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Critique of the recent study on insect decline (ecologyisnotadirtyword.com)
93 points by simonsarris on Feb 18, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 44 comments

My daughter who did her master's thesis in computational biology on modelling the western pine beetle would agree with this. Her research showed that western pine beetle populations were expanding (no need to tell Californian's this but there it is) in part because their available habitat is expanding with changes in the climate. Her take was that the mix is changing because the climate is changing. It takes time for ecosystems to adapt and as they do some species "lose" and some "win".

“We are replacing all of the pollinators with bark beetles as our forests die of heat/drought, and the latter don’t seem to be getting wiped out by pesticides” is not an especially encouraging take. Though I guess it’s better than “nearly all insects on earth will die out in the next century” or whatever.

It the difference between "the entire ecosystem is collapsing" and "the ecosytem is shifting to a new steady state"

You're right, it also highlights another of the problems, the new insects cause more problems than the old ones they're replacing. Seems we lose stable populations of friendly insects we're familiar with, and replace them with aggressive new ones like pine beetles, stink bugs, disease carrying mosquitos and ticks etc

Looking at extinction and new niches created like our happy little stickle back fish sees an advantage. The stickle back fish contains the genes of past versions fresh water adapted or salt water adapted. Maybe more (alkilin vs acidic vs high o2 or low 02)? These happen within a generation or few. I wish we were longer lived to see what happens. it seems like it would be very interesting to watch. I cannot imagine the stickleback is the only invertebrate carrying this genetic baggage. Watching the niches change and genetic variations of current creatures fill them would be very interesting.

I wish we had some form of stacis we could put ourselves in to observe what happens.

So… My first instinct when I read debunking efforts like this is to try to check out who is doing the debunking. I'm not an ecologist, so I don't have the necessary background knowledge to evaluate the merits of the studies in question. But here's the author's CV:


She got a PhD the same year as me, 2014, so that's pretty early career in academic terms. She's published a series of pretty standard sounding academic papers in a range of standard sounding journals, which is a positive credibility signal for sure. She does a bunch of public outreach work for the environmental sciences, which is great. I liked her effort to explain in plain language what scientific evidence is:


So in general, as an academic in social science, I tend to find her post credible here on general this-looks-like-a-fellow-academic grounds.

This being said, I hadn't heard of the institution where she got her PhD before (Charles Sturt University), and I find it a little bit interesting that on google, pretty much the first hit says "#CSU works closely with industry, ensuring our courses keep pace with change."

Like it or not … when an institution positions themselves like that, it makes me wonder a little bit about whether they really can support unbiased environmental science, since industry has huge financial stakes in the outcomes of environmental research.

Charles Sturt Uni is a fairly well regarded Australian university. It isn't one of the so called "sandstone club" but I believe it does legitimate stuff (it isn't that easy to be called a university here). They also often specialise in rural/earth science matters (I always thought of them as a rural uni). If that helps?

Yeah it is my instinct to to use credentials but then I pull myself up and think "is this a high brow ad-hominem thing" but it probably makes sense to be curious/skeptical at first.

Ruling out potential bias isn't ad-hominem fallacy IMO. Ad-hominem fallacy relates to irrelevant personal attacks. Bias is relevant- just like citing an author's history of proven fraud would not be ad-hominem fallacy, because it is relevant.

Or, at least, that's how I see it. Anyway, I think this is fundamentally different than logical arguments. The burden of proof very much rests on the paper or study or critique. Shaky credibility raises the bar of proof. Remember, in science, new papers are not de-facto gospel until proven wrong- they must be repeatedly supported by successive studies & challenges before they are accepted as truth.

Consider, for example, datasets. There is a certain amount of implicit trust in the dataset provided in some new paper. The dataset can be fudged in ways which are undetectable, and no logical argument can refute- data is not argument. Therefore until you are prepared to replicate the dataset, you are trusting the author.

> Remember, in science, new papers are not de-facto gospel until proven wrong- they must be repeatedly supported by successive studies & challenges before they are accepted as truth.

Yet we read that the findings in most published research are either never reproduced, or not reproducible.

Right, I feel better about doing this now!

Absolutely, this is useful context, thanks!

I completely agree there's a lot of danger of ad hominem analysis in these kinds of cases. From my perspective, I probably would not post about this sort of thing at all, if it were a more mundane issue. But there seems to be a lot at stake in the climate crisis issues, so I'm trying harder than usual to figure out how to get my bearings.

