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  • Andy Davis

A new social science study puts the monarch scientists under a microscope

Hello again everyone,

Another quick turnaround with this blog can only mean one thing – another juicy study in the world of monarchs has just been published that needs to be discussed. This one is especially interesting because it focuses not on the monarch per se, but on the scientists who study monarchs!

The paper I’m referring to was just published in a journal called Science Communication, and was written by a social scientist named Karin Gustafsson. She conducted the work while a postdoctoral associate in Anurag Agrawal’s lab at Cornell in 2014, though now I think she is at Örebro University in Sweden. The paper is titled, “Narrating the monarch butterfly: managing knowledge complexity and uncertainty in coproduction of a collective narrative and public discourse” I’ll link to it here, but this is another one of those “academics only” deals where the paper is not downloadable to everyone. But hey, this is where this blog comes in! Now, I know the title of the paper is verbose, which unfortunately, is the way the entire paper reads, so it’s a little hard to penetrate the sociologist jargon and text. But from my read, the paper was an attempt to understand how conservation decisions around the monarch are being made and then communicated to the public.

As I said, for this project, Karin studied not the monarchs, but the monarch researchers. Back in 2014 she conducted a series of skype and telephone interviews with a dozen or so scientists who study monarchs (I was one), as well as some folks involved in monarch conservation. I think these others were government folks and boots-on-the-ground types. She actually did not disclose who exactly was interviewed, on purpose, to protect their anonymity. She asked each researcher a series of probing questions about their thoughts on the current monarch decline, and in particular their thoughts on how conservation decisions were being made for the monarch.

I recall the interview lasted for an hour, and she recorded it for transcribing later. Apparently, she collated all of these interview transcripts and “analyzed” them to put this paper together. She used the word analyze throughout this paper to describe how she derived conclusions from these interviews. I put the word analyzed in quotations because it sounds like this was more like “critical-thinking” about these interview transcripts, rather than actual statistical analysis of a dataset, which is what we do in the life sciences. In the social sciences, I believe this is acceptable. So in the end this paper amounts to her personal interpretation of the various responses people gave her.

So the topic of the interviews was about how conservation decisions are being made and how they are communicated to the public. She was especially interested in knowing how monarch scientists derive conservation actions from the science around monarchs, and, in light of the complexity of the science. In particular, she was aware that the issue of the decline in Mexico is a thorny one, in that there is some evidence that it is related to the reduction in milkweed in the agricultural Midwest, but on the other hand, the long-term data on adult monarchs in the Midwest does not show a decline. Thus, the conundrum, and she wanted to know how it came to be that the “dominant narrative” (her words) is that a lack of milkweed is the problem. This is my understanding of what she wanted to know from these interviews, because as she writes, this is a case study of how conservations decisions are made using uncertain evidence.

In the paper, she intersperses actual transcribed comments from selected researchers who make various points, and I’ll copy some of these as I go. Note that I’m not cherry-picking any of these comments, but pretty much following the paper as it goes.

The first point she makes is that the dominant narrative (monarchs need more milkweed) was created because of its simplicity, and because it makes a nice, easy-to-swallow message. One researcher quoted it this way:

“I don’t think it’s a problem [to focus the conservation efforts on milkweed restoration] because I think it gives people a way they can act. Addressing that is something people can do. For example, if we show that climate change has an impact, that’s a more difficult one to address. I think conservation problems that have a solution; obviously, they’re a little cheerier, both in terms of engaging people, showing that there is something people can do, and also just for the simple fact that we have some hope. I don’t think there’s any question that milkweed habitat is important, so it’s not just that we’re giving people this false sense that they’re doing something. We know that this is a problem."

So she makes the point here that the researchers she interviewed seem to know that monarch conservation is a complex issue, and there are multiple threats to monarchs right now, but that everyone seems to have settled on the milkweed idea because it’s simple and it’s something that people can do (plant milkweed).

Next, she goes on to talk about what would happen if the message was not a simple one, but where the people involved actually acknowledged its complexity. She writes, “emphasizing the complexity is described by the interviewees as running the risk of provoking a counter-narrative, which would cause unnecessary problems.” In other words, if the dominant message about monarch declines was that “it’s complicated”, then no one would know where to start in terms of actions.

Quoting the author here again: “Due to the concern for the consequences that doubt could have in the case of the monarch butterfly, the interviewees draw parallels to climate change in which standstills in policy discussions have been successfully achieved by climate change deniers who question scientific credibility and highlight scientific complexity.”

