Insect apocalypse: no simple answers

After my blog post earlier this year on the questionable insectageddon review paper, American Scientist invited me to write a perspective article on the media hype surrounding the story.

The review paper has many flaws and caveats (stay tuned for a more thorough treatment of the paper coming soon) and the breathless media hype around it was confused and misleading. But the overall message is valid – our collective actions are impacting ecosystems (including insects) in dangerous ways through forest clearing, pesticide use, fossil fuels, and widespread simplification of landscapes. Some insect species are being seen less frequently in some areas because of this.

However, this message is not new – we already have access to decades of more rigorous evidence showing these effects and how we can mitigate them, so the engagement value of this latest review paper is unclear. Is it worth risking public trust in scientific rigour, just to get a bit more attention for the issue?

You can read my article here: No Simple Answers for Insect Conservation

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© Manu Saunders 2019

Bees in her eyes: lost in translation or fake news?

On Wednesday afternoon, I noticed the steadily increasing coverage of the story about sweat bees living in a Taiwanese woman’s eye. It seemed implausible – very few bees are small enough to get in your eye without knowing it, and they certainly wouldn’t survive very long.

But what first caught my attention was the poor communication around this story. The use of words like ‘nightmarish’ and ‘weird’ for a completely normal animal interaction. And the number of stories that were headlining their report with a picture of a totally unrelated bee (usually Apis mellifera), or even other insects. Toby Smith and I have previously looked at how misuse of pictures of Apis mellifera in media stories can affect accuracy of science communication. Continue reading

Why I posted my first preprint

I’ve just published my first preprint. If you’re not familiar with preprints, they are final versions of a paper manuscript that are posted online before they have been peer reviewed.

Long-time followers of my blog will know that I am not a huge fan of preprints. Preprints are not the answer to our angst over peer review, because they involve too many risky assumptions.

So why did I just publish one? Continue reading

2018’s Word of the Year…a guide for 2019

At the end of each year, dictionaries (and other linguistically-minded groups) release their Word of the Year. The metrics used to rate these words vary by organisation, and the methods (if described) are always a bit vague. But the rating usually involves how often the word was searched for on the dictionary’s site, or how often the word was used in popular online media.

Unlike other ‘of the year’ or ‘best’ ratings, Words of the Year are rarely ‘happy place’ words. They’re a measure of contemporary cultural usage, a sign of the times, not a rigorous measure of meaningfulness or popularity.

We often discuss Word of the Year retrospectively – why did it matter so much last year? But, if you don’t like repeating the same mistakes, it also matters for this year and beyond.

My top picks are: Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Insect declines: pay attention

Last year I wrote about the Insect Armageddon story – an important paper that received some exaggerated media hype.

A new paper just published in PNAS adds another twist to the insect declines saga…clearly, this story is far from over.

Lister & Garcia analysed data collected in the Luqillo Experimental Forest in Puerto Rico. This area of tropical rainforest is not a ‘pristine’ untouched wilderness, as some media reports are claiming – no place on Earth is untouched by humans! The site has been a long-term research location for decades, going back to the early 1900s, with a focus on experiments to understand the effects of disturbances of all kinds. Many important experimental research projects involving human disturbances (like this one) have happened in the Luqillo forest.

This study is important for a few reasons. Continue reading

How to choose a framing narrative for scientific papers

Have you read a research paper where you experience this sequence of thoughts?: Title/Abstract/Introduction (wow! This is a real problem, someone’s finally answered this question), Methods (um, hang on, this sample size/study system/analysis approach doesn’t quite answer this problem…), Results (okay, these results are interesting, but…), Discussion (whoa, rein it in! I can’t find the link between these assumptions or recommendations and the results…).

The paper may be scientifically sound, as far as the methods & results go. The problem is that the authors have chosen a very broad frame narrative, and then confounded that frame with the interpretation of their results. Continue reading