At the risk of sounding like an internet cliche, what you wrote is an almost perfect ad hominem. Your response doesn't address the study whatsoever, nor by your own admission, do you claim to be able to.

I think your comment is a good example of a well formed, coherent yet fallacious argument.

It's generally unreasonable to expect that people be able to directly fact check or debunk every argument or thesis put forward be others. We have too little time and most of us have too little expertise in fields separate than our own. As a result we have to rely on authority to help us judge whether arguments make sense. An argument from authority is not by itself considered a logical fallacy, only an argument from invalid authority.

With that being said, who happens to be saying something changes how one approaches a discussion. If the author of this paper happened to be a random crank, it would not mean that she was wrong, but being unable to directly judge her work for myself (not being an entomologist) I would not be able to take her word for it and would want to see how the entomological community responded to her work. If instead she was a widely respected entomologist I would be inclined to take her word for it until such time that this work was discredited by the entomological community. If I were an expert in her field, I would be able to judge her myself, but not being an expert, I must instead rely on the judgment of experts.

I don't disagree that these socially derived shortcuts can often transfer confidence of the person into confidence in their work. However the reason we look for these kinds of reasoning chains is to determine what heuristics and biases are being used and introduced, and how we can minimize those that are irrelevant or confusing.

In cases like you describe, where someone can't speak to the validity of the methods of the studies, the prudent thing would be to refrain completely from weighing in as all it would do is add some kind of irrelevant or confusing information. I'm unclear what value such information adds when trying to evaluate the merits of the work itself.

> In cases like you describe, where someone can't speak to the validity of the methods of the studies, the prudent thing would be to refrain completely from weighing in as all it would do is add some kind of irrelevant or confusing information.

Anyone who uses http://www.sourcewatch.org/ or prefers Britebart over MSN or visa versa is probably going to disagree. They evidently consider the source of information a useful indicator of its quality.

Speak for myself I aggressively filter the Internet fire hose using all sorts of techniques that don't involve considering the substance of the story at all. I'll look at stories with good HN scores, I'll pause to see listen what Leonard Susskind has to say about something he admits he does not know a lot about long before I'll listen to anti-vaxer's argument about something they say they some expertise. Past performance matters, as does the opinions of others who think like me.

And I've also done exactly what this person did - not here but on theconversation. It was on an article about the benefits of coal, which like all articles on theconversation comes with a side bar listing affiliations and interests the author has that might influence their opinion. (Apparently the theconversation also thinks things outside of what is said in the article can be used to judge its validity.) In that case the said bar said the author had no notable affiliations. I pointed out he was occupying a chair paid for the Koch brothers.

Consideration of the author is not a valid argument about merits of their work in the same way correlation does not imply causation - "but it does waggle its eyebrows suggestively and gesture furtively while mouthing 'look over there'"[0].

It's a cost-effective heuristic, that's popular and necessary simply because of how much information you have to filter out daily just to stay sane. However, to effectively take into account arguments about people, you need to be honest about what you're doing - using weak evidence as a coarse filter. You're bound to have false positives. For things that matter (or that you want to have an opinion on), it's hopefully not the only piece of evidence you're using.


[0] - https://xkcd.com/552/

It's not an ad hom at all and the reason is very simple: OP isn't arguing that we should dismiss the research based on the findings, only that we might, upon further investigation, have more reason to be skeptical. For better or worse, many of us tend to trust whatever is labelled as science so long as it's the PDF file type and there's a list of Harvard-style citations at the bottom.

If OP said "Look, this person got their degree from a low quality place! Let's dismiss the argument because nobody from such a place could produce good research", that would be an ad hom.

But this goes beyond calling out informal fallacies on the internet, it goes to our whole epistemological framework. Why do we trust some claims but not others? Might there be a reason to be skeptical of or completely distrust one claim until it is corroborated by another source? I would argue that there is, in many cases, depending on both the nature of the claim and the history of the person making it. To that end, I'm sure you agree such a thing is necessary in the legal system, for instance, wouldn't you?

Although it wasn't as explicit as your quote is, the op was certainly arguing that we should be circumspect about the results based primarily on the pedigree of the source. Quacks like a duck.

In the framework of science one does not trust. One determines if the result can be reproduced.

As in, if a postulated hypothesis does not contradict any observable facts, it stays a hypothesis, a possible foundation of a theory. If it does contradict the same, it becomes a false hypothesis and is discarded.

This is science, not law or anything else. It does not and can not rely on trust or perceptions of authority.

