This week, a syndicated article appeared across a number of online media platforms under various different headlines. It covers the doomsday insect apocalypse narrative and appears to cast doubt on the issue of insect decline, largely blaming media and ‘activists’ for promoting the hype. The author links to my blog posts on the insect apocalypse, my BioScience paper co-authored with Jasmine Janes & James O’Hanlon, and my American Scientist article as evidence against the hype, and some sections paraphrase or directly quote from my work. To the average reader, it could appear that I have talked to the author, and that I endorse the article. I did not, I do not, and I was not aware the article was being written.Continue reading
It’s increasingly common to see universities publishing press releases about newly published papers from academics. This practice emerged a few decades ago and originally seemed to be associated with health and medical research (educated guess, not sure there are any data on this).
But it has since spread more widely to many other disciplines. Ecology journals are now doing it; some ask you to submit a mandatory media summary with your manuscript ‘just in case’ (most authors will never get a media request). Some of the Big Famous journals operate on a strict authoritarian embargo system, to ensure the author doesn’t exercise their right to talk to people about their own research.Continue reading
Some interesting syntheses of long-term insect data have been published in the last few months. These synthesis studies attempt to provide an answer to the big question mark raised by the recent insect apocalypse narrative.
This is how much of an impact a single study that gets lots of attention can have on the direction of science. The insectageddon opinion piece that started this ball rolling had fundamental flaws that are now well-documented (unfortunately it is still being widely cited in scientific literature and popular media as supposed evidence of decline). Sure, one could argue it got people talking about an important issue that we already had decades of evidence for.Continue reading
A couple of years ago I wrote about some of the limitations of relying on Altmetrics as an indicator of a paper’s impact, because it doesn’t pick up all online mentions.
Yes, impact metrics are flawed; experts have been pointing this out for years. And I’m not singling out Altmetrics here, there are a few different impact metrics used by different journals for the same goal, e.g. PlumX, Dimensions, CrossRef Event Data.
Despite their flaws, we’re all still using them to demonstrate how our work is reaching global audiences. I used them recently in a promotion application and a major grant application.
But I’m now questioning whether I will keep using them, because they are deeply flawed and are consistently misused and misinterpreted. They are literally a measure of quantity without any context: the number of shares or mentions, but no indication of how and why they are being shared.
This is problematic for a few reasons. Continue reading
This magic number was stated in that flawed entomofauna paper, without any explanation of how this number was calculated – see why that paper is flawed here.
Since then, it has been stated regularly in popular media, scientific papers and technical reports, often without citation, just a number pulled out of the air and presented as fact.
Globally, there are about 5 million estimated insect species in total. Only 1 million species have scientific names. So, conservatively, the 40% claim suggests that at least 400,000 species are threatened with extinction.
So is it an accurate prediction? No. Here’s why: Continue reading
We summarise the major flaws in the pop culture ‘insect apocalypse’ narrative and argue that focusing on a hyped global apocalypse narrative distracts us from the more important insect conservation issues that we can tackle right now. Promoting this narrative as fact also sends the wrong message about how science works, and could have huge impacts on public understanding of science.
And, frankly, it’s just depressing. Right now, we all need hope, optimism and reasons to act, not a reason to give up.
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
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
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
© Manu Saunders 2019
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