“The interviewees express how supporters of the dominant collective narrative (milkweed loss is the cause of the decline) actively work to counteract this development of a counter-narrative in order to protect the main narrative’s dominant position as provider of certain and true knowledge,”

This is Andy here: I think what she is saying here is that the scientists who support the milkweed hypothesis have been purposely acting to suppress any other ideas that get floated about the cause of the monarch decline because they do not want anyone to have doubts about the cause. If they do, this leads to inaction by people. I can see this point, though I disagree completely with this tactic. Interestingly, in an almost surreal coincidence, I see that a new study was just was published a week or two ago (in the journal, PLoS One) by the leading proponents of the milkweed hypothesis, which appears to be a long-winded argument for why all datasets that don’t show declines in adult monarchs in the summer are all wrong – link here for the paper, which is online. This paper seems to support Gustafsson’s conclusion.

Next there was another key quote from one of the interviewees that bears repeating here, regarding what it means to do conservation.

“I’ve been doing conservation for a long time and most of the time the key to protecting or recovering a species has little or nothing to do with what we know about the animal. It’s mostly to do with how we communicate with the land managers, farmers, and others and how and if we are able to get people to take the appropriate action for these species. That’s really what conservation is about. It’s definitely not about the animals. It’s about getting people to take action.”

Andy here again: while I can see this person’s point, I find it a little distressing to know that the bulk of conservation practices for a species have little to do with the science around that species. If this is true, how do the conservationists know which conservation action is the most effective, and/or what actually gets communicated to the land owners? From what this person is saying, these people could easily just make stuff up and go with it, since they don’t consult with the science anyway.

The last section of Gustafsson’s paper describes, of course, the long-running debate going on about the cause of the monarch decline, of which I am a part of. She spends about one or two pages on it, because it highlights the uncertainty around the cause of the monarch decline. She points out a couple of papers I worked on that don’t show declines outside of the wintering period, and a couple of others that other researchers have worked on showing similar conclusions. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while then you probably already know my stance. My feeling is that the summer counts of adult monarchs are not wrong, and that the collective weight of evidence tends to favor the idea that summer monarch populations are not declining. And also, have you looked around lately this summer? Do you notice how many reports there are of “monarchs and larvae everywhere?” How can there be so many monarchs around right now if the entire population is near extinction? How can the monarch be declining if there are monarchs everywhere in the summer? And how can there be monarchs everywhere if there is not enough milkweed to grow the population to this size? These are exactly my points – the decline is only in the overwintering period, so the cause of the decline must happen before they get to Mexico.

She quotes one interviewee here who highlighted the inner struggle that some monarch researchers are now having over the conflicting evidence. "Is it that I'm too much of a scientist or that I'm unsure of my own conclusions, like I’m happy to be skeptical, but unhappy to say something definitively, or I’m worried about hurting the cause that I care about, even though I think that it’s right? Davis has taken, I think, a reasonably scholarly approach in that he’s done some science and said, “I don’t know exactly what this means, but it doesn’t say the same thing that some other people are saying, so figure it out.” I think that maybe I will do the same.”

Next there is some interesting commentary that follows this discussion of the monarch debate, where she describes certain other feelings from some of the interviewees. Gustafsson here: “The interviews also show that among these actors (interviewees), there are a number who fear of losing momentum, attention, and political potency with regard to the monarch issue and have chosen not to voice their opposition.” I think this means that some of the monarch scientists are afraid of voicing any doubts about the milkweed limitation hypothesis because if they do, they would lose momentum on any progress in conservation.

This last part makes me very nervous as a scientist. The pursuit of knowledge in science is supposed to be driven solely by curiosity, and the results we obtain are supposed to be obtained completely objectively. We might be entering an era now with monarch research where neither of these is the case, and research on monarch population trends is now motivated solely to advance an agenda. I’m not sure if we’re there yet, but the paper that was just published in PLoS One sure makes it feel that way.

So I think this covers most of the paper by Gustafsson. In the end, I believe the take-home message she presents in this paper are as follows: 1) the issues around the monarch decline are complex, 2) most of the researchers who study monarchs know this, 3) they have largely embraced a very simple narrative (milkweed loss is the reason) because it is an easy-to-understand answer and it gets people to act, and 4) the people supporting the milkweed cause appear to be working hard to keep this the dominant narrative in the public sphere.

Upon reflecting on this paper, I’m not sure why she chose to interview the monarch researchers and focus on the monarch story. Did she want to show a good example of what not to do in conservation? Or was it merely to show how conservation decisions are made when the answers are not always clear. Perhaps the second one. Either way, this paper, and the comments from my monarch researcher colleagues, are giving me pause, and lots to think about.

And finally, regarding planting milkweed - it sure is fun to do it. It would be great if the science was clear that this is indeed the problem - it's not though.



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The science of monarch butterflies

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