New Study on Extinction Elicits the View from Somewhere

By Keith Kloor
Jan 28, 2013 5:53 PMNov 20, 2019 2:47 AM


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Before climate change took center stage, the most hotly contested environmental debate was over how many species there were in the world and how fast they were going extinct. A new review paper in the journal Science returns us to the subject. How this study has been filtered and interpreted in the media is interesting. Before I get to that, though, let the paper speak for itself. From the abstract:

Some people despair that most species will go extinct before they are discovered. However, such worries result from overestimates of how many species may exist, beliefs that the expertise to describe species is decreasing, and alarmist estimates of extinction rates.

Robert May, one of the world's premier ecologists, is an author of the paper. He's been at the center of the species debate for decades. In this latest stab, as the magazine Conservationsummarizes,

researchers estimate that Earth houses 2 to 8 million species, and 1.5 million have been described. Other studies have suggested a species count of 30 to 100 million, but such estimates “seem highly unlikely,” the authors write.

The title of the new paper is curious: "Can we name species before they go extinct?" The authors say the answer is yes, "but we may have to hurry," one of them cautions in The Conversation. If the title of the Science paper seems oddly discordant with its thrust, that may owe to the high political stakes of the subject and the controversy stirred up by a 2011 Nature paper, which was titled: "Species-area relationships always overestimate extinction rates from habit loss." Numerous ecologists fiercely objected to the headline and the study's finding. Writing in Greenwire at the time, Paul Voosen did a marvelous job capturing the the essence of the Nature study (which challenged the method commonly used for estimating species loss and rates of extinction), and the long-running debate surrounding it. Voosen also reported the furious reaction to the Nature study from some quarters of the ecological community. The vehemence seemed to owe, in part, to how it would be perceived:

[University of Tennessee ecologist Daniel] Simberloff, who did not find the Nature study to be an important advance, warned that the paper could be misused by those politically driven to minimize the damage done by habitat loss. "This sounds like a major argument against preserving large areas," he said, "and in practical terms it shouldn't be."

A similar (but less intense) fracas ensued after another paper was published months later in 2011 in PLOS Biology. Carl Zimmer in the New York Times nicely encapsulated that study and the dissenting response to it. So what are we to make of the latest judgement rendered in Science? After scanning the media coverage (and press releases), it seems that three points are emphasized, which the New York Times has helpfully distilled: 1) The gloomy picture of extinction loss is unwarranted 2) there's still time to catalogue the world's flora and fauna, and 3) there is no shortage of taxonomists (who were also believed to be going extinct) to help with this task. Interestingly, few stories in the mainstream press took the main bait offered up by the authors of the Science paper, and which was dangled in this Science Dailywrite-up:

Concerns that many animals are becoming extinct, before scientists even have time to identify them, are greatly overstated, according to Griffith University researcher, Professor Nigel Stork. Professor Stork has taken part in an international study, the findings of which have been detailed in "Can we name Earth's species before they go extinct?" published in the journal Science. Deputy Head of the Griffith School of Environment, Professor Stork said a number of misconceptions have fueled these fears, and there is no evidence that extinction rates are as high as some have feared. "Surprisingly, few species have gone extinct, to our knowledge. Of course, there will have been some species which have disappeared without being recorded, but not many we think," Professor Stork said

Ronald Bailey, perhaps not surprisingly, found this angle most compelling. At the libertarian Reason magazine, he says this reaffirms what he told Congress in 2004, about eco-exaggerations. Ditto for Steven Hayward, who in the conservative outlet PowerLinechortles

that the other great environmental scare of our time (after global warming, that is)—species extinction—is vastly overestimated.

To my mind, the few mainstream media outlets that covered the Science paper (such as BBC and Scientific American) underplay its main finding--indeed, they seem to dance around it--and Bailey and Hayward overplay it--with relish. This varied interpretation suggests (to invert a well known phrase) a View from Somewhere.

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