Category Archives: Opinions

The Concept of Certainty in Ecological Science

Go through any scientific paper and you’ll find it littered with uncertainty. Scientists qualify parameters, give standard errors, make way for random processes even when experiments have been planned to the finest detail. Even when we get the answers we want, we provide alternative explanations that fly in the face of the assumptions we’re trying to test. Honestly, sometimes it seems like we don’t really ‘know’ anything.

I’ve written about our reluctance to declare that we know things in science before, but here I want to try and answer a couple of questions. Why is uncertainty such a crucial part of science? How does this affect the non-scientific public’s perception of science? And does this relationship with knowledge need to change in the future?

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Birds are Reptiles

When one looks at birds like this puffin, it can be hard to reconcile its cute appearance with its place in the animal kingdom. The thing is, this adorable puffin has something in common with a rattlesnake, in that it’s a reptile (Image credit: Ray Hennessy CC-0).

You read that correctly, birds are reptiles. Now, I can hear you saying “but we learned that they are a different group of organisms, and that reptiles are just those scaly animals that have cold blood?” While reptiles don’t have cold blood per se, some of them DO have feathers. And can fly. In this post I hope to convince you of the fact that the puffin pictured above, and all of its avian relatives, belong with the snakes, lizards, crocodiles, and turtles in the reptile group.

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Misinformation in Ecotourism: An Example from the Great Barrier Reef

Miscommunication concerning ecosystems like the Great Barrier Reef can be extremely harmful to their future. I recently encountered a frustrating example of such misinformation. (Image Credit: Workfortravel, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Scientific communication is at the forefront of what we do here at Ecology for the Masses. We like to celebrate good examples of SciComm whenever we can. But every now and then it’s misused so overtly that you have to talk about it. So today I want to share a recent example of scientific communication that confused and worried me.

In the last month I’ve been lucky enough to travel around Australia with my partner and our son. We’ve seen rainforests, reefs and the outback, and we’ve had a great time. The Great Barrier Reef was a definite highlight; it was number one on my partner’s bucket list and I have great memories of it from when I was a kid. And it was on the reef that this misuse of scientific communication occurred.

We went out on the reef twice. The first time was with Ocean Safari, a group who I won’t hesitate to recommend. We saw a green sea turtle, stingrays, and more fish species than I could count. And when the tour ended, the guide spoke briefly about mass bleaching and why minimising our impact on the climate was so important to ensure the future of the reef. Perfect.

But on our second trip out, we used a different company. During the trip out to the reef, my partner was at a talk held by a marine biologist on the reef. I missed quite the show apparently, as my partner came back looking slightly confused. The biologist had told people that the temperatures on the reef for the last two years had been ‘perfect’, that the coral reefs would easily recover from bleaching, and that they would plant new ‘supercoral’ to restore the reefs.

Now I don’t want to spend too much time arguing that the guide was wrong. If you need convincing, please read my interview with Sean Connolly. In short, extreme warming events in 2016 and 2017 led to mass bleaching (in 2016 on a global scale). Temperatures were NOT ‘perfect’. Some coral does re-uptake algae after bleaching, but they often starve to death before they are able to do this, which happened on a massive scale over the last two years. And whilst coral restoration can work on a small scale, it is costly and time-consuming.

But why did this irritate me so much? In Australia we’re constantly faced with misinterpretation and downright lies about the reef from anti-conservation politicians all the time. Why is this worse?

It’s because the guide was someone posited as an ‘expert’, and asked to speak in front of people who were assumed to have little knowledge about the concept of coral bleaching. Most Australians are aware at least of the fact that the reef is in danger, but the group on the boat were mostly from overseas. So they hear a marine biologist speak, and assume that those words are fact. The take-away message from the talk becomes one of negligence; nothing to worry about here, nothing needs to be done to help. At worst, that attitude even spreads to people they talk to later on.

It also angered me because talks like the one given are excellent opportunities for scientific communication. You have a group of people who are obviously interested in seeing an ecosystem and are about to enter it, so it’s the perfect moment to engage them in the ecological and conservation issues surrounding that ecosystem. It’s a great way to spread ecological awareness. Unfortunately it was used here to spread misinformation. I can only get so angry at the biologist here though, as the message has clearly been condoned by the company, and they need to take responsibility. Confusing, seeing as there future livelihood depends on that of the reef.

The Great Barrier Reef, along with countless other ecosystems worldwide, are not doing well. But with a concerted effort from the scientific community and the public we hope to keep informed, they’re hopefully not beyond repair. But the damage done by misinformation in this sort of forum needs to be mitigated, as quickly as possible.

The Perfect as the Enemy of the Good in Sustainable Living

Eating beef isn't great for the environment. But ca someone who occasionally snacks on cows still be in favour of conservation and other ecological causes?

Eating beef isn’t great for the environment. But can someone who occasionally snacks on cows still be in favour of conservation and other ecological causes?