There is a clear and distinct difference between how science should and must operate within science, and the epistemological standards by which we must operate day to day in judging the quality of science, as we are non-scientists. At some point, as even Bertrand Russel was aware, we must depend on two very unreliable mechanisms: memory and testimony. We cannot prove the physical laws of the universe every time we do science, and we cannot re-do every experiment of a paper before we cite it or accept it. One must trust in the framework of science.

I'm well aware of how things work (or at least ought to work) in science, but that's totally irrelevant to the point I was making about skepticism of the sources that publish science and who they are funded by. It is especially irrelevant if we are talking about lay people judging research for their own purposes.

>In the framework of science one does not trust. One determines if the result can be reproduced.

So anyone who didn't reproduce the study should just leave off commenting?

I'm not even sure I'd call that a "debunking" article.

It basically says there's a whole lot we don't know, because the scientific data that's available isn't particularly good. I don't feel that's a very controversial thing to say.

(And given no better data is available and the existing data indicates the problem is massive - I'll take the best science we have and say we should do something about it.)

I agree, she seems to mostly want more research, rather than "hype" or "hysteria". And even though I kinda object to such descriptions, I can't disagree with the point -- even well meant "hype" doesn't necessarily lead to better research or outcomes, it may as well just make something a thing with which groups try to achieve other agendas they have.

> How can we fix this?

> More conservation actions. We already know what disrupts the balance of ‘good’ vs. ‘bad’ insects (in terms of human impacts): pesticides, habitat loss, pollution, land degradation, manicured lawns, too much waste, crop monocultures, invasive species etc. We can take action to minimise these effects now.

> More research. We can’t identify what insects we’re saving if we don’t get to know them first.

> More funding. Researchers can’t do research, people can’t act without funds and support. We need widespread public and political support for unbiased funding to fill knowledge gaps and make change to stop insect populations declining.

Even the author, after all that, wants "unbiased funding to fill knowledge gaps and make change to stop insect populations declining", emphasis mine. To me all of this just says the author wants a solid, watertight case and well educated steps forward. And there's plenty of steps we already can and must take, no further research needed, she also stresses that.

But I have to admit, it took me a bit to realize this after my initial negative reaction. I didn't even like the title, insectageddon is a terrible word and the decline of insects isn't a great story, at all... but I guess the author is simply too deep into these issues to make it more instantly palatable for people who aren't.

> I hadn't heard of the institution where she got her PhD before (Charles Sturt University), and I find it a little toobit interesting that on google, pretty much the first hit says "#CSU works closely with industry

Not sure why that's any more alarming than universities that work closely with government (almost all of them) or other non-industry foundations.

So, when you don't understand what they are talking about, your first instinct is to unleash an ad hominem attack?

Way to go. Way to go.

Not an argument, not a discussion. It is simply considering how much fact check should be done before we can take their words for it. There can be no ad-hominem attack when the message is unidirectional.

So instead of checking if facts support or at least do not contradict their postulated hypothesis, resort to checking facts about their persona?

Do I have to explain this in even simpler words?

"Ad hominem (Latin for "to the person"[1]), short for argumentum ad hominem, is a fallacious argumentative strategy whereby genuine discussion of the topic at hand is avoided by instead attacking the character, motive, or other attribute of the person making the argument, or persons associated with the argument, rather than attacking the substance of the argument itself."

Keys, it is an argumentative strategy to avoid a genuine discussion. This is not a discussion. The author of the article is not here to join in argumentative discussion. Being passive aggressive won't change that.

Okay, it looks like i have to put it into simplest words possible.

As mentioned elsewhere this:

> So… My first instinct when I read debunking efforts like this is to try to check out who is doing the debunking.

is the definition of "ad hominem". Attacking not the position a person holds, but the person.

Discussion is what we have here. The comment in question, a part of the discussion, implied that the point what was made by the author is questionable because of who the author is.

No. Ad hominem only exists when there is a disagreement. So, one side of the argumentation uses the fallacy to counter the other side's argument.

This IS NOT the case. This is akin to simple research. Imagine you want to build a computer, and in your research you find The Verge's guide. You look up The Verge and check that it is simply not a good source for such information.

There is no one against another here. It is one with an argument, and one neutral, consuming the content, with no position whatsoever.

Yeah, there's no argument, but there's calling it a "debunking effort" right out of the gate. I think that's called a bald assertion? Anyway, that there's a claim, but no argument to support it, doesn't make it neutral. That it's slipped in right at the beginning and then not returned to and elaborated on doesn't make it better. To instead pick one sentence from the first Google result of the university the author is at isn't exactly checking the quality of the source, either, that just removes it further from that slipped in bald assertion and the article itself.

