[Taxacom] Multiple views, singular views, and hopelessness

Bob Mesibov mesibov at southcom.com.au
Sat Aug 31 17:35:24 CDT 2013

Agreeing strongly with some of the posts here, especially David Patterson's.

'Do users want a single, stable classification from taxonomy?' is a sub-question of 'What do users want to hear from taxonomists?'. My experience is that they mainly want to hear stories. 'Mainly' excludes many of the paid IDs I've done, where the user asked 'What is this horrible thing and how do I get rid of it?' (Sigh.)

The bulk of my users want a story. They want me to say what 'it' is, what's interesting about 'it', and where does 'it' fit in the natural world - not 'where exactly does it stand in biological classification?', but more like 'what does it do for a living?' If the story is intrinsically interesting (I'm not an expert story-teller), I get a 'That's fascinating!' response. I've published a couple of dozen strictly taxonomic papers, and not one of them got the global media interested. This one did

(e.g., http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/03/science/a-standoff-between-two-species-of-millipedes-on-tasmania.html?_r=0)

but that particular story wouldn't exist without the underlying taxonomic work, which made me an 'expert' on that group of millipedes.

I put 'expert' in quotes because it's not a word we often use here on Taxacom, and like me you probably cringe when you hear it. No one knows better than a specialist how little is actually known about their specialty organisms. But taxonomists *are* experts in the eyes of non-taxonomists, and although you might think that taxonomy doesn't rank very highly as a science (no mega-funding, regarded as stamp-collecting by some 'hard science' practitioners), none of my taxonomic-story-telling listeners ever seemed to doubt that what I did was real science. Similarly, I don't doubt for a moment that Doug Yanega, showing a loosely classified insect on that nature walk he told us about, was regarded by his audience as an expert whose stories were worth listening to.

The idea that an unsettled classification makes taxonomists look bad to paying or non-paying customers is IMO a furphy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Furphy). It got longer legs when the acronym industry looked around for a single, stable classification they could hang their data on. That isn't necessary for data management, and the tools that specialists can use for multiple classifications and multiple phylogenies are rapidly getting better: http://blog.opentreeoflife.org/
Dr Robert Mesibov
Honorary Research Associate
Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, and
School of Agricultural Science, University of Tasmania
Home contact:
PO Box 101, Penguin, Tasmania, Australia 7316
(03) 64371195; 61 3 64371195

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