More GBIF questions (was: ITIS)

Meredith Lane mlane at GBIF.ORG
Thu Jun 24 21:38:42 CDT 2004

Doug Yanega has said a whole bunch of things with which GBIF can say it agrees,
and with which Meredith (GBIF hat off) agrees --- which fact Doug will find
amazing, given the disagreements we had with each other when we were both [in
different roles] at the University of Kansas!  Thanks, Doug.

The only quibble I think GBIF would have with Doug's recent (baited) cogent
posting is with this statement:

"Without a resource
that puts forth a consensus opinion to all users (with appropriate
caveats, obviously), we are failing to address one of the most
serious objections that the critics of taxonomy are (and have been)

The GBIF information architecture takes more into account the "appropriate
caveats" (the difficulties are bigger than mere "caveats") and therefore would
prefer to provide a service that maps among alternative
classifications, thereby allowing the diversity of taxonomic opinion to be
revealed rather than concealed in a "consensus opinion".

While the means to do this is not yet a reality and it will take some time to
put it in place, you can bet that such a means will be easier (and much faster,
given the antipathy that taxonomists in general have toward agreeing with one
another---I will brook no argument here; there is too much empirical evidence
for this right here on Taxacom) than developing a "consensus taxonomy" across
the whole of life.  Am I arguing that we should not strive for such a
consensus? Of course not. It's just that it is much harder to see that
happening than it is to imagine GBIF's goals achieved through flexible IT
developments based on accepted standards for data and metadata, and mappings to
ontologies that can grow and evolve.  The only way that information systems that
are truly helpful to science and society will become truly useful is if they
come to encompass the flexibility, contentiousness, and ability to encompass
more than one opinion at the same time that our own brains have -- forcing such
systems to "consensus" (not to say uniformity) will stifle true progress.

One of GBIF's primary raisons d' etre is to get the data/information we already
have "out there" on the Internet so that it can be used (by lots of kinds of
users, not just taxonomists) to conserve the biodiversity that we taxonomists
all study, and presumably love and wish to conserve.

If we wait for a consensus in taxonomic opinion, biodiversity is going to be
long gone (we all know this is true: just witness the years and years worth of
arguments on Taxacom about species concepts that show no sign of reaching a
conclusion, much less a consensus!), and so that consensus opinion will not
matter one iota.

Therefore, GBIF is working to allow the "taxonomic consensus building" to go on
while at the same time liberating information for use not only by
taxonomists and other researchers but also by the decision makers, natural
resource managers, etc. and so on that take the actions every day that affect
the very existence of biodiversity.

And here there are those who will argue that these other users are not smart
enough or educated enough or whatever enough to be able to recognize faulty
data when presented with it.  Horse patootie.  Those users aren't even going to
approach the data without simple-to-use analytical tools --- and those can be
developed to rule out the 40 to 50 percent of the data that are for one reason
or another "suspicious".  CONABIO in Mexico has already proved this, and is
making evidence-based governmental decisions about placement of protected areas
and fields of GM crops using the 50 to 60 percent of the natural history
collections data that are not suspicious.

I don't know about you (and I'm sure I'll hear!), but I would rather have
decisions being made on the basis of 50 to 60 percent of our actual
biodiversity data than on none at all, and you can bet that there are many
decisions made around the world on a daily basis that are based only on
anecdote, if even that.

Taxonomists who expect the world to await their final pronouncements are like
Adam and Eve expecting god to let them stay in Eden as practitioners of the
world's oldest profession, simply because they were taxonomists.  We all
actually do live in the real world, even though we would like to live in Eden;
we'd better start doing something about reality and leave fantasy behind.

Is the data/information that GBIF (and its partner organisations/initiatives) is
serving perfect, or will it ever be?  Of course not.  Can it gradually be made
better as developments in the sematic web and IT progress in their capability
to address complexity? Absolutely.  Can those same developments support the
progress of taxonomy?  Sure, if taxonomists will support the developments as
they are being made, and not keep fighting to stay in Eden!


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