Insects

Insects

All around the world there are entomologists, people who study insects. We should be very proud of these fine folk for without their understanding it would be harder to manage many diseases transmitted by insects, resolve many pathogens, figure out how to assist insects pollinate crops and, most importantly, support insects and their invertebrate cousins maintain soil fertility.

Then there are insect people you might know about. The pest control folk who make sure the fly spray kills the flies and not us.

Sounding a bit posh and, dare we say a little ivory tower, ‘entomologist’ usually refers to the researchers who gather the data and sift through it to find evidence for the good, bad and ugly on the insects that share our spaces. So we can listen to them with some confidence. Not only are they spending their days with ‘bugs’, yuck, they are also the right kind of skeptic using the numbers to find inference.

Lately the number of insects observed by entomologists are in decline. This is not because the entomologists are getting lazy, spending more time watching TV than setting malaise traps or peering down microscopes, but because there are fewer insects around to be studied.

A recent publication confirmed from long-term trapping data in 63 German nature reserves, what many have casually observed in many parts of the world. Insect numbers are going down. And not just by a little bit, they are plummeting.

Hallmann C.A., Sorg M., Jongejans E., Siepel H., Hofland N., Schwan H., Stenmans W., Müller A., Sumser H., Hörren T., Goulson D., de Kroon H. (2017) More than 75% decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas. PLoS ONE, 12(10), eo185809

Three quarters in a generation.

If such a collapse had happened to the Dow Jones the sky would have fallen in. Imagine trying to survive on a quarter of your wages you earned when you started out. Heaven forbid if the defence budget from the 1990s was reduced by all those billions, how scared and vulnerable would we feel?

“Not a problem” the observant reader cries out. “The crawling insects will simply fill the space left by the loss of the flying ones, that’s what you ecology types tell us all the time.”

Perhaps.

Equally a loss in numbers does not necessarily mean a loss of function. Pollination only needs one bee to transfer pollen from stamen to stigma. Fewer mosquitos has to be a good thing and those beetle larvae can’t be doing that much to soil when we have fertilisers.

It is always very easy to play the ostrich. Only they are remarkable and very dumb birds.

When an observation so dramatic and material to so many key ecological processes becomes known we dismiss it at our peril. If we ignore these numbers just because we like the idea of fewer midges at summer evening picnics without looking deeper to find out what is going on, we increase risk to our already precarious food security.

We need to enable our entomologists to find out why the numbers went down and if the decline is going to affect the key ecosystem services we rely on.

Or, of course, we could ignore them and buy more submarines.

Science and Policy

Science and Policy

In a recent article on why science gets shut out of policy Anthony Bergin from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute contends that

“The extent to which scientific knowledge gets traction in policy will depend partly on the state of science knowledge on the issue, and partly on the degree of controversy surrounding the issue under consideration. It will also depend on the degree of public and political attention the matter gets.”

He goes on to suggest a few reasons for why scientists are not all that good at getting the message across in what is always a consensus and value driven process. Similar to the thinking in Are scientists ready?

In short, scientists too often revert to their necessary scepticism in the face of uncertainty and so come across as weak communicators.

Alternatively Bergin suggests that

“Too often, scientists tend to think they know what is best or what is needed, and then they are disappointed, frustrated or angry when their ideas and hard work are rejected or put on the shelf.”

In other words, they also form and promote values too, just like all the other players in the game. Then their egos get in the way, just like all the other players in the game. Lovely.

I doubt that Bergin is correct in his claim that policymakers do care about scientific evidence if it helps them make decisions. If it helps them make the decision they want to make, perhaps, but that is not quite what he meant. My experience with natural resource management policy is that policymakers understand very little of the science despite their access to considerable in-house and review style expertise. Their political masters understand even less.

Needless to say they all care when evidence helps the spin.

And before everyone whines that policy makers are not in the business of politics, dream on people. It’s 2018, the decade when fake became more influential that fact and public servants found it harder than ever to serve the public when the minister of the day wants her own specific outcome.

So Bergin is right in his tone.

Science into policy is very difficult especially for the scientists.

Scientists do have to front up with confidence, develop communications skills, and learn that their audience has never understood a probability, let alone an inference level.

The use of scenarios makes good sense. It’s the approach that helps AfterBefore Systems to understand options for investment in land management, as does delivering advice in multiple forms. Only my academic experience suggests very few scientists are any good at either of these things. They are hypothesis testers not scenario modellers. They are geared towards output as peer-reviewed papers that create some of the most turgid reading experiences known to man. The poor dears are staring at a very steep cliff.

