The ‘tyranny of the sound bite’ has plagued politicians and celebrities for decades. Pithy one-liners, taken out of context, can be extremely damaging to a person’s reputation.
In science communication, Sexy Science soundbites, condensing complex ecological problems into simple data points or the efforts of single researchers, can damage public understanding of science.
We’ve seen this with Insect Armageddon and the recent ‘3 billion lost birds’ story. Ecology is the science of nuances, and any claim of global patterns or precise data points must be interpreted with context.
Much of the problem with these soundbite disasters lies with the science communication around the story, not necessarily the science itself. Continue reading
A few opinion pieces are doing the rounds arguing that scientists should boycott peer review, especially for paywalled journals. The argument goes that this action is a protest against Big Publishing, because peer reviewers should be paid, and because we should support ‘open science’. I genuinely don’t understand this logic.
Peer review is a community service because scholarship is a community endeavour. Peer review is an important part of an academic’s role. Each individual’s service collectively contributes to a rigorous body of scientific knowledge. This is much better than the pre-peer review days of a single editor deciding on publication (this tradition persists in the desk reject).
A community service is generally unpaid – that’s the difference between a service for the good of the system and a business transaction for individual benefit. Do you volunteer for your kid’s sports club? Do you belong to your neighbourhood watch group? Do you contribute to your local conservation or landcare groups?
Why do you volunteer your time? Do you expect payment for these activities? Continue reading
Dodgy science, dodgy scientists and dodgy humans are not a new thing. And dodgy scientific papers have been published since the dawn of scientific publishing. In 1667 an article on ‘snakestones’, a pseudoscience medical cure with absolutely no basis in truth, appeared in one of the first issues of the oldest known scientific journal, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (now Phil Trans A, one of the most prestigious modern scientific journals).
Since then, disreputable papers have made regular appearances in reputable journals. And there are different scales of disreputable. The paper claiming that octopi originated from outer space was clearly far-fetched, while the scholars who recently argued there was a ‘moral panic’ over free-ranging cats simply highlighted how interdisciplinary research is often challenged by opposing methodological approaches (note: I agree with most ecologists that free-ranging cats are not good for wild animals, including insects). Continue reading
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. Continue reading
Scientific disciplines grow from new concepts, ideas, theories and expert opinions, not just data. But conceptual papers are the hardest kind of scientific paper to publish.
Too many researchers…seem to think that any non-empirical paper is simply an essay and devoid of deeper scholarship. Nothing could be further from the truth. More than once I have received comments from reviewers claiming a paper is nothing more than an essay, implying essays are little more than opinions. But aren’t all papers “opinions” in one form or another?
~ Rudy Hirschheim (2008)
By definition, a conceptual paper doesn’t present original data…but it must present an original concept. It synthesises knowledge from previous work on a particular topic, and presents it in a new context to provide a springboard for new research that will fill knowledge gaps.
Conceptual papers shouldn’t follow the status quo; they need to show how moving beyond the current norm will enhance knowledge. Continue reading
Every so often, another opinion piece claims that ecosystem services approaches hinder nature conservation. A couple of recent examples: a Monbiot column rehashing his views against the natural capital approach (which is an economic tool for applying the ecosystem services concept), and this opinion piece in Biological Conservation by Bekessy et al. arguing that ecosystem services is not a useful communication strategy for conservation advocacy.
Two key arguments recur in these opinions, both based on conflated issues:
- practical applications of the ecosystem services concept (e.g. economic valuation) are conflated with the concept itself
- ecosystem services are equated with instrumental values, which are conflated with economic values, and portrayed in opposition to intrinsic values (stay with me here)
Late last year, I retweeted a university press release about some topical research on bees that hadn’t yet been published or, apparently, peer reviewed (I can’t find the paper online anywhere, so it looks like it is still yet to be published).
To be fair, the release stated upfront that the research was ‘preliminary findings’ and the source mentioned at the end was an upcoming conference presentation, not a journal article. But should it have been the subject of a press release in the first place? Continue reading