What is a species? Philosophy, Science and Scicomm

What is a species? This apparently simple question is one of the best ways to get scientists arguing.

A recent article by Henry Taylor, a philosopher at University of Birmingham, asks this question from a philosophical perspective. The article itself is okay. But there is zero chance of biologists adopting its recommendation, ‘to scrap the idea of a species’, any time soon (see also this older article at the same platform, on the same subject, from a biologist’s perspective).

What I found interesting is how different audiences interpreted the article in the comments and on social media. I saw a mix of reactions (based on my network and a few searches; obviously not indicative of everyone) – some scientists were condemning the article vocally and aggressively, while others who didn’t appear to be scientists (based on their Twitter bio), shared the article in agreement and support.

‘What is a species?’ is a classic philosophical question, not a scientific one. Philosophical questions are a valuable tool for life. They are conceptual, not factual; they are rarely ‘solved’ (in the scientific sense); and they need to be addressed with complex thinking, not just facts or empirical research. You don’t have to agree with this approach, it’s just how Philosophy differs from Science. Disciplines are defined by different methodologies, standards, systems, and norms.

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Applied vs. Pure: it’s all ecology at the end of the day

I’m what other ecologists would call an ‘applied ecologist’. I collect most of my data outdoors in the field, rather than in labs or microcosms. I work predominantly in human-modified landscapes (agroecosystems). My overall research theme (ecosystem services) is considered more relevant to management than theory. And most of my papers have been published in applied and interdisciplinary journals. And, like most applied ecologists, my ability to understand and contribute to theoretical, or ‘pure’, ecology has been questioned by other ecologists.

There are plenty of logical flaws in this argument, so why does it persist? Continue reading

Do field ecologists need field stations to do research?

One of the most limiting factors I have found so far as a field ecologist is getting access to land to collect data. Most of my research is on how insect communities influence ecosystem function. Although I collect a lot of my data on farms, I also work in natural systems.

Finding enough private properties is usually easy enough, depending on the study design. For our recent study of ecosystem services in apple orchards, for which we needed a certain number of specific types of orchard, it took me nearly 4 months of emails and phone calls to find enough suitable orchard growers who were happy for us to visit regularly.

Finding new field sites in natural areas can be a bit harder. In Australia, it can take up to 6 months to get a new research permit for a protected area. Sometimes, the permit is declined, or your application gets lost.

Getting permission is one thing, logistics are another. Balancing the ideal number of site replicates needed to answer the research question, with the funds you are allowed to spend on travel to get there, is one of the hardest tricks in the modern field ecologist’s book. Committing to regular long trips and nights away from home is even harder when you have a family life you want to be part of. Continue reading

Scicomm is not new

‘Scientists shouldn’t have to do scicomm’ is a thoroughly modern misperception.

Communicating science has been ‘normal’ for centuries, from painted messages on cave walls, to classical orators and beyond. From ancient times, scientists took their responsibility to share science with people very seriously.

Yet today, mastery of language and the art of non-scientific communication are rarely taught or encouraged in modern science degrees. History isn’t taught much either.

Instead, many science students and graduates train to be skilled data collectors and ‘facts’ wranglers. Scientists are consistently bombarded with rigid anti-eloquence ‘rules’ that only succeed in suppressing the power of language – never use passive voice, don’t use big words, shorten your sentences, simplify your message etc. etc. God forbid you should sound like you care about your subject matter. Continue reading