Friday, March 19, 2004


Carl Zimmer at The Loom has a post discussing the recent Science paper by Thomas et al. that shows a significant decline in bird, butterfly, and plant biodiversity in England over the past half century.

What really grabbed my attention, however, was Zimmer's introduction to the piece:
"When I ask scientists what's the biggest misunderstanding people have about their work, they often talk about how they know what they know. People tend to think that a scientist's job is to gather every single datum about something in nature--a mountain, a species of jellyfish, a neutron star--and then, simply by looking at all that information, see the absolute truth about it in an instant."
This is definitely a common misconception. For biologists, another related misconception is we're typically expected to know both a) every last biological detail about our chosen organism of study, and b) basic information about every organism on the planet. I get the impression that memorizing all these facts is what most people think biological education is supposed to consist of.

For instance, I worked in an insect lab during graduate school (investigating caterpillar digestive physiology) and we'd commonly get people calling or coming into the lab asking for information on some random insect they found in their yard, a park, or wherever. When we couldn't even tell them what type of insect it was, let alone the details of its life cycle ("Um, we think it's some kind of beetle larva, but we're really not too sure ..."), the disappointment was evident. Now that I'm teaching zoology it's even worse: any animal is fair game. While I enjoy the questions, I do at times wish people would realize that I'm not a walking reference book of taxonomic information.

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