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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More women and girls in ecology and environmental science careers

Today is the United Nation’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science. This year’s theme is “Investment in Women and Girls in Science for Inclusive Green Growth”, so I’m sharing some thoughts from my own roundabout journey into science.

Science was never a career option for me as a child. This was purely an accident of circumstance, rather than any obvious exclusion. My amazing single mum prioritised my and my sister’s education, sacrificing her own career to provide the best education opportunities for us. I grew up in a rural area, surrounded by forest. We had no television, so I spent my childhood reading books or outdoors in nature. Every opportunity, mum bought us books and games about natural history, wildlife, and geography. I loved studying maps, reading history, learning about landforms and biodiversity, and devouring stories of people living on the land. But I was picked on at school for knowing these things.

At no point during my formal education do I remember thinking that I could ever pay the bills through my affinity with nature. And I definitely didn’t think of nature study as ‘science’. Continue reading

Artisan insects and scicomm

One of the positives of our modern dependence on technology and the Internet is their ability to allow us to connect and engage with more people. This is a common argument for open access publishing: because we now have the technology to make scientific articles freely available to all, we should embrace it and make it happen.

Does making information freely accessible online automatically make the material more accessible? Not necessarily. Scientific articles are not a ‘mainstream’ medium. They use language that only peer-group scientists and specialist science communicators can understand. Just making an article free to view doesn’t make it more accessible or useful to a general audience.

Take the Law, for example. Australia’s Commonwealth and State government legislation are online for everyone to access for free, whenever they want. But, seriously, when was the last time you sat down with a cup of tea to read the Albury-Wodonga Development Act 1973?

For science to have impact beyond its peer audience, it usually needs to be translated through a common language. So publishing open access is not a replacement for science communication, it is complementary to it.

I recently acquired the wonderful ‘Insect Artizans and their Work’ (1919) by Edward Step. Step was a naturalist who contributed a number of beautiful books to the natural history literature. His works were considered popular at the time, although his account of a mouse-eating grasshopper from the Congo in ‘Marvels of Insect Life’ may have subsequently blacklisted him with the scientific community. Continue reading

On the relativity of science and nature

This week, Science magazine published a piece listing the top 50 scientist ‘stars’ on Twitter. The list contained only 6 biologists and not a single ecologist. Although the authors acknowledge that their method of selection was not rigorous, this perpetuates a common misconception that ‘nature’ has nothing to do with ‘science’. Just like recent comments from our Minister for Industry (for international readers, we don’t have a Minister for Science), which implied that industry and technology are more relevant to our society than science.

So, are science, industry and technology the same thing? No. Continue reading

The Science of History

With all the troubles in the world, you’d be forgiven for giving up on humanity completely. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s sometimes felt like running away to a hut in the mountains, just to get away from it all – I haven’t bothered yet, because I know it wouldn’t be long before I would be interrupted by some wayward product of civilisation. Continue reading

Nature is cooler than the Joneses

Have you noticed the wild flowers are becoming scarcer every year? It may be that their wise men have told them to depart till man becomes more human.

~ Okakura Kakuzō (1906) The Book of Tea

Nature doesn’t depend on Technology. There is not a single natural process or ecosystem that needs artificial technology to function or exist. But much of human society does rely on technology. It is surprising how much ‘artificial’ technologies are increasingly seen to be central to scientific research, by both scientists and non-scientists. This view is particularly mystifying in ecological science, which is arguably the least technological of the sciences.

In a 2010 critical review of using GPS telemetry in field biology/ecology research, Hebblewhite & Haydon ask “what insights into ecology and conservation has all this extra technology really provided us with?” The disadvantages they list outnumber the advantages and they reckon the strongest advantage is being able to collect data that aren’t biased by the human observer’s ability or presence – things like nocturnal animal behaviour, or migratory patterns. Fair enough…but we did collect information like that before the advent of technology. It just required much more patience, and therefore time, than we think we have now. It also often relied on traditional knowledge gathered from indigenous people or past civilisations, most of whom were much more connected to Nature than we are now. Continue reading

Scientific Evidence

Here’s an educational piece I had published on “scientific evidence” – that infamous term that so many politicians and corporations throw about, but so few actually explain to their audience! If someone tells us they have scientific evidence to back up their new product or proposed political decision, how can we trust the evidence they are referring to?

This piece aims to give a brief background on how research works, for those who aren’t familiar with the ins and outs of the industry. It also presents some questions to think about that may be of help to those wanting to check the facts themselves.

© Manu Saunders 2013