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
What the windscreen anecdote tells us about science
The windscreen anecdote has been doing the rounds on social media again.
A couple of years ago, I wrote about why this anecdote is not reliable evidence of insect population trends.
If you’re not familiar with the story, it goes a little something like this. “When I was a kid we would drive long distances for holidays and get bugs all over the windscreen. I don’t see any bugs on the windscreen anymore, therefore….” The interpretation, whether implied or stated explicitly, is that this is yet more evidence that a global insect decline is happening.
There are obvious flaws in this assumption, but the anecdote still strikes a chord with so many people, perhaps through some kind of confirmation bias. We know that biodiversity is in trouble, we know humans are having damaging effects on the environment, so it must be true, right?Continue reading
A lot happened last year.
Twelve months ago I’d been breathing bushfire smoke for months and I was struggling with despair and anxiety (personal and empathetically global) over Australia’s devastating bushfire summer, after our hottest and driest year on record, and the lack of responsible climate action our government maintains.
Now, we’re on track to have experienced one of the wettest years on record for our region, with some areas flooding in recent months, others seeing welcome regrowth in farms, forests and gardens. After severe drought and bushfires, some places may not find the sudden deluge so exciting. While our new garden is loving the conditions, our garage has suffered some minor flooding as the dehydrated clay soils slowly drown under the weight of water. (Nice reminder that climate change brings rapidly changing extremes, not static increases or decreases.)
In between, we’ve suffered from pandemic anxieties, losses and inconveniences, along with the rest of the world.Continue reading
Does science need press releases?
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
Counting bees…which bees?
The concept of citizen science is as old as the hills, but large-scale coordinated projects are growing in popularity, especially those with digital engagement tools. It’s always great to see new projects that fill an important knowledge gap and engage the public with the natural world.
Recording biodiversity sightings is an easy and rewarding way to get involved. There are plenty of opportunities to contribute to coordinated data collections, such as iNaturalist or Atlas of Living Australia. Other projects have more standardised scientific goals, such as the UK’s Pollinator Monitoring Scheme, the USA’s Great Sunflower Project, and our own Australian Wild Pollinator Count (disclaimer: this is my own project).
So what about new projects that overlap existing projects and don’t provide clear information about how the data will be used? Continue reading
Nature moves back in…or will it?
With urban areas around the world suddenly emptied of humans, people are sharing photos and videos on social media showing wild animals cavorting in the empty streets.
I started to collate some of them on Twitter, but I gave up because it’s really hard to confirm how many of them are fake news.
The Goats of Llandudno were a legitimate lockdown observation – but it turns out they’re regular visitors to the town. Some posts are clearly a joke (a herd of buffalo in the centre of Buffalo, NY), while others would seem pretty believable to most people with no specialist knowledge of the species or location, like the ‘rare Malabar civet’ in the streets of an Indian town.
Most posts provide very little context, no confirmation of the date they were filmed, and often no confirmed source. For the average responsible social media user, there is simply no way of verifying them. Continue reading
All impact metrics are wrong, but (with more data) some are useful.
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
Book Review: The Last Butterflies
(This is the accepted version of my review published here in Trends in Ecology & Evolution.)
It is an unfortunate paradox that insects, the most abundant and diverse class of animals on Earth, are also the most understudied and misunderstood. With diversity comes complexity, and scientists have only scratched the surface on knowledge of global insect ecology. In The Last Butterflies, ecologist and butterfly expert Nick Haddad explores some of this complexity.
Despite the title, this is not a story of despair. Nor is it just about butterflies. Haddad weaves an absorbing narrative about the multidimensional process of science and insect conservation, the damaging impacts humans can have on the web of life, the ethical quandaries of conservation, and the positive changes and solutions that give us hope. Each main chapter is focused on a single butterfly species: six of the rarest North American butterflies that Haddad has spent his career studying, and two more well-known species from North America and the UK. The eight butterflies are framing devices, each one illustrating pieces of the challenging puzzle that is insect ecology and conservation. Continue reading
Happy 10th birthday to Ecology is not a Dirty Word!
Cheers to everyone who has read and shared my blog posts over the years. I’ve had some great discussions here and made some really worthwhile connections because of this little blog. Most importantly, it’s kept me inspired and connected through the highs and lows of academia. Here’s to many more blog posts, discussions, and connections to come!
I’m so happy that my current second most visited post is ‘On the importance of observations to Ecology’, an ode to natural history notes and a reminder that ecological science will stagnate without observing natural interactions occurring around us. It sums up many of the reasons why I started blogging in the first place. (It was pipped to the post by one of my insectageddon articles)
Some more on why I love blogging:
The buzz on (ecology) blogging
On 7 years of ecology blogging
Our paper on why ecology blogs are so valuable to the academic community: Bringing ecology blogging into the scientific fold: measuring reach and impact of science community blogs. For anyone who still needs convincing that academic blogs are not a waste of time, this paper is an excellent piece of evidence: co-authors are from Don’t Forget the Roundabouts, Scientist Sees Squirrel, Dynamic Ecology, Jeff Ollerton’s Biodiversity Blog, and Small Pond Science
© Manu Saunders 2019
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