There has been a spate of headlines in the media in recent weeks about insect apocalypses. The idea that insect populations are under threat has become something of a new disaster meme in recent years, with newspapers repeatedly publishing lurid headlines such as “insectageddon” and the like.
The most recent surge of interest was centred around a scientific paper that said, on the basis of a review of the entomological literature, that 40% of insect species could go extinct within just a few years. Newspapers screamed about an impending “collapse of nature” (The Guardian) and a “catastrophic collapse of ecosystems” (the Irish Times), while the BBC gave it both barrels, featuring the story in the flagship Today programme as well as in its Inside Science show, the latter talking of “one of the greatest threats that humankind faces”, with consequences that would be “apocalyptic”.
Within hours of the headlines appearing, however, there seemed to be a measure of backtracking. The BBC’s environment correspondent implicitly criticised the coverage, saying that there was “loose talk” going on.
And over the next few days, it got worse. An ecologist from Australia pointed out that the way in which the original authors had selected papers for review was so limited as to make their conclusions completely untenable: they had searched the literature for papers that included the words “insect” “survey” and “decline”, a presumably reliable way of avoiding most papers that found increases in population. Then, most of the results they had looked at were from European studies, but this had not prevented them from extrapolating their results to the rest of the world.
I pointed these problems out to the team at Inside Science, suggesting that they made the paper suspect, and was gratified to get a response from Professor Adam Hart, an entomologist who had taken part in the show. Professor Hart took exception to my characterisation of the paper, although he said that it had “important limitations”, which he had discussed on air. Unfortunately, when I listened to the show again, it turned out that he hadn’t discussed the paper’s key failing – the search term – at all. Nor had he criticised the obvious hyperbole. He seemed keen to impress listeners with how reliable the paper was. The results were “quite stark and quite convincing”, he said. The only caveats were that some species were increasing and that the papers had a geographical bias towards Europe.
Unfortunately, when I asked why the biased search string didn’t make the paper “dodgy as hell”, I didn’t get a response, although Professor Hart did tweet that his timeline was
…now full of people retweeting blog posts that dissect the insect decline paper & discuss its limitations. The take home message for some of them is that the paper is “dodgy as hell” & that insects are fine. Which they aren’t.
If the exchange with Professor Hart was unsatisfactory, it is important also to point out those who got it right. So an honourable mention should go to science journalist Ed Yong, who as far as I can tell is the only journalist to explain the problems with the search string. He concludes, correctly in my view, that the hyperbole about the paper cannot be justified by the data. “Absurd” was how he described its predictions of mass extinction; not even plausible.
There is a long history of such hyperbole. In 1988, the late climatologist, Stephen Schneider, said (somewhat infamously) in a magazine interview:
…we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.
Taking his advice, many other people have chosen a measure of effectiveness over a measure of honesty, and have decided to leave out his next sentence, “I hope that means being both”. This is, of course, the great green communication dilemma: for the environmental scientist, worried about what they believe to be an imminent and serious problem; for the environmentalist scientist, who believes that such problems – whether real or imagined – can be a battering ram to deliver political change, and for the simple career-minded scientist, who just wants some more funding. The willingness of many scientists to shout “apocalypse” suggests the interests of all three groups has tipped that balance towards the “effective” end of the scale.
And effective the insectageddon paper has certainly been. With so few in the media willing to correct the record, the public are left with the overriding impression that science has established impending doom for insects. Social media is awash with alarmed members of the public, and the paper continues to be cited as fact, even by those who should know better, most recently, the chief executive of the Scottish Wildlife Trusts.
I searched Professor Hart’s timeline for examples of people saying that everything was “fine” with insects. I certainly said nothing of the kind, and I couldn’t find anyone else saying it. There may well be a real problem with insects, but I want to know the facts and the doubts as well as the details of the hypothetical apocalypse. Now that I know that key facts have been withheld from me, my inclination is not to believe anything else the paper has to say.
Perhaps the lesson here is the one that salesmen tend to learn fairly quickly. If you want people to buy something from you, you need to come over as completely honest. As soon as the consumer thinks they are getting the hard sell, or that the salesman is making “simplified, dramatic statements” and failing to disclose “any doubts they might have”, the deal is off. You might be “effective” for a while, but eventually, if you push too far in that direction, you are sunk.