Today I want to talk about a tweet. Or more accurately, the attitude to sustainability that this tweet represents. It occurred during the recent Ecological Society of Australia conference, and went roughly thus*.

Good to see only vegetarian food at ESA2018. We know that it’s not possible to be truly in support of conservation unless you cut meat out of your diet.

Now for starters, I want to make it clear that I am 100% in support of eating vegetarian. For those of us fortunate enough to be living in relative affluence, vegetarian diets are easy to maintain, generally cheaper (based on personal experience), and have a proven positive impact on the climate. I’m not completely vegetarian, but I take a lot of steps to minimise my diet’s climate footprint. It doesn’t take much.

What I am not in support of is the idea that a person cannot possibly be a proponent of conservation and other ecological causes, or that their other efforts in support of a better world are futile, if one facet of their life does not align perfectly with minimising their climate impact. This attitude can come in many forms, from the above tweet, to your friends who yell “HA, hypocrite!” when they discover a stray plastic bag in your room or see you take a taxi instead of biking one day.

To underline my frustration with this attitude, let’s look at a now somewhat-famous study that came out in mid-2017. The paper was a meta-analysis which drew up a list of lifestyle changes in developed countries which had the highest carbon footprint. You can read a few summaries of the paper here and here, and the paper itself here.

In the study, switching to a vegetarian (or ‘plant-based’, as the study refers to it) diet was listed as the step with the sixth-highest impact. To highlight the problems with the attitude I’m arguing against here, let’s rephrase the above tweet using the step with the third-highest.

Good to see that everyone put the effort in and drove to ESA2018. We know that it’s not possible to be truly in support of conservation unless you find an alternative to flying wherever physically possible.

If this were true, then there would be a lot less attendees at conferences like this every year. Now for the step with the highest.

Good to see more non-parent ecologists at ESA2018. We know that it’s not possible to be truly in support of conservation unless you don’t have children.

No comment needed, I feel.

Now admittedly, the two above are substantially more impactful on an individual’s lifestyle that turning vegetarian. But I know a few ecologists who have several children, and I would never dream of accusing them of not being in support of ecological causes.

Furthermore, I believe the propagation of the idea that anything less than perfect is insufficient can dissuade people from making lifestyle changes. The following quote is from Voltaire, and I think it applies here quite well.

Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Whether you’re an environmentalist, a conservationist, or an accountant, if you want to support the environment, absolutely you should encourage lifestyle changes to help reduce our impact on the planet. But please, let’s not spread the idea that anything less than total commitment is worthless.

*The tweet itself has been somewhat paraphrased. I do not wish for the ecologist who wrote it to be googled or messaged for obvious reasons. I have been assured by colleagues that they are a brilliant ecologist, and by no means intend to disparage their person by my disagreement with this one opinion.

Who Gets the Credit?

Scientific papers nowadays are written more on computers than with ink and paper, but no matter how you write a paper it is important to distinguish who gets credit for what. (Image credit: Petar Milošević, CC BY-SA 4.0)

A huge component of science is the execution of successful experiments and then writing about those experiments. Consequently, a lot of weight is put on who did what, and what kind of credit people deserve for what they do. This can result in some arguments about how much so and so did for the project, and why they deserve authorship credit. In this article, I want to briefly cover some authorship issues and what kind of impact authorship can have on a scientist’s career.

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The Shifting of Ecological Baselines

Bushfires like the ones that have ravaged Australia and California this year could become the new norm for the generation that has been born in the last decade, an example of how our perception of ecological change is defined by what has happened in our lifetime

Bushfires like the ones that have ravaged Australia and California this year, could become the new norm for the generation that has been born in the last decade, an example of how our perception of ecological change is defined by what has happened in our lifetime (Image Credit: dm4244, CC BY-SA 4.0)

It’s no secret that our world has undergone rapid changes in the last few decades. Extreme weather events are becoming almost the norm and species seem to be going extinct every minute. But as depressing as this may seem, the general doom and gloom we hear about the world on a daily basis still only represents a small percentage of the ills we’ve inflicted on our planet since we’ve been here.

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Where is the Love for Parasites?

Parasites like the leech can be found in many places all over the world, and anyone growing up near freshwater knows to check for them. But many consider these animals "gross", so how can we motivate the public and scientists to care about them?

Parasites like this leech can be found all over the world, and anyone growing up near freshwater knows to check for them. But many consider these animals “gross”, so how can we motivate the public and scientists to care about them? (Image credit: John Douglas, CC BY-SA 2.0)

As someone who works with parasites, I have to confess that I love them. They are beyond interesting, and I delight in telling people about them and what they do to their host organisms to survive. More often than not, people cringe or look like they would rather run away than hear more about such disgusting creatures. I know that as a disease ecologist I am very much in the minority when it comes to how I feel about parasites, but I think it’s important that we understand how vital these organisms are to the natural world, and the benefits they offer to scientists and their research.

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