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November 30, 2017 / jpschimel

Do Species Matter: responding to an op-ed by R.A. Pyron in the Washington Post as a piece of writing.

R. Alexander Pyron just published an op-ed in the Washington Post arguing that we don’t need to protect species from extinction.

Many, unsurprisingly, are criticizing this piece on grounds that span from ethics to practicality. I want to evaluate it differently: as communication. Writing and rhetoric. The writing is lively and engaging; Dr. Pyron uses words well. But the core of a piece of writing is its structure and argument.

Dr. Pyron’s argument is predicated in the ethical/philosophical belief that “The only creatures we should go out of our way to protect are Homo sapiens.” One can disagree with this belief and one can be appalled by it, but one can not challenge it on scientific grounds—it’s a belief.

Instead, consider the logic of the argument that Dr. Pyron develops from that predicate. When I consider issues of writing, story structure, and even the ethics of scientific communication, I see failures in all areas.

In Writing Science I place the ethics of science central to developing a “good” story. On page 9 I pose the question “Is seeing science writing as storytelling professional or not?” I develop this by noting that “To tell a good story in science, you must assess your data and evaluate the possible explanations.”

On page 139, I state this more explicitly:

“Also remember, you are a scientist — it is not your job to be right. It is your job to be thoughtful, careful, and analytical; it is your job to challenge your ideas and to try to falsify your hypotheses; it is your job to be open and honest about the uncertainties in your data and conclusions.”

So, let’s evaluate Dr. Pyron’s argument as a piece of writing and assess whether he did this—did he live up to his responsibility to be “thoughtful, careful, and analytical”? Certainly there are a number of fundamental truths in what he wrote:

Extinction happens—some species were already doomed to extinction in the near
Planet Earth will continue and will “recover” from the current mass extinction: over
millions of years, biodiversity will recover and “The Tree of Life will continue
branching, even if we prune it back.”
Not all species have a vital role in the functioning of ecosystems. Some biodiversity is
functionally redundant.

But, Dr. Pyron makes an important statement when he says:

“All those future people deserve a happy, safe life on an ecologically robust planet, regardless of the state of the natural world compared with its pre-human condition.”

I accept that ethical predicate. Yet, it creates a crack in his argument, and that crack is based in both science and rhetoric. It focuses on the question: How do we provide those future people “an ecologically robust planet”?

Our understanding of how complex natural systems work is developing. It wasn’t many years ago that we thought the human gut microbiome was purely commensal—microbes lived within us but did nothing fundamentally beneficial for us; animals could live healthily with a sterile gut. How that understanding has changed! How then do we ensure “an ecologically robust planet” when our understanding of what that entails remains imperfect? We know that Homo sapiens depends on natural ecosystems to provide us with essential functions: food, fiber, water purification, and others; Dr. Pyron acknowledges this. But, we don’t actually know what we need to maintain those functions over the long term—centuries to millenia.

How to provide an ecologically robust planet to support Homo sapiens is the essential question at the heart of Dr. Pyron’s piece. Yet, he offers neither an answer nor even a direction as to what that means!

Without a hint of an answer, the op-ed comes across as someone trying to assemble a complex device and ending up with some spare parts left over that they don’t understand, yet then stating confidently: “I’m sure these are unnecessary.”

“We should do this to create a stable, equitable future for the coming billions of people, not for the vanishing northern river shark.” Even if I accept that, it still begs the question: can we maintain an “equitable future for the coming billions” if we don’t maintain healthy ecosystems and ecosystem services? Can we offer the people of New Guinea an equitable future if we pollute the river in which the shark lives? This is an important question that lies at the interface of ecology and sustainability and requires an answer to support Dr. Pyron’s argument.

The logical and literary failures in Dr. Pyron’s piece circle back to this issue: he embraces the idea that functional ecosystems are important to serving humans. But, then he disparages and ignores existing ecological knowledge about how to achieve that and he fails to acknowledge or accept the limits of existing knowledge.

To make a scientific argument without acknowledging existing knowledge or your own ignorance (Dr. Pyron expertise is “theoretical and applied methods in statistical phylogenetics,” not ecology) is, to me, a fundamental failure in science communication. I could go further and argue that it is a failure of science communication ethics and professional norms.

While I consider this op-ed a failure as science writing, as a piece of political writing, unfortunately, it will unquestionably be a success— it was published in a high-impact outlet, Dr. Pyron has solid academic credentials at a major University, and he makes a well-phrased and passionate argument that will resonate with many.

In Writing Science, I focus on professional skills: framing story, developing flow, and using language powerfully. But professional skills should be balanced against professional responsibilities. When you write under your professional byline, and so speak as a scientist, remember:

“It is your job to be thoughtful, careful, and analytical; it is your job to challenge your ideas and to try to falsify your hypotheses; it is your job to be open and honest about the uncertainties in your data and conclusions.”

My complaint with Dr. Pyron’s piece (speaking as a writer on writing) is that he failed to live up to this basic responsibility as a scientist writer.


NOTE: There is a postscript to this story. A colleague noted that Dr. Pyron has posted a long commentary on his Facebook page that included the following:

“In the brief space of 1,900 words, I failed to make my views sufficiently clear and coherent, and succumbed to a temptation to sensationalize parts of my argument. Furthermore, I made the mistake of not showing the piece to my colleagues at GWU first; their dismay mirrored that of many in the broader community. As I’ve explained to their satisfaction, and now I wish to explain to the field at large, my views and opinions were not accurately captured by the piece, and I hope the record can now be corrected. In particular, the headlines inserted for the piece for publication said “We don’t need to save endangered species,” and that “we should only worry about preserving biodiversity when it helps us.” I did not write these words, I do not believe these things, and I do not support them.”
(Taken from Dr. Pyron’s FB page.) 

Dr. Pyron is saying things that are scientifically reasonable in his long, thoughtful, Facebook post. Unfortunately few will ever read the FB post; millions may read the op-ed. The public gets the wrong message, and his scientific peers are dismayed. Not a good outcome. Remember, always, that communication isn’t what you think you are giving, but what the reader gets. In this case, most readers get a message that was antithetical to Dr. Pyron’s true beliefs. Ouch. That is a true failure in writing. Worse, it is a failure that Dr. Pyron is going to have to live with because published is forever. You can’t unpublish something.

Equally, this is a powerful lesson in the value of peer review: Dr. Pyron did not run the piece past his peers and so never got feedback that indicated that readers were getting a different message than that he intended.


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