As with most opinion pieces in this space, the conjecture is easy. In this instance, policy and science are hard to reconcile given the nature of the people involved.

Equally the suggestions are sound. They are easily summarised into “chill out and communicate”.

But wait. The premise here is that inference and evidence will be used should they be understood and available. There is an assumption that human beings are so rational that in the face of evidence they will make the decision pointed to by the evidence.

I doubt it.

Sometimes the evidence is clear. The voluntary inhaling of smoke into your lungs affects your health. Cut down the forest to make arable land and, in time, you will have to fertilize to get a crop. Burn enough fossilised carbon and it will change the composition of the atmosphere. But even blindingly obvious evidence will not always be heeded.

This creates the biggest psychological challenge for the scientist. Trained to find evidence and believe in inference, the scientists is incredulous when obvious evidence is ignored for the short-term expediency of the policy. And this will happen. It has many times already and will continue to happen for as long as there is politics.

The real challenge is making sure that the important evidence gets noticed. Perhaps by being truthful about what happens if it is ignored.


More on this general topic

Are scientists ready?

Post revisited – Leaders not heroes

Time for scepticism

Conservation questions

Conservation questions

The current loss of biological diversity is a problem that calls for a collective characterization of what we want to protect and conserve and of what biodiversity we value. Should the focus be on local or global biodiversity? Should alien species be eradicated to protect ecosystem integrity and endemism? Should mammals be favored over plants? Should priority be given to useful species over useless ones? Should natural diversity be valued per se, or should it be valued on the basis of the goods and services it ensures? It is likely there is no one answer to any of these questions; rather, different contexts will give rise to different outcomes. Conservationists should tackle this kind of uncertainty and attempt to bring to light and discuss the moral values at stake. Maris & Bechet (2010)

What an extraordinary set of questions. Ask any one of them in the pub late on a Friday and you will start a ruckus. There will always be a least two individuals with diametrically opposite answers and any number of weird and wonderful interpretations given half the revellers will not understand what on earth you are on about.

Ask the same questions at an ecology conference of learned academics and you will get equally passionate answers. The lecture hall will buzz with erudite responses argued from one or other theoretical position with responses debunking each one as simplistic or impractical. And just like in the pub the answers will be interpretations rather than definitive inference because each question is contentious in its own way.

Here are a few examples.

Local or global becomes… I really want to see the sea eagle when I go to my favourite beach and have no trouble with it being on the list of threatened species. Only this species is distributed widely from Mumbai to Melbourne and is often locally common and the IUCN list it under the ‘least concern’ category.

Aliens becomes… We really should remove willows from creeks across the Australian countryside as they are a nasty invasive alien species. Only when they are removed and not replaced habitat and water quality declines and erosion can accelerate to the point where multiple values are degraded.

Mammals obviously… If the koala goes then it’s just not the same to have its food trees around the place. Plus if you keep the koala you also keep the trees and the umbrella works to protect more than just the animal.

Useless species… No species is completely useless because they all have existence value and a moral right to be, except in the minds of those people who believe that human beings are the apex of evolution and the moral right to lord over nature.

Services take precedence… Given there are so many people and with people coming first it is impossible not to value services over natural diversity. Unless we can use species somehow, directly or indirectly, there is no point in keeping them in a crowded world where every single patch of land and water has to do something for mankind. After all what is nature if it is not in the service of humanity. Only without nature there would be no humanity.

Questions of value

There is contention everywhere because whilst the questions appear scientific, the answers are all about values. Even in a room full of experts loaded opinions flash from every corner with no obvious way to separate them or decide which has the most to offer.

I doubt that conservationists have any idea about how to tackle this value conundrum any more than the average Joe. My experience is that they jump onto values and run with them without even realising there was any uncertainty in them. They also seem intent on the dichotomy as the wrong that only their opinion puts right.

Inevitably they will be up against those who see nature as a resource for humans to exploit, the gift that was given to mankind that no other creature ever has or will possess.

Context will favour one or other view as more logical or moral, consequently, as Maris & Bechet (2010) conclude “there is no one answer to any of these questions”. In other words each question has an uncertain answer.

Recognition of uncertainty would be a major advance but I doubt that holders of strong opinions, especially when claimed as the moral high ground, easily conceded their answers in a values argument.

Perhaps the best we can hope for in values debates is some objectivity.

