reliability of identifications

Barbara Ertter ertter at UCJEPS.HERB.BERKELEY.EDU
Wed Oct 23 10:49:47 CDT 1996

To pick up on the thread of reliability of identifications as done by
members of the environmental consulting community, I'll note (as did T.
Sholars) that here in California we have the full spectrum, at least in
botany.  At the top of the list are several standard-setting botanical
consultants, both independent and working for major environmental
consulting firms, whose credentials and identifications are highly reliable
(my focus here is on the non-academic full-time professional consultants;
the numerous academically based botanists who do supplementary consulting
form another pool of reliable expertise).  Some are self-trained, others
have earned Ph.D.'s from the University of California.  The standards set
by these top-of-the-line consultants have given botanical consulting the
potential of becoming an established legitimate career for academically
trained taxonomists.  I say "potential", because the pool also includes a
depressing number of untrained people who lack the necessary expertise, and
there is no system in place that gives the competitive edge to those who do
(sometimes the reverse!)
If memory serves, there has been a TAXACOM discussion before on the pros
and cons of certifying taxonomic consultants, parallel to certification
programs in other fields.  While this is unquestionably one route that
needs to be pursued, additional pressure can be applied if existing
organizations and/or individuals take on a "watchdog" function, challenging
the reliability of substandard botanical surveys.  I personally find the
litigation approach distasteful, but if the threat gives the edge to those
consultants with a better track record, then this could be a necessary
I've realized that one problem that botanists (at least) are up against is
that the average person completely lacks a frame of reference on which to
judge the completeness of a botanical inventory.  A list of 50 plant
species, for example, can look very impressive when set against the
corresponding list of vertebrates reported from a site, even if there are
actually five times that number of plant taxa actually present.  And this
ratio is not beyond what I encounter when I do have the opportunity to do a
comparative inventory in a site for which a "complete" plant list has
already been compiled by an unqualified consulting firm.  No litigation has
resulted, but I'm hoping that a bit of education has been taking place.
The same problem (and the original thread of this discussion) occurs with
the identification of those taxa that are located.  I like to say that
anybody can identify a plant, but if it's a CORRECT identification you
want, that's a whole 'nuther thing...  Again, the assumption among the
general population is that a single taxonomy class is sufficient training
to make one a fully qualified plant identifier (including off-season
identifications in an unfamiliar floristic region).  This trivializing of
what is required to provide an accurate identification is in fact closely
linked to the lack of support for alpha taxonomy.  The counter analogy I
use is that this assumption is equivalent to thinking that a single
semester of a foreign language is enough to make one fluent in that
language (this is a particularly apt analogy, in that it also allows for
self-taught proficiency, one of the complications of a certification
program, as well as the possibility of lack of fluency even after numerous
courses for someone who simply doesn't have the aptitude).
Enough soapbox for now...

Dr. Barbara Ertter
ertter at
University and Jepson Herbaria
1001 VLSB #2465
University of California
Berkeley, CA  94720-2465 USA
FAX 510-643-5390

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