[Taxacom] Multiple views, singular views, and hopelessness

Nico Franz nico.franz at asu.edu
Fri Aug 30 13:23:48 CDT 2013


Dear Taxacom list:

   I have to respond to this comment written by Doug Yanega. I hope it
adequately represents other parts of the same post.

"This runs afoul of the exact same issue: such a system would not give
a  single
answer to a simple question like "What family is this plant in?". It gives
an enormously esoteric and complicated answer that makes sense  only to a
taxonomist who is family with plant taxonomy - "Here are the 15 competing
classifications, in which this plant is in family X in 9 of them, family Y
in 4 of them, and family Z in 2; of the three most recent classifications,
it was placed in X twice and Z once, with Z based on chloroplast DNA
sequencing." That sort of answer is precisely the kind of thing that
confirms the impression of taxonomy as hopelessly impractical. No one
outside the taxonomic community cares how many competing classifications
exist, who published them, or who is citing and/or following them. Lumpers
versus splitters, molecules versus morphology, strict monophyly or not...
the end users of taxonomy *don't care* about our internal arguments and
controversy, and it is a mistake to force everyone else to accept ambiguity
just because WE strive for objectivity."

I think there are several not well substantiated assumptions and non
sequiturs inherent in this view.

First off it is not obvious to me that a multi-taxonomy perspective is
necessarily "enourmosly esoteric and complicated". Having 2-3 fairly recent
classifications, each with some degree of recognition and usage, displayed
and aligned does not have to be overwhelming. There is no need to
over-dramatize the issue by going to 15 classifications at once.

Second, it does not follow necessarily that a complex answer which
nevertheless is truthful to the actual history of classifications of a
particular group, would lead consumers to believe that "taxonomy is
hopelessly impractical". Again too much drama for my taste. Instead, if one
can compare the various taxonomies, one will often enough obtain an outcome
that shows repeated consistent elements (we have known for a while now that
Gingko is "special"), and other areas that are more dynamic, but usually
not in a fully random way. Well, that is in my mind not profoundly
different from other fields of inquiry that produce results which at any
given time tend to be approximately right (or reliable) but also partly
wrong, yet in non-chaotic ways. So to infer that such a showcasing of
taxonomy's trajectory must lead to an impression of hopelessness seems
presumptuous. Indeed I would suggest that "covering up" ambiguity and
dynamics when in fact these elements are reflected in alternative
publications, is a greater long-term concern. Transparency and the ability
to integrate will be valued more highly in good science than a flattened,
temporary single snapshot view.

Third, I think there is a shared awareness among taxonomists that "outside
communities" would like usable, precise classifications to apply to their
research challenges. However this reasonable demand is not the same as
asking for a single, semi-arbitrarily flattened view that does not actually
represent the underlying complexities. If we can offer these communities
both a particular perspective *and* ways to integrate it with others,
including future perspectives that might render the current name/taxon
mappings outdated (something that no user desires), then that may well be a
superior product, recognized as such by all users. Many taxonomy users are
aware that their current system in use is ephemeral. There are valid
pressures to improve long-term data integration, and *that* is what many
users will value over having a single system.

Fourth, by allowing representation of multiple views we do not necessarily
force this upon the users. It is also not a necessarily conclusion that we
would do so as part of some exceptional strive for objectivity. And it is
not a mistake, necessarily, if the whole enterprise of multi-representation
has not been attempted thoroughly (which it has not; with some very
valuable and pioneering exceptions). Users can still choose to just obtain
a single view. We have no monopoly on attempting accountability in
representing our insights and how they change through time. Perhaps the
monopoly part was not implied by Doug, but even so the line of argument is
flawed.

I do agree with the idea that mandating a single view should never work as
something that can fairly represent and attract taxonomic research and
progress. They collective reality of what we produce for ourselves and
others is neither exactly a tyrannical top-down system, nor is it
completely chaotic. There ought to be an 80/20 type solution where much
largely outdated taxonomy fades into the background commensurate with its
minimal usage, whereas a limited number of strongly and concurrently
competing views get fully exposed and linked up semantically to facilitate
integration from now on and looking forward. Over time, this can produce
semantic improvements both for experts and users. There are semantic and
technical solutions out there (e.g.
http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14772000.2013.806371;
http://franz.lab.asu.edu/publications/Euler-WFLP2013.pdf), but virtual
platforms must also convey fair recognition and incentives for expert to
contribute. These are in my view worthwhile challenges that address the
demands for representing taxonomic discourse and progress as well as
serving the user communities with better integratable and less ephemeral
products.

Cheers,

Nico



More information about the Taxacom mailing list