Spare biology from the opinions of conservative economists

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal ran a piece on their opinion page (yeah, boo, crap so runny and putrid you can’t even get rid of it with a shovel, I know) that claims biologists have been actively inflating species numbers as a cheap ploy to gain better support for conservation efforts. I really can’t rebut that any better than Loren Coleman does here:

What is occurring is a classic theoretical battle between lumpers and splitters, not a fight of conservationists vs non-conservationists, not a war of Greens vs non-Greens, although “Species Inflation May Infect Over-Eager Conservationists” appears eager to convince you of that. The splitters are making their points lately, with more scientific evidence for a diversity of species.

“Species” are not like “dollars”—they are far more fluid, and to the biologist, there is no way to rank the value of a beetle against a monkey. This is a classic case of concepts in one discipline being applied in a grossly inappropriate manner to the concepts of another.

I’ll also add that, while it may not be true of some groups that focus on charismatic furry beasts to win popular support, among the scientists who do the work of taxonomy, I don’t see the individual species being used as the coinage of environmental conservation. I see much more focus on habitat preservation, which is really where the action is at if you want to save species.

Ah, but the WSJ editorial page is more likely the province of baraminologists than credible authorities.


  1. says

    I don’t think this problem is restricted to a narrow margin. Lumping and splitting is a hot political issue, at least in US Fish and Wildlife, an agency I thought would KNOW BETTER.

    I don’t know if you’ve read about this article from the New York Times, which was printed in Scientific American(here’s an excerpt)

    The report, citing a lawyer in the Sacramento office, noted that Ms. MacDonald lobbied for a decision to combine three different populations of the California tiger salamander into one, thus excluding it from the endangered-species list, and making the decision legally vulnerable. A federal district judge overturned it in 2005., saying the decision was made “without even a semblance of agency reasoning.”

    I blogged this back in April, HERE

  2. Jason F says

    I’ll start off by pointing out that I am a conservation biologist who works for the US Fish and Wildlife Service (but the views expressed here are my own).

    Dorid, you need to recognize that J. MacDonald worked for the Department of the Interior, not the USFWS. Also, she was a political appointee, not a career biologist (in fact, she had absolutely no biological training or experience whatsoever). She was put in place by the Bush administration for one purpose, i.e. obstruct the implementation and enforcement of the ESA. And to be perfectly frank, she did that extremely well. She had a nasty habit of calling field biologists directly, yelling at them and generally threatening them in order to get them to write what she wanted into various documents.

    So don’t think for a second that J. MacDonald represents the US Fish and Wildlife Service. She’s more aptly described as the anti-USFWS.

    However, even though she’s now gone (thanks to a disturbingly large number of complaints that fell on deaf ears until we got a friendly congress), the theme remains the same. As you may recall, some neo-cons in congress were trying to “amend the ESA”, which was code for “weaken it to the point where it’s almost entirely ineffective”. The good news is that the repubs who were behind that effort were booted out in the last elections.

    The bad news is that the Bush administration is now trying to do through “policy change” what the neo-cons couldn’t do via legislation. Right now they’re in the process of rewriting policy interpretations of the ESA, and in true Orwellian style, are running around claiming it’s “making the ESA better”.

    Simply put, Bush et al. seem to have realized that their approval ratings are in the toilet, so they’re set on rewarding their big-business allies as much as they can before 2008. One of the biggest things they can do is neuter the ESA.

    So get ready to see some rather alarming decisions coming from the USFWS, but please keep in mind, they’re not actually coming from the Service. The administration just writes what it wants and makes the Service put its name on it.

    I’ll give you a hint: The phrase “throughout its range” is a phrase you’re going to hear a lot, and the number of species on the list is about to go down.

  3. yoshi says

    “yeah, boo, crap so runny and putrid you can’t even get rid of it with a shovel, I know”

    I disagree with that. For any given aweful opinion piece I have found something that was useful or at least made me think about the problem in a slightly different way (the NYT’s falls into this category as well). But frankly it seems to me that going after the opinion page of -any- newspaper is too easy of a target. However, if you really want to read neocon fanatics – read the Investors Business Daily editorial page. You will get a whole new idea on how delusional people can be in a mainstream paper.

  4. Jason F says

    Oh, and on the subject of the thread, the WSJ’s op-ed comment is laughable. Had the author done even a modest amount of checking into the ESA, he would have realized that (at least when it comes to vertebrates), we aren’t constrained by taxonomy in listing decisions. We can list according to “distinct population segments” (DPS).

    For example, I work with a population of endangered sturgeon. They’re classified as the same species as other sturgeon…heck, they’re not even a sub-species. But because we have very good data that they are a “distinct population”, they are listed as endangered, but the species itself is not.

