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.
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
Hype is an ineffective communication strategy, especially when based on limited facts. There are many elements to effective communication – simply raising awareness about a problem is not enough if audiences don’t engage with the facts and participate in developing solutions.
The latest instalment in the Insect Armageddon saga is out. I wasn’t going to write about it. After my previous posts, I didn’t want to sound like a stuck record. But I’ve had a few media requests, some from journalists who found my original blogs. Most journalists I spoke to have been great, and really understand the importance of getting the facts straight. But a few seemed confused when they realised I wasn’t agreeing with the apocalyptic narrative – ‘other scientists are confirming this, so why aren’t you?’
This latest review paper has limitations, just like the German and Puerto Rican studies that received similar hype over the last few years. This doesn’t make any of them ‘bad’ studies, because every single research paper has limitations. No single study can answer everything neatly. Science takes time. Continue reading
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
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
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