Saturday, August 1, 2015

When Taxonomy Meets Dunning and Kruger

This started out as a short rant about how some people purposely misinterpreted a recent scientific paper because they have an agenda ... but who am I kidding? There's really only one fool who has "misinterpreted" the study, and if this person didn't have such a wide audience I wouldn't care. But for some reason, despite multiple abuses of science and historical facts over the years, Patrick Burns, aka Terrierman, continues to be considered some kind of expert. 

I normally let his posts slide on by without comment. But, like the festering sore he reminds me of, sometimes things just have to pop.

Here's just the latest example: Some scientists who are a whole lot smarter and more knowledgeable on the subject did some research on golden jackal DNA and decided that they'd found enough evidence to designate one of the populations as a new species, which will be called the African golden wolf instead of the African golden jackal. 

You've probably heard of it. It's the type of scientific finding that scientists publish widely and loudly because it's the kind of feel-good, easy-for-laymen-to-understand study about a recognizable charismatic megafauna. As they should, because it's interesting and we always need to do as much as we can to encourage the public's interest in science. Most scientists accepted it as another small building block in our understanding of the natural world, and then moved on.

Terrierman, using his typical "OMG LOOKIT ME I'M DIFFERENT AND SPECIAL method of discourse, dismisses the findings so quickly it left BURN marks on my screen[1][2]

"like, whatever"

Alrighty, then. Perhaps TM has some new insight that all the other experts missed? 

Yeah, not really. He has a scant few paragraphs full of condensation and non sequiturs. 
"If scientists have "discovered' anything in this instance, it is simply that Jackals are every bit as diverse as we have always known, and that a few populations may be a little farther along in the speciation process than what some other scientists have previously acknowledged. A little new information, but is a debate ender?  Not by a long shot."
Any biologist reading that paragraph would find it pure gobbly gook. Who called this a "debate ender" [3]? Even the NatGeo article he quoted points out that other biologists have some quibbles. What the heck is he even talking about when he says "speciation"? No scientist I've ever read has used the term speciation the way TM does

TM doesn't seem to understand how new species designations are assigned in modern times. There may not be a simple definition of what a species is, but there are many legitimate and accepted ways to designate a new one. As he himself points out, biology is messy, and what we see in our short lifetimes is a snapshot of evolution in constant motion. But just because there's gray area, doesn't mean the concept of a species is irrelevant or unobtainable.

The scientists who wrote the paper have solid, well-justified reasons to define this population as a new species, and they're laid out in detail in, y'know, the paper he's dismissing. He doesn't address a single one of their findings.

He's really hung up on how and when animals mate. It's a very odd obsession that he's seemed to have for years (see below), and he uses examples differently depending on how they can best serve his opinion. For example: it's well accepted science that animals will continue to hybridize long after it's useful to call them different species, as he has pointed out numerous times when it comes to the relationship between dogs and wolves! But he uses it to dismiss the African golden wolf designation because... "jackals have diversity".

Someone in the comments tried to gently correct him on his misconceptions, including his grim determination to call dingoes a separate species [4]. He responds with more handwaving that at times becomes incomprehensible. The comment section alone would need a separate post to explain all the gish galloping going on.

But here's the most telling comment from TM, at 5:01:
"The simple point is that your points all depend on ink from a library, while I am making a case based on real fur, feather, and fin.
You salute words, not fulling understand the fragility of those words historically or scientifically. How many genus and species have been created and merged, split and absorbed in the last 40 years? All ink and artifice as the animals themselves remain the same."

In the end, the only thing he has to fall back on is: "Enough of yer book learnin', you need STREET SMARTS...(like me)".

Yes. Let's all do science by instinct and gut feelings. Eliminate all the tedious counting and measuring.

What the heck would he make of all the other interesting puzzles of taxonomy, I wonder?

I'd like to introduce PB to the concept of "cryptic species". I know he's stuck in pre-1980's biology, but the wonder of DNA is it allows us to uncover all kinds of interesting things, like different species hiding in plain sight. Like African butterfly fish, where two species look identical despite 50 million years of separation

Or zebras, where the battle over names and subspecies designations has raged since the 1900's, and continues today, except better and smarter because of all the new knowledge we keep accumulating. The plains zebra alone has 50 possible names, and currently 6 relatively accepted subspecies. Every time a new study comes out, we add to and revise our understanding of the evolutionary relationships within Equus, just as we do with Canis. Using TM's logic, we should throw up our hands and ignore DNA, stop studying family tree relationships at all because it's complicated and there's gray area.

Or African elephants. When TM complains that "taxonomic debate these days is about humans looking to publish papers, get grants, name new species, and secure habitat protection"[9], the relatively recent designation of the African forest elephant as distinct from the savannah is exactly the type of thing he's whining about. Would he care that it was based on multiple robust studies of morphology, DNA, and behavior? What is enough evidence for assigning a new species for him?

