[Taxacom] article on taxonomy

Bob Mesibov mesibov at southcom.com.au
Sat Feb 27 00:50:50 CST 2010

[This thread is certainly getting people to firm up positions, which is good, but if you haven't already done so, please read the instigating article (Boero on stupidity).]

Dean Pentcheff wrote:

"So we have a choice. We can use all our time to inform ourselves about our precious biodiversity as it all vanishes. Or we can use some of our time to hugely multiply the effectiveness of the knowledge we have by making it accessible and useful to the people whose decisions really can save the world's biodiversity."

It's clear from your post that you want to save as much biodiversity as possible in the aggregate, which is the only reason anyone could possibly need *all* of the world's biodiversity documentation at their fingertips - to make triage decisions. Unfortunately, with most of the world's biodiversity still undocumented, those decisions are going to be massively ill-informed. The people you want to trust to save biodiversity know that, and in any case they do *not* make decisions based on taxonomic niceties. You may not have seen an exchange I had here with Tony Rees on a week ago:

'"The first thing these managers / policy persons want is to know what biodiversity exists and where." Um, yes, makes them sound like they know what they're talking about in their meetings. But the second thing (what can we *possibly* do about it?) and the third thing (what can we *really* do about it?) have vastly more influence on decision-making than knowing names and locality records. I'm not being cynical here and saying that science goes out the window when deals get done. I'm saying that conservation planning involves a lot more than taxonomy, and it simply doesn't matter how good the taxonomy is when there are vast gaps in knowledge about species biology, biogeography and causes of decline. You're in a particularly good position to know this, being familiar with the debates about marine reserves in Australia. Informed decision-making at those levels has bugger-all to do with getting names right.'

The choice you offer (above) might be a societal choice, but it isn't a personal one. I argued for a personal ethical stance that puts discovery and documentation well ahead of tinkering with data infrastructure. Smart taxonomists should be doing smart taxonomy. And as for making taxonomic information more widely available, I've argued here for open taxonomic communities that feed on such information and use it to generate new taxonomic work more productively than isolated professionals can. That's a better use for existing taxonomic information than handing it to, or using it to advise, policy-makers who will be quickly marginalised if they keep saying 'no' to developers with booming populations and booming wants behind them.

The effectiveness of conservation isn't limited by what's known. We won't get dramatically better outcomes if we know more. We know enough: habitats have been and are being destroyed, wild resources have been and are being overexploited, pollution and degradation are steadily getting worse and more and more species are going invasive outside their natural ranges. In an era of extinction the job of a taxonomist (IMO) isn't to stand Canute-like at the shore and say that with better access to taxonomic information we can hold back the incoming tide of massive overpopulation. It's to document what's going extinct.
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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