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  • Andy Davis

The death of expertise in the world of monarchs

Hello readers,

I'm afraid this is going to be another very, very controversial blog post, but the topic is something that has been festering for a long time now, and this needs to be aired. Forgive me if this blog post comes off as a rant too - perhaps I will feel better by getting this off my chest. As you can tell, this will not be a simple description of a new research paper on monarchs, though it does relate to monarchs and the science around them. In fact, a lot of what I will cover today goes beyond the world of monarchs. Today I'm going to talk about something that goes completely against what this blog site stands for, which is the dissemination of science. So you can see why this topic has me rankled.

As we close out 2021, it is clear that we are in the middle of not one, but two pandemics right now and they are both intertwined. One of course is the ever-evolving covid virus that is sweeping through every country on the planet, with seemingly no end in sight. The other, is the growing epidemic of misinformation, narcissism and anti-science attitudes among people, which are leading people astray from science and convincing them to not listen to experts, or scientific facts. In other words, to not get vaccinated.

By all scientific evidence, we would be done with this virus by now if we (society) could achieve herd immunity, which is where enough of the human population is immune (by getting vaccinated) so that the virus can no longer spread effectively. But, we are nowhere there yet, and it doesn't look like we will anytime soon. This is because a non-trivial segment of the human population simply refuses to get vaccinated. Why? Because they are misinformed, they think they know better than experts, and/or, they simply have a distrust of science in general. In less-dramatic times, seeing someone like this would be rather quaint, kind of like chuckling while your crazy uncle raves about conspiracy theories over Christmas dinner. But in these global-pandemic times, these attitudes have serious consequences - to everyone.

Why am I talking about anti-vaxxers on a blog site about monarchs? Lately, I've been thinking about how we all got here, and how do these people think they know better? Why do they distrust the science around vaccines? In my search for all of these answers, I came across the book pictured above - The Death of Expertise, by Tom Nichols. It was published in 2017, in fact, before this pandemic started! Even then, the author appeared to be keenly aware of this growing problem. I've read through most of it, and I recommend it for anyone who also struggles with similar thoughts. In a nutshell, the author is an expert in political science, and a professor. He wrote this book describing this growing trend over the last decade or so where people think they no longer need experts because they have the internet, and, that they also believe that their interpretation of science and research is just as good as anyone else's. There also seems to be some financial motives at play too, which I won't get into.

As I said, this book was written before the covid pandemic started, but boy, this trend is exactly what we don't need right now. In fact, if anything, the pandemic may have amplified this problem. People are doing their own "research" over the internet now on how to treat covid with over the counter medications, or breathing exercises, or whatever. Meanwhile, every time I see Dr. Anthony Fauci give a presentation, some of the comments on social media afterwards are simply breathtaking - "this guy doesn't know what he's talking about," or "he's in bed with the pharmaceutical industry," and "he does research on puppies." These are all the same signs that Tom Nichols was warning about. Each of these individuals is actively and publicly dismissing the advice of a world-renowned expert, with decades of experience, in their chosen field, all because they read something on a facebook post, or because they misinterpreted a scientific study, or some other nonesense.

Here's the thing - as I read this book, I found myself nodding along and comparing the author's experiences and examples to what is happening right now in the world of monarch butterflies. Yes, we in the monarch world have our share of misinformation, our share of crazies, and a big share of people who distrust scientific research, or "experts". Yes, some of what I'm saying comes from direct experience. I've been researching monarchs for over 25 years, have over 140 peer reviewed scientific publications, and am employed at a top-notch scientific institution. I THINK this makes me an expert in the world of monarch research. But over the years I've been called biased, a quack, a wannabe scientist, you name it, all from citizens who think they know better, or, that I don't know what I'm doing.

To be fair, this very blog is one of the reasons for this. By creating this blog, and by uploading post after post, I have basically put my name out there in the cyberworld, and in essence, made myself a target for such people. In the book in fact, Tom describes how having an online presence comes with trolls, and there is no way around this. Thus, one could argue that the simple way to deal with this is to just not have an online presence! In other words, don't have a blog, don't engage with anyone in the public, and keep to myself. That's one way to be a scientist I guess, and in fact I have a LOT of colleagues who do this. They never come out of their academic shell, never do anything except publish their research in academic journals, and never ever speak publicly, or virtually, or engage in social media. This is also a big problem in my mind. In the times we live in now, our society really needs scientists to work to relay their research to the people who need to hear it, not just write their papers for other scientists to read (and locked away in scientific journals, I'll add).

