"Alternative Facts" in Science

It is certainly wonderful to be passionate about a hobby and learn all you can about it. And if you do the proper research and study hard, you might even become an expert at it. And needless to say, in the Citizen Science arena, this can be extremely valuable.

However, let's suppose that a hobbyist, a non-scientific odonates enthusiast from Mexico and living in Mexico, suddenly calls himself an "expert" and publishes an "online field guide" in Spanish about, say, the odonates, in, say, Central Park, New York —a place said enthusiast visits only once in a long while, and never long enough to carry out any serious studies.

Let's also say that this person makes many mistakes identifying species, since he really is no expert at all, and his methods of "corroboration" are highly questionable (such as basing alleged "confirmations" on mere Facebook uncommented 'likes', not bothering to check important keys of identification, etc, etc.) He also finds that leeching information from the work of others is a good source of "food" for his website, and in spite of being specifically asked not to, he still feels outrageously entitled to do so without permission. And although he does get willing help from true experts from time to time, he gives them no credit whatsoever, and rather presents it all as "his" very own and very arduous "work".

Let's further say that on this alleged "field guide" he publishes photos with unconfirmed IDs, yet "positively" naming the alleged species, as well as plenty of photos that weren't even shot on location, and many more showing wrong colors, no focus, no details, etc, thus leaving the users guessing as to what the species actually looks like. And in spite of having no knowledge at all of any photo techniques, he also edits, crops and grossly alters photos that have been kindly lent to him —with disastrous results, needless to say— and never even bothering to ask or advise the authors (some of whom happen to be professional photographers). And when asked to remove the photos he flatly refuses, forcing the authors to serve him with a Cease and Desist order.

Let's finally suppose that, since his website is in Spanish but about odonates in a foreign country, he decides to also include all texts in English —except these are grossly inaccurate, unrevised machine "translations", and entirely made-up "common names" in the foreign language. And last, but not at all least, he catalogues and promotes his website as a "professional" and "serious" scientific resource.

Surely many would find this quite ridiculous at minimum, and probably even offensive. And go figure why anyone would even consider this as remotely ok in any way. But unfortunately such cases actually exist, where a hobbyist pretends to turn their hobby into a "profession" for fame or profit.

The "authors" might not be Mexican, their original language may be English or another, the bad translations may be into Spanish or another, and their websites might claim to be an "online field guide for identification of the (insert you favorite taxon) found in (insert your favorite place)". But whichever the case, the results are still the same.

Regardless of nationality, language or subject, to refer to an inaccurate, amateur website as a "serious field guide" is to underestimate, undervalue, and basically disrespect true research, real experts and serious science. To pose as a "qualified" researcher in these cases is insulting to real experts. To carelessly publish very bad translations in allegedly "serious" scientific websites is disrespectful to the scientific community and the people in general who speak said badly-translated language. And needless to say, this kind of "work" is not only harmful to true scientists and legitimate research, but also grossly misleading to anyone seriously wanting to learn about Nature and its species.

Citizen Science gives a wonderful opportunity for any hobbyist to collaborate with true experts and scientists without having to pretend anything, mislead anyone, or overrate their qualifications. But alas, there seems to be a very thin line between enthusiastic collaborating naturalists, and misled, misleading and unqualified scientist wannabes. And as serious students of Science and Nature, I believe it should be our responsibility to spot the differences, inform the public, and at least try to prevent more people from being misled.

Cheryl Harleston
Yelapa, Jalisco, Mexico

Publicado por magazhu magazhu, 14 de marzo de 2017

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