Don’t, don’t…believe the hype!


We are suckers for hype. The recent media sequel of the mythical Insect Armageddon and the coverage of the latest WWF report on wildlife declines are a reminder of this.

Global declines in insect populations are a huge concern. Insects contribute to myriad ecosystem services through a multitude of ecological processes and functions. If we lose insects, we WILL suffer. But the two studies media have hyped on this issue are not actually evidence that this happening. They are concerning; they are a wake-up call; they are worrying. But, in and of themselves, they are not evidence of apocalyptic declines in the number of all 1+ million species of insect on Earth.

Similarly, the recent WWF report does not show any evidence that humans have ‘wiped out’ 60% of all animals on Earth in the last 30/40 years, as many media outlets are claiming. The truth: the report considered around 4000 species of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians…i.e. vertebrates. There are at least ~400,000 more species of vertebrate on Earth (depending who you talk to), probably more. And huge caveat!… Invertebrates are the most abundant and diverse group of animals, so any claim about ‘all animals’ that doesn’t include invertebrates is automatically dubious.

Do not misunderstand me. These are not pedantic concerns. I’m not saying that declines in biodiversity are not real, or worth worrying about. They are happening and they are worrying. I am an ecologist, and I am very worried. But, at present, there is very little evidence to support the media hype about global declines in all species.

The real story here, and one that is much more worrying, is that we don’t know enough about the species we live with and depend on. We have known for more than a century that our modern activities, particularly overuse of synthetic chemicals and clearing of natural habitat, is having huge, often irreversible, impacts on the environment, locally and globally. But we still don’t have enough long-term data to know where most of the Earth’s species live, or how and why humans are impacting them.

This is the huge story that media are overlooking. There are over 1.5 million animal species currently described, many more likely undiscovered, and hundreds of thousands more plants, fungi, and bacteria. How many of these species do you know? And I mean, really know…What habitats do they live in? What resources do they need to survive? What is their life cycle? How do they support humans? How do they communicate? How do they grow their populations? How do human activities impact their populations? Why are some species increasing their populations while others decline? How does climate change influence animal population dynamics?

Apocalyptic messaging doesn’t inspire change for a lot of people. It drives heads into the sand, fingers into ears, and blinkers over eyes. No one wants to hear that we’re all doomed and there’s no hope for any of us.

Hype is designed to speak to unconscious biases. The word itself originated in the early 1900s as a slang to refer to cheating and swindling by con artists, or artificial stimulation from hypodermic needles. It’s also been linked to hyperbole, intentionally exaggerated claims that aren’t true, but are designed for dramatic effect on sympathetic audiences.

Today, media hype has similar effects. If you already care, you are doing something about the problem, and a hyped story like these will just contribute to your anxiety. If you don’t already care, hyped stories will probably not make you change your opinion.

Yet media outlets persist. Surprisingly, some scientists are now joining in promoting the hype. Scientists have traditionally been wary of the conflicting grey area between storytelling and fact. Perhaps desperate times lead to desperate measures. We live in an unprecedented era of increasing environmental problems, largely human-caused, correlated with decreasing public interest and understanding of those environmental problems.

But the best antidote to hype is education and communication that finds a balance between alarmist narratives and naïve marvelling at the wonders of nature. Making change is a long-term investment, not a short-term knee jerk reaction.

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© Manu Saunders 2018

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