But can you blame my colleagues for never engaging? Speaking publicly invites trolling, naysayers, and vitriol. And, it is a lot of work to do this, which we do not get paid for. So it's a lot of work, and you invite attacks. Of course none of them want to engage! But then we are left with a never-ending cycle, where scientists don't engage with the public and don't disseminate their work, so then the public either misunderstands their research or simply never hears about it. In short, we get a growing divide between the experts and the people.

This is happening now with monarchs. How many times have you seen a post on social media, especially in a monarch rearing group, where someone actively dismisses a scientist's latest research? I vividly remember when the big study on captive-rearing and monarch navigation came out in 2019 - the paper that showed that captive-reared monarchs do not navigate well. This paper is a perfect example of what I'm talking about. It was published in one of the most respected scientific journals in our field, and the research was conducted by people in one of the leading research labs in the country. It was the result of years of study and the paper itself was peer-reviewed by other leading experts. By all measures, this paper was a career-defining achievement for a young scientist. But, once the rearing crowd heard about it, boy did the sh#t hit the fan. All of a sudden there were self-proclaimed experts who came out of the woodwork and who could tell that this project was flawed. They were actively working to convince people the paper was flawed, and to this day, there are people out there who think that paper is flawed - because they were told this by someone on facebook (not because they read it themselves). See what I mean? Incidentally, I recently had a conversation with someone in that lab, and they informed me that the lead author is no longer actively researching monarchs...

Then there was the case of the tropical milkweed frenzy of 2015. Here is another controversial topic within the monarch world, and one, where everyone seems to be an expert! Back in 2015, a paper came out showing how prevalence of the OE parasite is extremely high in locations where there is tropical milkweed, and where monarchs overwinter in the U.S. This was another case where it was a high-profile journal, the paper was peer-reviewed, and it was also the result of many years of work by an early-career scientist. The paper was even highlighted in stories in the New York Times and Science Magazine. This paper too, was found to be "flawed" by many home "experts" who didn't really read it, and it resulted in endless cycles of online debate and vitriol, which still goes on today whenever the topic comes up. Interestingly, that lead author also has left the world of monarchs...

Is this the way it will forever be - a growing divide between science and the public, increasing vitriol towards scientists, and researchers simply deciding to no longer study monarchs? I have no answer to this question. Perhaps we will find out in the next decade or so.

So as not to end this post on a low note, allow me to offer some suggestions for how to move forward, and maybe try to nudge this needle in the right direction. This list applies not only to the world of monarchs, but for just about any other topic as well, especially those where some expertise is needed. Most of these suggestions apply to the cyber world of social media, since this seems to be where these issues arise.

  1. In your favorite monarch facebook group, call out people who think they know better than an expert, and ask them to provide facts or evidence for their statements. Or call them out for vitriol towards experts.

  2. In these same groups, ask your admins if they have ever purposely removed posts about important research - I've heard of this happening. Call this out too.

  3. Ask your admins to back up their "advice" with evidence - I've seen too many groups run by admins who think that position means they automatically know what they are talking about.

  4. We need to get more scientists engaged with the public, and they aren't going to do that if they think they will get trolled or called names. How about actually asking a scientist to become a member of your favorite group, so that they can tell you about their research directly? I've actually asked a few to do this and they've declined, so maybe it would help if they heard it from non-scientists.

  5. Outside of social media, if you have a question about a research paper, how about actually emailing the authors directly with your question, instead of asking for random opinions of strangers who may or may not know what they are talking about. Most scientists will at least do this, and then you can report back what they said.

I would actually be interested in hearing other ideas on how to fix this. If I hear of a good one from a reader, I may just add it to this list in an update.

I guess that's enough of this rant for now. Hmm... I actually do feel a bit better...



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The science of monarch butterflies

A blog about monarchs, written by a monarch scientist, for people who love monarchs

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