How damaging is sexy soundbite scicomm?

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

Times have changed: dealing with dodgy science in the internet age

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

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