These examples do not weaken the idea of "species" as a useful scientific and colloquial term; they're just part of the reality of cladistics. Anyone who knows what they're talking about has no problem rolling with fuzzy areas because discovering and defining the differences and similarities between closely related species is a rich mine for scientists. 

Whereas TM on the other hand, seems not only confused, but bored by any evolutionary relationship that a) was discovered after about the 1970's and b) is not very clear cut. He instead simply waves away complications by saying species isn't a useful concept (well, unless he says it is). How can he be against assigning species status based on autosomal DNA, but OK with assigning it based on geography and "culture"? He offers no reasons, just keeps repeating (and has since 2005 at least, see below), "just ask the animals, they know where the species boundary is." This is weird on several levels.

How does he know that they know? Is he telepathic? Does he mean it literally? Because I asked my dog and she didn't answer. And if he doesn't mean quite literally, does he mean "study the animals"... because... uh, that's exactly what the authors of this paper (and all the other papers he's dismissed over the years) did!

He just got done telling us that "species" isn't a useful term, anyway. Which is it? Do the animals "know" what species they are, or is there no such thing as a species?

Wolves and coyotes, and wolves and dogs, apparently don't "know", because they exchange genes a lot more often than he's implying. Notice that though he's forced to admit that canids mate, he very carefully never provides citations and always says "but it's not very often". He's relying on purposefully vague language. This allows him to dismiss any published data about gene transfer as irrelevant because "it's still a rare occurrence". There's no way for him to be proved wrong!

As many people have tried to point out to TM, it's a simple fact that dogs are a subspecies of wolf, whether you like it (or understand it) or not. [8]

Related: Desperately needing dogs and wolves to be different species despite the overwhelming data is a purely emotional response, and can only be due to his opinions and philosophies about dog ownership. What he repeatedly misses is the fact that, whether they are or aren't from a scientific perspective is moot when it comes to how we handle, train, and live with dogs and wolves. And no one argues otherwise except his very own strawmen.

This isn't an isolated case, either; Patrick Burns has a history of cherry picking data that fits his favorite theories, and applying purposely vague anti-science rhetoric when it doesn't.

Example 2: He thinks there are red wolves in West Virginia

"That's no coyote, it's a space station red wolf!"

From a scientific perspective, "red wolves" are at best barely recognized as a distinct species. We got more data and realized they're wolf/coyote hybrids, and that there is no real reason to classify red wolves simply by morphology, but it's still contentious, people get very emotional on the subject. It is a great example of a movement successfully using anti-science to muddle the waters to the point a layman would not be able to find accurate information on the subject. So perhaps PB could be forgiven for thinking that red wolves are still a thing, but.... even if red wolf was a species... there's no reason to think they're in WV [5]. Identifying a species from a single blurry photograph, in a place it shouldn't be, when it looks identical to another species that does live in the area... occam's razer, anyone?

Example 3: In a blog post he titled "Canis Soupus" 10/1/2010, he says some weird things. So many weird things, it almost deserves its own response in a separate post, but I'll keep it short and skip over most of the "WTF-ery".

Notice that this post is from five years ago, yet it's the exact same thing, almost word for word, that he keeps repeating when this subject comes up. Compare his comments over the years, and see if he's learned anything new: 

2005: "The simple truth is that dogs know they are not wolves, just as wolves know they are not dogs, and humans know they are not apes." 3/11/2005 "The Wolf Within"

2010: "And while wolves, dogs, coyotes dingos (sic), and golden jackals CAN interbreed amd (sic) produce fecund young, they rarely do, and the reason for this is that the REAL EXPERTS on species, the animals themselvs (sic), know they are very, very different." 10/1/2010

2015: "The real experts in these matters are not scientists, or even humans, of course, but the animals themselves. Jackals, dog, wolves, and coyotes seem to recognize major differences between themselves and give a hat tip to those differences 99.999 percent of the time." 7/31/2015 

This is also funny because he still treats dingoes like they're a different species[3] even as the graphic he uses doesn't even show dingoes because all scientists by 2010 group them with "dogs".

He pulled a quote from a NYT article. Unsurprisingly, he took the quote out of context. Ironically, the writer of that particular quote is Carol Kaesuk Yoon. She actually studied evolutionary biology, and in fact wrote an entire book on the subject of naming and differentiating species. A book I've actually read and highly recommend. You can read an excerpt, or listen to her talk about it, or read one of her essays on the same subject at the link above. 

