[Taxacom] iSpecies with Wikipedia

Paul Kirk p.kirk at cabi.org
Fri Mar 28 02:37:51 CDT 2008

Doug Yanega wrote:

>but the former requires an immediate change,<

that's like saying that my new web site, using all the same words as
gazillions of others, should instantly be at the top of Google ranking
because it's the newest ... any decent algorith will deal with this ...
and with the greatest respect I think the argument is perculiar to
zoology, the ICZN, and the 'latest revision is the valid one', and not a
problem for botanical nomenclature which [mostly] separates nomenclature
from taxonomy ... ;-) ... but do tell me if I'm wrong.


Dr Paul M. Kirk
CABI UK Centre (Egham)
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-----Original Message-----
From: taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu
[mailto:taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu] On Behalf Of Doug Yanega
Sent: 27 March 2008 17:57
Subject: Re: [Taxacom] iSpecies with Wikipedia

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

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