Saturday, 23 August 2014

Anecdote vs Science

For my sins I am a reader of the Daily Telegraph. I say reader but I m more of a skim reader and picture observer. Some articles that piqué my interest are fully digested but most pass me by. One column that I began to read with interest was Robin Page’s Country Diary. I thought this would reflect some of my views on the countryside and the traditions therein, this was not the case. His column is in the Weekend section of the Saturday paper and is a mix of country and farming comment and opinion.
The opinion part is what riles me. He like anyone has a right to express an opinion but unlike many he has a wider platform. He has a particular problem with the RSPB and many of the other nature conservation bodies. He seems to be in favour of culling birds of prey to protect other species and espouses some rather weak evidence to support him.

My biggest issue are not his views, as I said he is entitled to express them but his vitriol for science. Take for example today’s piece on Butterflies, he counter poses the idea that British butterflies are on the decline with the anecdotal evidence that he has seen more Small Tortoiseshells this year, and this is the problem, much of his evidence is anecdotal. Such evidence is useful it raises ideas and perhaps prompts research, but it cannot replace hard science.

There are many reasons why Small Tortoiseshells could be prevalent where Robin lives and I could challenge Robin’s assertion that Butterflies are not in as much trouble with my own anecdote that on my patch Tortoiseshells are declining. The difference is I can analyse my assertion through science. I have taken population data on wildlife on my patch for the past 12 years and am just in the process of producing a 10 year study report. This analysis shows a general declining trend but the graph seems to indicate a fluctuating population structure 7 year peaks. This is a guess my data is not extensive enough to say anymore than that the general trend is down and that 2003 and 2010 were amazing years.

My data does not say that all Small Tortoiseshells are declining everywhere; I cannot extrapolate my small patch to represent the whole country in the same way that Robin can say that the species as a whole is okay because he say plenty where he lives.

Accurate science reporting is an ongoing battle and I do think there is a major issue to be handled here. There seems to me to be a disconnect sometimes between the research that is carried out and how much that research can inform and guide conservation policy. Sometimes we need to act without science, how many species could become extinct whilst research is conducted into whether they are declining or why?
Nature conservation needs to science led but it needs to have science that is focused on the practicalities of on the ground conservation workers. Local wildlife trusts need to know how they can maximise their work on their small budgets and be prepared to make hard decisions regarding policy areas.

I applaud Robin on his passion and gusto but hope that he can balance his annoyance with the science of nature conservation a little more fairly in his column. Nor should his views be ignored or his anecdotes treated negatively. There is a lot of wisdom in the countryside but there is much to be said of balance and supporting your arguments with peer reviewed research, a hallmark of scientific practice.