Analyzing cause and effect in environmental assessments: using weighted evidence from the literature

Richard Norris, J. Webb, Susan Nichols, Michael Stewardson, Evan Harrison

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

87 Citations (Scopus)


Sound decision making in environmental research and management requires an understanding of causal relationships between stressors and ecological responses. However, demonstrating causeâ¿¿effect relationships in natural systems is challenging because of difficulties with natural variability, performing experiments, lack of replication, and the presence of confounding influences. Thus, even the best-designed study may not establish causality. We describe a method that uses evidence available in the extensive published ecological literature to assess support for causeâ¿¿effect hypotheses in environmental investigations. Our method, called Eco Evidence, is a form of causal criteria analysisâ¿¿a technique developed by epidemiologists in the 1960sâ¿¿ who faced similar difficulties in attributing causation. The Eco Evidence method is an 8-step process in which the user conducts a systematic review of the evidence for one or more causeâ¿¿effect hypotheses to assess the level of support for an overall question. In contrast to causal criteria analyses in epidemiology, users of Eco Evidence use a subset of criteriamost relevant to environmental investigations and weight each piece of evidence according to its study design. Stronger studies contribute more to the assessment of causality, but weaker evidence is not discarded. This feature is important because environmental evidence is often scarce. The outputs of the analysis are a guide to the strength of evidence for or against the causeâ¿¿effect hypotheses. They strengthen confidence in the conclusions drawn from that evidence, but cannot ever prove causality. They also indicate situations where knowledge gaps signify insufficient evidence to reach a conclusion. The method is supported by the freely available Eco Evidence software package, which produces a standard report, maximizing the transparency and repeatability of any assessment. Environmental science has lagged behind other disciplines in systematic assessment of evidence to improve research and management. Using the Eco Evidence method, environmental scientists can better use the extensive published literature to guide evidence-based decisions and undertake transparent assessments of ecological cause and effect.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)5-21
Number of pages17
JournalFreshwater Science
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2012


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