The Tyranny of the Gatekeeper

christian thompson cthompson at SEL.BARC.USDA.GOV
Thu Oct 11 16:10:28 CDT 2001


The charge against ITIS isn't quite correct.  As Pogo once say: "We have
met the enemy; and it is US"

The gatekeepers at ITIS are taxonomists themselves; but ITIS does have the
capability of "hosting" multiple classifications.  So long as each name
(whether valid or invalid) has an unique Taxonomic Serial Number [TSN] then
those names can be displayed under different classification. However, it
should be remember one of the reasons for ITIS is to provide one
authoritative classification which government agencies can follow.

Simply put, some one must decide whether Osama bin Laden is a terrorist or
a freedom fighter.

Democracy is nice, but every once in awhile we need to make a decision and
follow the consequences. And even while Science does allow for multiple
hypotheses, the process of Science is such that only one hypothesis survives
among conflicting ones.

So ...

F. Christian Thompson
Systematic Entomology Lab., ARS, USDA
Smithsonian Institution
Washington, D. C. 20560-0169
(202) 382-1800 voice
(202) 786-9422 FAX
cthompso at [NB: no terminal "n"]
visit our Diptera site at

>>> Barry Roth <barry_roth at YAHOO.COM> 10/11 2:08 PM >>>
This and the foregoing posts speak about registration
of _names_.  Under such a system, the action of
registration is involved in the _availability_ of a
name for taxonomic purposes.

A separate question is the _validity_ of names for
taxa (indeed, the scope and reality of the taxa
recognized by workers in the field).  I believe this
is the real sticking-point for many taxonomists when
registration is discussed.  Systems like ITIS make (or
endorse) a judgment about a taxonomic reality.  They
grant to the database managers a power that many feel
should be reserved to taxonomists at large.  (I think
in the early days of TAXACOM I posted an opinion about
this under the rubric "The Tyranny of the

To me, one of the great strengths of the ragtag
democracy that is taxonomy is the fact that, based on
the literature, multiple hypotheses can have equal
currency.  Most databases do not handle ambiguity at
all well.  And change of identifiers (to express a
newly uncovered reality) in a "registration" system is
likely to be cumbersome, whereas in at-large taxonomy
it happens with the speed of publication -- although
widespread acceptance of a new formulation may take
some time.

Barry Roth

--- christian thompson <cthompson at SEL.BARC.USDA.GOV>
> What Derek dreams of isn't that far off. It only
> needs $$$
> Want unique numbers for scientific names. ITIS
> (Integrated Taxonomic
> Information System) already provides these.
> Yes, ITIS doesn't cover all names yet. But there are
> people building Name
> databases (=Nomenclators) for many major groups.
> Flies, which represent 10%
> of the World's Known biodiversity are being covered
> by the BioSystematic
> Database of World Diptera. We have some 200,000
> names in our Nomenclator
> today (see us under Names at Our
> recn number is stable.

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