This begins with recognition of all answers to the various questions and of the plurality of values. Objectivity would also recognise that if we land on one or other side, then the other side has compromised, often massively. Same for plurality. If you want to keep koalas, then the objective arguments says that this cannot happen everywhere, choices must be made on where effort is put to keep them alive. In other words morals are compromised to let some of them go.

Objective answers should let everyone one win, some of the time, in some places.

Incredulous

Incredulous

Here is a recent headline from an ABC online article, a reputable publicly funded media source

Bush stone-curlews popping up in suburbs as bird once extinct in ACT makes a comeback

Nice you might think given that headlines containing good news are like threatened species themselves, rare and at risk of being lost forever.

Here is the problem.

The IUCN lists the conservation status of the Bush stone-curlew as “least concern”. In other words, its not under any immediate threat of extinction in the wild.

In fact, the species has a broad habitat preference throughout Australia pitching up in open forest, eucalyptus woodland, rainforest edges, grassy plains, arid scrubland and along inland watercourses across much of the vast continent. It is a common species in the cities of Brisbane, Cairns and Townsville and is abundant in the tropical and subtropical north. In other words, it’s not a rare species at all.

I’m told there are pubs up north where you can sup on a stubbie alongside a foraging stone-curlew.

To use the word extinction, the termination of a lineage, where the moment of extinction is generally considered to be the death of the last individual of the species, is a lie.

This bird is not extinct.

Placing a geographic limit so as to use the term is disingenuous. Strippers are extinct in the Vatican is about as crazy a statement.

So is this fake news?

I think it is. The bird species is not actually extinct. It’s not even at risk unless you specify a discrete subset of its natural range. And when we learn that the Canberra specimens were almost certainly taking a wander from a nearby reserve artificially stocked with a few pairs to “reintroduce” them to the local scene, then the implicit hope in the story takes a huge dive.

I know that there are feeds to feed in this modern age of lightning fast news cycles. And I also know that there are good reasons for at least trying to be upbeat when, for the conservation minded, the world appears to be crashing down. But, like cricketers crossing the line, there are consequences for cheating on the truth. In the end people do not respect you, they dismiss everything you say even when you are actually being honest.

So my call to myself, and everyone who is in the business of information, let’s be as honest and as truthful as we possibly can and leave the spin alone when it comes to the facts.

This is easy to say and not at all easy to do but we all have to try.

Are scientists ready?

Are scientists ready?

The peer-reviewed publications series of posts based on my personal reminiscences from my time as an academic has triggered a number of thoughts and emotions. One is the dubious relevance of the work to anything beyond a young academics career path.

Research is intellectual fun and throughout the time I was a researcher, and at intervals later, along with the endorphins I thought that I had helped add another straw onto the haystack of human knowledge. This banal thinking readily justified the most esoteric of studies, including the sex life of millipedes. And there is some logic here, for should the haystack become large enough then any number of problems are crushed under the sheer volume of evidence. At least that is what we used to tell ourselves.

There are people who have rumbled this ruse including Dr Bhaskar Vira of the University of Cambridge who summed it up as “time for university leaders to double down on the interdisciplinary, solution-oriented work that this complex, problem-filled world needs”.

Questions should be asked about the relevance of university research and there should be suggestions made for change. Bluntly, get real or stop wasting taxpayers money.

And why wouldn’t this happen? Surely this is a given and is not a question that should even be asked. After all, academics are smart folk. They ought to know what is needed and how to make the best use of their considerable intellectual bandwidth. But Dr Vira’s argument is that Universities are not structured to allow this to happen and I have to agree.

It was one of the reasons I left the academic system that always felt too lethargic to be part of the real world. There was currency in research output but no requirement for any of it to be relevant and in my discipline of ecology many a long nose was peered down at anything applied to a real-world problem.

No doubt there are pockets of innovation and nimble responses here and there but collectively the system is not delivering on most of the wicked problems. And all that esoteric research on millipedes didn’t either.

Dr Vira asks for interdisciplinary, solution orientated work. Getting people to cooperate outside their specific area of expertise — read ‘comfort zone’ — and to look for solutions through applied research is asking more than most can give. It takes great courage and self-confidence to walk into a room of specialists from another discipline and ask them to work with you. Not many people can do it.

The narcissists, bullies, and fools can, but they are not the source of effective collaboration.

Humans fake cooperation when it is a requirement for a paycheck, so industry and commerce can build teams of sorts, but even when the incentive is clear, businesses need small armies of project managers and change consultants to make sure output happens.

So, can academics work together to save the world from its woes?

Unfortunately, my friends, not in a million years.