She is an actual expert in the very area that TM is pretending to be an expert. Compare TM's rants to even a casual glance through her book, or even the freaking publisher's summary:
"In fact, scientists are starting to come to terms with an important idea, which is that a lot of animals are in the process of speciating ... and that the notion of species is a human idea that still needs a lot of work..."
Book summary:
 "...[this book] is a rich journey from Linnaeus, whose system turned classification from a hobby to a science, and Darwin, who ended the idea of rigid species definitions..."

Yes, that's right, TM is trying to pass off the well established, century-old concept that species have fuzzy edges as "new". What's worse, he's doing it to try to make scientists look like confused idiots too wrapped up in their book learnin', and himself look like a wise paradigm-shifter.

I wonder what Yoon would think of her own words being used as anti-science rhetoric? Well, I have a guess. Here is another quote of hers, taken from another NYT essay

"...the ordering and naming of life is no esoteric science. .. sorting and naming the natural world is a universal, deep-seated and fundamental human activity, one we cannot afford to lose because it is essential to understanding the living world, and our place in it."

Example 3.5: In 2006, in a blog post titled "The Wolf Within", 12/11/2006, which is mostly a repost from 3/11/2005 [6]. He says Darren Naish is awesome, which, like quoting Yoon, is ironic, because Darren Naish now heartily disagrees with him about canid taxonomy, and since 2006 has drastically revised his position on the origin of domestic dogs based on new data. He would also, I suspect, disagree with TM about how scientists nowadays are tedious, attention-seekers who don't know how to make "real discoveries" anymore.[7]

TM's post from June 2015 titled "A Dog is Not A wolf" is nothing but a rehash of all his previous posts on the subject. Nothing new, and he suddenly doesn't seem to want to cite Naish anymore... hmm...

Example 4: He denies that black wolves got their melanistic gene from dogs. ("And White Wolves Come from Mars" 2/6/2009)

Look how he uses the same language and dismissive tone as he does every time he talks about science he doesn't like. He uses a few simple, accurate statements ("melanism is common", "dogs and wolves are related") then adds in his unjustified opinion ("therefore, the scientists can't prove the gene is from dogs"). It's like the definition of a non secitur. He seems to think that one can be correct simply if one is forceful and confident, but that's nothing but the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Notice how he also doesn't link to or critique the study itself, just the newspaper article about it, of which the most damning fact he can come up with is the author doesn't speak in absolutes.  

Example 5: He thinks DDT didn't affect raptors ("Bald Is Beautiful" September 5, 2008)

... and was called out on it here

The best that can be said about TM is that he wrote a few good blog posts about dog breeding and working animals. Unfortunately, he thinks that gives him authority to post many, many bad blog posts on subjects he's clearly not well versed. What's worse, he does so with the most condescending, uncompromising, unearned superiority complex I've seen outside of a politician.

No one ever told him, in the case of science writing, "fake it 'til you make it" is not the best motto to follow.

He uses anti-intellectualism when it suits him, and as an insult for people who disagree with him when it doesn't. He cherry picks data in the worst way. He holds on to outdated theories with an iron grip, violently denying all evidence against them. His blog is mostly a long list of non sequiturs he uses to boost his opinions, and he does nothing but add to the white noise of the anti-science movement. This is all the more insidious because he cloaks himself in the trappings of "science-ness" - and is believed by a depressing number of people.

Please, if you're a regular reader of TM, don't allow him to get away with this any longer. Start looking at his words more critically. Post skeptical comments and see how he responds. Don't share his posts without double checking his facts first. 


[2] see terriermandotcom (dot) blogspot (dot) com (yes, that really is the address he chose for his blog), 7/31/2015 "First New Canine in 150 Years?"
[3] Aside from his strawmen, of course. Oh, Patty looooves his imaginary strawmen opponents
[4] Back in olden times, before DNA was used in biology, it was logical to argue that dingoes were a separate species based on morphology and geography. Now, with new data, we know better. Dingoes are just dogs. You can call them a breed, or a population, or type, or regional variant, or whatever, but the science is pretty clear: they're dogs, closely related to other native breeds from east Asia.
[5] except to get attention for his blog
[6] He quotes himself almost as often as he quotes newspaper headlines.
[7] I can only assume that he finds all new species discoveries that don't involve Englishmen in tweed stomping through jungles as boring. Finding the new olinguito? Just some bookworms digging through a library, how boring!
[8]  Savolainen et al. 2002, Lindblad-Toh et al. 2005, Pang et al. 2009, vonHoldt et al. 2010, Larson et al. 2012Freedman et al. 2014...
[9] as if any of those things are automatically bad, or not useful, or not interesting, or even new (from his 7/31/2015 post "First New Canine in 150 Years?")

NOTE: I did not provide links because I don't want to encourage traffic to his site, which gets more than enough undeserved attention as it is. If you want to read his posts, my citations should be adequate to find them. If you can't, ask and I will provide a link via email. Or the screencaps in case some editing or "disappearing" occurs.