[Taxacom] Pop article on taxonomy's decline

Richard Pyle deepreef at bishopmuseum.org
Wed Jan 26 18:43:30 CST 2011

Just back from lunch...

> I think your lack of food may have affected your lines of argument :-)

Well...it certainly affected my crankiness!  But you haven't convinced me
about the lines of argument (especially in light of the deluge of off-list
positive feedback I received).

> Pyle: "First of all, it's wrong."
> Whether existing taxonomists think the databasing efforts are good or not
> isn't relevant. 

Not relevant???  How better to gauge the utility of any endeavor than to ask
the opinions of the people most directly affected?  The people we are trying
to protect and support and re-create in future generations are epitomized by
people like my PhD Advisor.  If people like that feel that it's money well
spent, is that really not relevant?

> The author of the Wired article is Craig McLain, assistant
> director of science for the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center and
> you, a keen marine expeditioner. McLain doesn't knock databasing. He says:
> 'Thankfully (my own research has relied upon them), thousands of hours and
> millions of dollars have been spent on these initiatives. However, many of
> these programs did not financially support taxonomists generating the data
> these databases required.'

Yes, I read the article, and I actually thought it was *excellent*.  My rant
wasn't directed at Craig (although I do think he missed an opportunity to
frame the issue in a more productive way).  My rant was directed at the
sentiment behind your choice of quoted excerpt. (Keep in you, this doesn't
mean I was directing at you specifically -- although we have had our tussles
in the past -- but rather a sentiment that I see increasingly in various
quarters, and which I do feel is only adding to the noise).

> Pyle: "Second of all, the amount of money spent on all database efforts
> combined is *trivial* compared to what is needed to correct the problem."
> Ah, the old 'drop in the bucket' argument from Tom Wolfe's 'Mau Mauing the
> Flak Catchers'. Correcting the problem might take millions, who knows? 

No, correcting the problem will take *billions*.  There already are millions
being spent on taxonomy globally, and it's nowhere near enough.

> Pyle: "Third, in most cases that money has not come from a source that
> would have been available to taxonomists anyway."
> Which is McLain's point, and lots of other people's. That source damn well
> *should* have been funding the taxonomists. 

Yes!  A point of agreement!  There is *no* question that we need to persuade
those sources of money to throw more in the direction of biodiversity
research (boots-on-the-ground/fins-in-the-water research).  Absolutely!  We
obviously couldn't get the money for taxonomy before (otherwise we would
have).  But maybe the technology "hook" has brought them close enough to our
world that we can plead the case, such that maybe in the future they *will*
provide the money we need for the tasks we need to do.  Sure, fine, that's a
lot of "maybes".  But it's still better than zero, which is what it had
been/would have been anyway.

> And here again one of my
> favourite quotes, from former EOL head James Edwards: "We have not given
> enough thought to the people who provide the information on which the
> Encyclopedia of Life is built," Dr. Edwards acknowledged. "We are looking
> into ways to keep that community going."
> (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/26/science/26ency.html?_r=3)

Right -- so my read on that is that Jim was leveraging MacAurthur's interest
in EOL to push money towards the core research.  No?

> Pyle: "Fourth, the entire argument is a Red Herring, because the real
> problem with misdirected funds is more dollars spent doing lab-based
> taxonomy, and less dollars spent doing field-based taxonomy."
> You probably need to clarify that a bit more. I think it's still true that
> new species are 'discovered' in museums and herbaria.

Yes, you're right -- and I apologize for incoherence on that.  You're not
the only one to have called that one out.  Low glucose levels, and all. By
"lab-based" I meant the kind of work I'm seeing increasingly done by the
next generation of "taxonomists", many of whom have never even seen their
organism of study (or, at least, never seen its habitat).  Not just
molecular (although that's a big part of it -- and again, I'm not
disparaging it, because it can certainly be valuable for the
discovery/documentation quest). But more and more, I see requirements by
journals (not so much the modern ones, but some of the older ones trying to
be modern) along the lines of "you can't publish a new species description
without doing a full phylogenetic analysis", or the shift away from money
for field-based surveys and inventories (a few noteworthy exceptions here)
towards more hypothesis-driven / phylogenetic stuff, using the latest
whiz-bang toys.   And I'm not oppose to whiz-bang toys -- I use them myself,
and even develop them semi-professionally.  It's just that I prefer the new
whiz-bang toys that enhance my abilities to engage in the *real* "oldest
profession" (the one mentioned in the bible, about assigning names to all of

I also want to say that I agree completely with Stephen's summary:

"really the tendency for academia to want to play with new toys and lose
interest in the old ones, and to follow economic factors over rationality"

That, I think, is probably the key thing at the heart of it. It's sort of
like how we like to blame the cable news media for distorting reality, when
they're really distorting in favor of what people want to see and hear.  

We have met the enemy and he is us.


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