    In the anadromous fish world, the National Marine Fish Service lists according to “Evolutionary Significant Units”, or ESU’s. That’s why you can have a population of chinook salmon in a basin be unlisted, but the next basin over the same species is listed as threatened or endangered.

    The WSJ should print some sort of correction or even better, an outright flogging of the original author for not doing his homework first.

  5. says

    Jason F (#2):

    Thanks for what sounds like a very accurate description of how the current administration is pushing their agenda while trashing the science in our government agencies.

    I would not be surprised if the WSJ editors were fed this stuff from someone in the Bush administration… either directly or indirectly.

    I usually trust the WSJ on financial news. They are also, IMO, usually quite sensible. You might try and explain to the edtors what you have described here.


  6. says

    “Species” are not like “dollars”–they are far more fluid, and to the biologist, there is no way to rank the value of a beetle against a monkey.

    In objective terms, quite correct. In pragmatic terms, decisions might be made on the basis of rarity (e.g., number of other members in the genus/family).

    You’re absolutely right about habitat being the main issue, especially in terms of locating biodiversity hotspots. But for that, you have to have some measure of the number of species. And that’s why lumpers versus splitters may discuss the question in the light of conservation policies.

  7. HP says

    So, PZ, if you’re quoting Loren Coleman approvingly, does that mean that Bigfoot is real?

    I’m so confused….

    [Actually, I think the gold standard for “crap so runny and putrid you can’t even get rid of it with a shovel” is that PZ and Loren Coleman gang up on you.]

  8. says

    Jason, you know I was SHOCKED when I read about this, and I’m glad she’s gone. I’d never heard of USFW doing something so BAD (for lack of a better word) until this. The thing is, I wish that there WEREN’T political appointees involved in USFW… I’d rather see them get the funding for what they’re supposed to do, with out all the strings.

    I hooked my daughter up with people I knew in USFW omg, about 10 years ago I guess, and some of the research she’s done and the projects she’s been involved with are with USFW.

    No, I don’t judge ALL of USFW harshly, just am appalled that it’d been (and seems to be becoming) a political pawn.

  9. says

    The Economist has taken up the same theme this week: is global capitalism next week going to require some sort of worldwide animal cull? I think we should be told :-D

  10. Dustin says

    Waaaay back when I was misguided enough to think that the actuarial sciences would be “fun”, I had a student subscription to the WSJ.

    I can’t believe people pay full price for that dreck. They approach finance the way creationists approach physics. They’re overly-credulous of any weird contortion that supports their own position, and are ready to give absolute credence to every last thing that their ball of misfiring neurons conjures up.

    Biology should be spared from the opinions of conservative economists. And so should Economics.

  11. Caledonian says

    They’re overly-credulous of any weird contortion that supports their own position, and are ready to give absolute credence to every last thing that their ball of misfiring neurons conjures up.

    So how do they differ from any other group of people?

    (I find this complaint particularly amusing, given the source.)

  12. madsocialscientist says

    As an economist in training, I apologize for this unfortunate use of of our terminology. I don’t even see how you could really call this ‘inflation’. Increasing the number of groups should (rationally) increase the resolution of conservation policy, not (necessarily) its span, as Jason was saying.

    On the WSJ, I have a subscription, and it’s reporting is generally good. I also like the Numbers Guy column; the rest of the editorials are somewhat … odd.

  13. Fernando Magyar says

    It seems when it comes to reality the Editorial Board of the WSJ have their own version of it.


    “WSJ Editorial Board: Head Still Buried in the Sand
    Filed under:

    * Climate Science
    * RC Forum

    — group @ 8:38 am – (po flag)

    While the rest of the world has basically accepted the conclusion of the latest IPCC report, one small village still holds out against the tide – the Wall Street Journal editorial board. This contrasts sharply with the news section of the paper which is actually pretty good. They had a front-page piece on business responses to global warming issues which not only pointed out that business was taking an interest in carbon reduction, but the article more or less took as a given that the problem was real. However, as we have pointed out before, the editorial pages operate in a universe all their own.”

  14. T_U_T says

    Why to protect only the biology ? Do you think their stupidity is less dangerous anywhere else ?

    Everything and everyone should be protected from their craptacular crap which those crap generators try to force to anyone else as The Only Best Rational/Economical Way To Go.

  15. says

    The term, my friend, is “CATEGORICAL MISTAKE.” Coined by English philosopher Gilbert Ryle in the 1940s.

    We are “analogous” thinkers, indeed, we analogize practically everything (like begets like). But as Ryle exposes, some analogies break the categorical mode. One simply cannot “jump” barriers of different categories of thought.

    Excellent example. I may share it, if permissible.