> Like it or not … when an institution positions themselves like that, it makes me wonder a little bit about whether they really can support unbiased environmental science

Maybe the university can't, maybe the author pulls it off regardless. Has anyone ever seen someone do good work at a shitty company? It wouldn't quite work to say "can anyone tell me if someone who studies or teaches at a university with a questionable line of PR on website can possibly be unbiased about environmental science?", the answer is something like "of course that's possible, to the extent that any human can be free of bias.. to give a useful answer maybe tell me what person and more importantly what research are you thinking of?", which would bring us to a point at which the comment never arrived.

But if someone just "wonders", then it's supposedly not okay to ask them to make up their mind before they post, or at least say what is keeping them from doing so. It's like "I'm not entirely sure I'm convinced most people would agree that" and other phrases, it does imply something, as faintly as it may be, but with plausible deniability. Generally speaking I find that worse than even a direct false claim, which I can correct, in these instances it's like saying the emperor is naked, and people go "there is no emperor, how rude".

I mostly agree with you, especially about those "weak affirmatives" being plainly bad, and I personally disregard anything in that "plausible deniability" category as what it is.

Still, I don't think calling the post a debunking effort is the core of the comment, but the CV analysis. Especially the part where the commenter considers the post credible: "[...] I tend to find her post credible here on general this-looks-like-a-fellow-academic grounds."

The commenter then brings his research to the institution, and make an affirmation on a possible bias. Possible being the key word, what makes the whole period kind of useless. Yes, we can't correct it since it is not false (nor true), but we also don't have to correct it, as it holds no weight.

In the end, I'd sum the comment up as, "I consider the post credible as an academic, but won't be surprised if proven wrong.", and I would definitely not call this ad hominem. Especially given the commenter has not positioned themselves for or against the content, but as a passive reader.

For a rebuttal, the author lists numerous facts with no citations. Am I wrong for wanting citations in a rebuttal that is adamant about misleading facts in another paper? Why believe one set of uncited facts over another? It is clear that the search terms were problematic (what an awful regex!), so I can understand the issues there. And the author does a great job emphasizing science is complex. However, it seems a tad hypocritical to criticize a paper and make the same sins.

I did not expect the issues brought up about this study to be basic undergrad level research errors. Since all it takes is some db access and a short time, it would have been nice to get more info on studies that would have been worth including.

Of course the study in question is inconclusive because done very sloppily, but there is no indication by the critic as to whether there is reason to believe the data is available to reach a more verifiable conclusion.

She's right, the media does tend to pick up anything that spurs the amygdala and run with it. I would consider insectageddon to be nowhere near the kind of established science as say, climate change. We have some suggestive studies, but no clear and definitive proof, so further study is very important right now.

from the comment section of this article:

> Might this be a case of the Texas sharpshooter fallacy? I notice the lead author on the paper relates a windshield anecdote in The Guardian article. Is it possible that his observation of fewer insects on the windshield led to the original biased search terms?

> There’s at least one paper describing localized declines along busier roadways. It makes sense that day after day, year after year, road traffic will cause a lot of mortality.

> Martin, Amanda E., et al. “Flying insect abundance declines with increasing road traffic.” Insect Conservation and Diversity 11.6 (2018): 608-613. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/icad.12300

pretty interesting article altogether (sadly so).

It seems too preposterous to be real, did this meta study really only search for studies containing the word decline?

If that's actually true then obviously the results would show a decline. It doesn't even make any sense. Why would they do that if they want a real study?

> We don’t know anything about most insect species on Earth. Only about one-fifth of the estimated number of insect species are known to science.

This is simultaneously incredible and unsurprising. There is still so much to discover about the world!

I believe something like 80%+ of them are exclusive to tropical rain forests, with a massive chunk living only in the Amazon rainforest.

Was expecting this to be about the great insect robbery: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2018/09/06/st...

'...an ecologist who works on insects: this study simply does not show evidence that global insect declines are happening, nor does it provide evidence that insects will be extinct in 100 years... but it is a wakeup call.'

I wonder why nobody has though in the obvious wordplay: "artropogeddon".

Not a bad suggestion, but maybe better in English as "arthropogeddon"?

This article is predicated on a strawman: it's not all the insects that have declined, and not all insects that splatter into moving vehicles, but a limited subset of flying insects.

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