[Taxacom] Reproducibility of descriptive data

Bob Mesibov mesibov at southcom.com.au
Wed Sep 9 18:42:32 CDT 2009

Hi, Mike.

Thank you for your explaining your position so clearly. I now see (sorry to be so obtuse) that you tie description and identification tightly together, whereas I don't, so our apparent points of disagreement are (the Taxacom Syndrome) the result of taking at cross-purposes.

Keeping description and ID separate? Sure. An extreme contemporary case would be a specialist in a well-understood taxon who never uses descriptions at all, but relies entirely on barcodes. Fine with me, if there's a good one-to-one correspondence between barcode and Jim Croft's 'Three Things' (sounds very Chinese...). A less extreme case is my millipede 'gonopodology', because besides relying for ID on a mental and real-world album of gonopod images, I also check what authors or redescribers said about the rest of the millipede.

You ask:

"As a taxonomist with direct experience of this subject, do you think (a) that the error rates reported in these studies are abnormally high; or (b) that they are acceptable, and 
there's no point in trying to improve them?"

Well, (b) is a "Have you stopped beating your wife?" question, because like most other taxonomists I try to think of ways to improve the ability of myself and others to do IDs . As for (a), I have no idea, but over many years my experience has been that non-experts rely on experts for critically important IDs, rely on published/online material plus 'confirmatory' advice from experts for less important IDs, and rely on published/online material alone for inconsequential IDs. Which gets back to a theme I weave into a lot of these threads, namely for what uses and for whom do we do taxonomy?

I accept your point about 'comparative' as you use the word, in that it's possible to see a description as useful/useless for *potential* comparisons.

I think the reason I responded so strongly to what you said is lurking in the word 'reproducibility', which is a loaded one, and suggests the 'reproducible results' you either get or don't get in physics and chemistry. You do a melting point measurement on substance X and get a result Y C. If that result is reproducible, anyone else using standard mp-determining apparatus will also get Y.

I don't think descriptive taxonomy can ever be reproducible in this sense, and I think the subject line of this post is a bit of an oxymoron. Obviously you feel differently, and have worked hard to move taxonomic description more towards a 'use this species-determining apparatus and you will accurately ID species Y' state. Let's leave it at that.
Dr Robert Mesibov
Honorary Research Associate
Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, and
School of Zoology, University of Tasmania
Home contact: PO Box 101, Penguin, Tasmania, Australia 7316
(03) 64371195; 61 3 64371195
Website: http://www.qvmag.tas.gov.au/mesibov.html

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