[Taxacom] iSpecies with Wikipedia

Doug Yanega dyanega at ucr.edu
Thu Mar 27 12:57:15 CDT 2008

Rich Pyle wrote:

>Such an
>algorithm would track things like where different classifications are
>congruent, and to what extent; weighting based on how many different
>knowledgable users have individually ranked the different classifications;
>weighting based on how many publications have emulated which classificaitons
>(and where those were published, and when); and a bunch of other various
>factors that should be too hard for a group of clever algorithms and clever
>bioinformatics folks to hash out.

I'm afraid that while I understand the principle behind your 
explanation here, I (like others) have doubts that an algorithm is an 
effective method for generating consensus classifications. Like it or 
not, there are two components to classification; those which are 
objective, and those which are subjective, and I'm not so sure any 
algorithm is going to be able to replicate how those components 
interact. How is an algorithm going to know that a new generic 
synonymy proposed by author X in some obscure publication is an 
objective synonymy based on an examination of the type specimens - 
which therefore requires an IMMEDIATE change to the consensus 
classification (even if no other "experts" have submitted an opinion 
regarding the change, or published revised classifications of their 
own to reflect the change) - compared to, say, a generic subjective 
synonymy proposed in a self-published source by some crackpot whose 
opinion isn't worth the paper it's printed on? Neither synonymy may 
be cited by any other experts (either for support or refutation) for 
several years, but the former requires an immediate change, the 
latter does not, and an algorithm isn't going to be an effective 
system for figuring this out.

The ordinary mortals who want and need a consensus classification are 
not going to know or care about esoteric debates over whether (e.g.) 
Aristolochia is in Piperales or Aristolochiales; they're people like 
high school students doing a class project where they have to submit 
the full Linnaean rank hierarchy for their favorite plant, and they 
are going to be confused and ANNOYED if what they get is some listing 
of three or four alternative classifications. Heck, even other 
researchers are going to be annoyed by arguments over 
classifications, when it impacts their own work - e.g., a chemist who 
tries to publish on the phytotoxins in Aristolochia and related 
genera, and gets conflicting comments from reviewers, including 
critical things like which taxa are appropriate outgroups for their 
comparisons. Or if I'm trying to petition the government to declare a 
hairstreak butterfly as endangered, it's going to cause no end of 
problems if there are six different names for the same taxon (e.g., 
in three genera, Mitoura, Loranthomitoura, or Callophrys, and 
appearing in each genus either as a full species or as a subspecies), 
all in print at the same time.

I'm of a similar mind to Mary Barkworth: we need the process by which 
consensus is arrived at to be OPEN and transparent. If someone 
presents a clean and convincing argument for a change, then let the 
community examine it, approve it, and go ahead with it; if their 
proposal generates controversy, then the community discussion can and 
SHOULD be a vigorous no-holds-barred debate over its merits and its 
drawbacks, until something definitive emerges. I truly, seriously 
believe that if all of the facts of the cases (for all of the present 
"contentious" classification schemes) were laid out in black and 
white, that we WOULD, as a community of reasonable adults, be able to 
come to decisions as to a single preferrable alternative in every 
case - it should not matter whether an opinion is held by a minority, 
but what SHOULD matter is whether their evidence or logic (or 
adherence to the appropriate Code) is flawed. I think people are 
pretty darn good at spotting flaws, after all, and on THAT basis 
decisions should be made (and yes, if someone is a crackpot, we 
should be able to tell them as much, and not have to deal with the 
messes they create the way we do now). The principle is sound, but as 
I've said before, it can only work properly if ALL the taxonomic 
community is involved, otherwise it *would* be just a wall.

It's been suggested before: a single website where every taxonomist 
registers, and indicates what subject matter is of interest to them, 
so that every time anyone, anywhere, makes a comment that is 
pertinent to that specified list of topics, then EVERYONE IN THE 
WORLD who is interested in that topic is instantly notified, and 
invited to respond. I envision it as a hybrid between things like the 
ToL (with a  giant classification tree), Wikispecies, and a chat 
room. I don't think an algorithm can do our dirty work for us. ;-)


Doug Yanega        Dept. of Entomology         Entomology Research Museum
Univ. of California, Riverside, CA 92521-0314        skype: dyanega
phone: (951) 827-4315 (standard disclaimer: opinions are mine, not UCR's)
   "There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness
         is the true method" - Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Chap. 82

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