A taxonomy and treatment of uncertainty for ecology and conservation biology

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Regan, Helen M., Mark Colyvan, and Mark A. Burgman
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Uncertainty is pervasive in ecology where the difficulties of dealing with sources of uncertainty are exacerbated by variation in the system itself. Attempts at classifying uncertainty in ecology have, for the most part, focused exclusively on epistemic uncertainty. In this paper we classify uncertainty into two main categories: epistemic uncertainty (uncertainty in determinate facts) and linguistic uncertainty (uncertainty in language). We provide a classification of sources of uncertainty under the two main categories and demonstrate how each impacts on applications in ecology and conservation biology. In particular, we demonstrate the importance of recognizing the effect of linguistic uncertainty, in addition to epistemic uncertainty, in ecological applications. The significance to ecology and conservation biology of developing a clear understanding of the various types of uncertainty, how they arise and how they might best be dealt with is highlighted. Finally, we discuss the various general strategies for dealing with each type of uncertainty and offer suggestions for treating compounding uncertainty from a range of sources.


Regan, Helen M., Mark Colyvan, and Mark A. Burgman. 2002. “A Taxonomy and Treatment of Uncertainty for Ecology and Conservation Biology.” Ecological Applications 12 (2): 618–28. doi:10.1890/1051-0761(2002)012[0618:ATATOU]2.0.CO;2.