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Rafe Sagarin

Rafe Sagarin

In science, the difference between observation and experiment is the difference between a photo of a polar bear on a shrinking iceberg and a computer model of climate change.

Rafe Sagarin’s mother doesn’t call him about the latest temperature trends the computerized climate simulation presents. She looks at the bear photo and wonders how long it will have enough habitat to survive.

That doesn’t make looking at the outside world more or less reliable than studying it from a laboratory bench, the University of Arizona environmental scientist said during a visit to Missoula on Monday. But when studying a problem as unprecedented, catastrophic, global and irreversible as climate change, Sagarin argued we need to be more aware of our powers of observation.

“Observation creates fertile ground for serendipity,” Sagarin said at the first half of the annual Brennan Guth Memorial Lecture at the University of Montana. “The most important results may not be the thing you were thinking about when you first started.”

For example, the researchers who developed the now widely held idea that a catastrophic meteor impact wiped out most of the Earth’s dinosaurs were trying to understand a bunch of apparently unrelated factors in the planet’s geology – 10 years before new technology revealed the crater likely responsible.

The real-life marine biologist popularized in John Steinbeck’s novel “Cannery Row” developed projects to explain why the California coast’s sardine harvest declined, which turned out to mirror what we’ve come to know as the El Nino and La Nina weather patterns.

Sagarin said institutes of science tend to reflexively discount research based on observation, squashing projects with the warning that “correlation does not mean causation.” But those same institutes have come to rely on citizen-science efforts such as the Audubon Society’s Christmas bird counts, the Project Budburst records of spring plant appearances and even Alaska’s Nenana Ice Classic, a nearly century-old town gambling contest to predict when a tripod tower will break through the Tanana river ice each spring – which happens to match predicted trends of global warming.

“There needs to be a balance between institutional central control and more decentralized systems,” Sagarin said. “The institution may be better at seeing the larger picture, but the local hunter may have a better local perspective. Sometimes you get better information from local knowledge.”

Sagarin said he’s also started studying the people who do the research. Especially when science becomes a tool to make government policy, he advised watching who is stretching facts to fit an opinion and what sort of motivations drive different sides of a debate.

“We are shifting toward a more open approach in using observation and experiment,” he said. “You have to have an open mind, but not so open your brain falls out.”

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Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.