Evidence

gathering-evidenceUnder English common law the accused is innocent until proven guilty. The onus is on the prosecution to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the person in the dock committed the offense.

This usually means that details of what happened to perpetrate the alleged crime is amassed and presented to the court. Information designed to established who did what, when, and where. Often there will also be an explanation of why the person did it for context is important too.

In short the court will hear evidence.

Indeed the quality of the legal system is determined by the amount and reliability of evidence amassed and the integrity with which it is used. A court that relied on hearsay and opinion in the absence of facts would scare most sane people.

Step outside the court and the logic that underpins the legal system should still apply.

Decisions made from evidence should be smarter, more efficient and lead to more consistent outcomes than decisions made on a whim.

Unless I was crazy thirsty I wouldn’t pay $100 for a beer once I know that the going rate for a beer is $5.

Jumping on a train makes no sense unless I know where it is going… “The train on platform 10 is an all stations to the back of beyond”.

Clearly we gather, store and use evidence all the time.

Wait a moment.

This tsunami of logic is all very well if it was true but it is a ruse. Recent experiences suggest to me that we actually prefer to be without evidence when we make decisions. Our egos rather like seat of the pants choices that require us to think fast and punt on our hunches.

Instead of careful massing of information, turning it over with evaluation skills and maybe project a scenario or two, we guess.

If the gut says yes, then yes it is.

How else could a handbag be sold for $5,000, a third of the worlds population be eating themselves into disease, or climate change be denied?

I think that massing evidence, filtering it out and taking the time for an informed choice is just too hard for most of us, even when it is about the important stuff.

As a purveyor of evidence this really pisses me off.

Guilty your honour.

Accumulated knowledge

damselflyIf you wanted to read all that humanity knows about damselflies it would take you a while.

A Google scholar search on ‘biology of damselflies’ provides a list of nearly 9,000 research papers and this is just the start. Not every paper will have biology in the title, so search ‘damselflies’ and we are up to 13,000. Dig a bit more and there are over 68,000 publications containing information on damselflies and their charming cousins the dragonflies.

Suppose you really like these flying denizens of forest glades and decide to become an expert in their biology. By allocating 10 minutes to each publication — time to scan the abstract, a graphic or two and the key points of the discussion — then you would be at it for over 11,000 hours.

Make than 6 years of full-time work with no holidays.

In the good old days of the gentleman naturalist you might actually have taken on this herculean task. Your passion for damselflies would make the work a pleasure and independent wealth afforded you all the time in the world.

There was no need to produce anything from your all those hours in a wing chair by the fire. A mind brim full of detail on mating rituals, prey selection and peptide inhibitors was enough. That you could bore the pants off your dinner guests was simply a bonus.

Not so today.

Anyone afforded the luxury of 72 months with the accumulated human knowledge of damselflies would need a product at the end — a research thesis at least. And that thesis would only pass muster if it added to the already huge body of knowledge.

Your studies could not be completed in front of the fire surrounded by a library of leather bound books with the whiff of coal smoke across your nostrils. No sir.

After just a small amount of reading you would be donning a white coat and spending the rest of time in the laboratory dissecting the tiny abdomens of Diphlebia nymphoides, a pretty blue species native to eastern Australia. How else would you discover the true variability in digestive efficiency?

Only if you were really lucky would you have first donned hiking boots and trekked to the streams and creeks with a butterfly net to catch a few specimens for your analysis.

Even when the body of knowledge is vast our job is to add to it. Human endeavour is all about adding to the pile. We are addicted to making things bigger and better.

And boy is this mountain of human knowledge growing. The 869 papers on damselflies published in 2014 is double the number published in the entire decade of the 1970s.

Clearly damselflies are not central to any of the many economic or social challenges of our times. At best research might provide some details on how to avoid their extinction. So why do it beyond bald curiosity passed down the generations?

The reason for the burgeoning knowledge is simple. There are many more people than there used to be.

More people means there is more education, more universities with science faculties, and more students in attendance. The law of large numbers does the rest. Even the most esoteric topics will have more people interested in them than in the past.

So the body of knowledge grows, even for damselflies.

Pause for a moment to consider what this process of knowledge creation means. It is nearly impossible for any one person to have read everything we know about damselflies. Even if they were given a decade in the drawing room they might not get to all of it.

We have a searchable repository of the knowledge in the cloud that makes it easy to find specific facts. This is fine if you are already an expert and know what you are looking for.

But most people simply wouldn’t look. And if nobody spends any time in the winged armchair only the cloud will have the accumulated knowledge.