer is equivocal and recommends more research.

By the time this sequence of events has played out the public servants have retired and a new crop of bright young technocrats are in a conference room ordering coffee ready for the break in the program logic workshop. 

Their technical advisor is pulling out the ‘nobody knows’ card again.

Reality sucks.

What sustainably FED suggests…

As experienced scientists with extensive knowledge of natural capital, we wouldn’t be invited to the workshop in the conference room. 

However, we are often asked what we know about some of today’s questions that range from how many farmers are empowered by a given policy to where in the landscape can we find the highest biodiversity value.

We could say ‘nobody knows’ or ‘we’ll take that on notice, and get back to you’ but instead, we ask that a lot more thought goes into the questions.

What is the value? Why is that specific question the one that needs an answer and why?

Often we refine the questions and offer them back to the technocrats for comment with phrases like ‘is this what you really want to know?’

Once this to and fro is tidied up a little, we apply our logic systems to find answers fit for purpose. It is surprising how just a little extra thought and clarification makes finding answers so much easier.

It turns out that it is better not to know the number of koalas because then it is easier to spin the extinction yarn. If the numbers were known reliably it might be much harder to leverage public sympathy. So the real question is about values and distraction not the population ecology of a cute looking marsupial. 

In the end, the ‘nobody knows’ card should only appear because, beyond idle curiosity, there is no need to know so nobody bothered to find out.

Why not ask us a ‘nobody knows’ question in the comments section below?

sustainably FED

Hero image modified from a photo by Jonathan Cosens Photography on Unsplash


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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