interactive keys and others

Les at Les at
Mon Mar 13 20:13:30 CST 2006

 From Mike (complaining about pseudo-comparisons and 'evaluations'):
> (3) The microscope has automatic focusing, but the users are instructed to
> turn it off (= we're really determined to show that interactive keys are no
> good).

Investigating a stereo microscope with the focusing disabled AND with
one eye covered might be a better analogy .........

 From Mary:
> I like reading and find that I absorb information through reading,
> which I enjoy, and I like reading.

Perhaps fortunately for the advancement of learning, people who like
reading may have have alarmingly/amazingly/disgustingly different
preferences. For example, in reviewing our 'Grass Genera of the World'
book (generated with excruciating precision and untouched by human hand
from a Delta database, and directy accessible from Intkey), a very
reputable, obviously literate and well read grass taxonomist recommended
its readability in glowing terms (see Genetical Research 1993, 235). I
was astonished as well as gratified by this, because I would not then
have dreamed of recommending it in that context. In retrospect, though,
and also rather to my surprise, I now recall my own favourite reading as
an undergraduate botanist in the 1950s. Viz.; Katherine Esau's "Plant
Anatomy"; G.M. Smith's "Cryptogamic Botany (vols I & II); Metcalfe and
Chalk's "Systematic Anatomy of the Dicotyledons"; Lilian Hawker's
"Physiology of the Fungi". I actually read this stuff, and made notes
for use in practical classes, in preference to the more popular and more
widely recommended texts (which mostly purveyed what I then considered
to be unduly exciting and easily readable but unsubstantiated/untestable
and sometimes childish burblings about functional morphology and
evolution; e.g., the 'telome theory' and 'phyletic slide'). Of course,
my reading habits have changed with the acquisition of wisdom (and with
advancing decrepitude).

Re printed versus interactive keys, you can expect to encounter products
ranging from excellent to lousy in BOTH categories. Identificatory
efficiency will depend not only on the competence of the authors of a
printed key or interactive package, but also on such extraneous factors
as current taxonomic understanding of the group, its 'tractability'
(taxonomic difficulty), and on the expertise, time, and financial
support invested in its development and publication.

Anyway, as someone with a vested interest through my own involvement in
advocating the acquisition and careful organization of comparative
descriptive data and in the development of interactive methodology
(which of course goes beyond identification), I would hope:

1) That professionals will examine with open minds the available
products for groups that concern them, and decide for themselves which
best satisfy their needs;

2) That teachers will encourage students to do the same, and (more
important) teach them to to employ their critical faculties in
even-handed fashion.


Dr. Les Watson
10, Maitland Avenue
Little Grove, Albany,         Email: leswatson at
WA 6330, Australia            Phone: +61 (8) 98 44 4398

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