[Taxacom] Multiple views, singular views, and hopelessness

Stephen Thorpe stephen_thorpe at yahoo.co.nz
Fri Aug 30 21:01:38 CDT 2013

Nah, the general user doesn't want multiple classifications, only taxonomists do. As I said, all is well providing that you don't try to interpret a single classification as being "the truth", but rathere merely as an information management structure ..

From: David Patterson <david.j.patterson at asu.edu>
To: Nico Franz <nico.franz at asu.edu> 
Cc: TAXACOM <taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu> 
Sent: Saturday, 31 August 2013 1:42 PM
Subject: Re: [Taxacom] Multiple views, singular views, and hopelessness

Very well said, Nico

The appeal for a single system is mis-placed.  It fails to properly reflect
where we are and what we are doing.  Nor is it sought by the general user.
One of the common complaints against EOL in its early days was that it
only offered one taxonomic perspective. Users are diverse in knowledge,
expectations and needs. The upshot is that we need multiple classifications
to serve all well.

That is not to say all classifications are equally valuable. As an example.
some create noise because research insights (trees) are turned into
classifications too quickly. The result is taxa do not stand the test of
time, have a short life, or change their meaning.  This can be addressed
with more discipline.  I commend "Vences M. Guayasamin J. M. Miralles A. de
la Riva I. (2013) To name or not to name: Criteria to promote economy of
change in Linnaean classification schemes. *ZooTaxa* *36*: 201-244" in this
regard. They urge caution in creating new taxa "when different
monophyly-based classifications are conceivable".

David Patterson

On Sat, Aug 31, 2013 at 4:23 AM, Nico Franz <nico.franz at asu.edu> wrote:

> 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
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David J Patterson

Research Professor, School of Life Sciences, Arizona State University
Professor (MBL) Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island
Emeritus Professor, School of Biological Sciences, University of Sydney,
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