Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is a ridiculous one ………………………… …………………….………………………– Voltaire
I have been spending a lot of (and perhaps too much) time at the communal data collection site iNaturalist over the last several weeks. It is a place to record things we see in nature. There are plenty of sites like this out there on the internet, but none tries to capture so much with the kind of user level of participation that iNaturalist does. Anybody can enter data and anybody can comment and agree or disagree with the identification specifics of entries made by others.
At first, I was a bit surprised by the number of folks from far away giving me advice on local identifications, getting them wrong and doing it with such authority. Experts from out-of-town assuming I’m clueless and telling me how to do stuff. A lot of that going around these days…
Then there are the folks from out-of-town on iNaturalist that actually caught my mistakes and pointed me in the right direction.
For most of us, what we think we know is a mix of personal experience and stuff we have picked up from reading or taking a class or watching Nature on PBS. The farther away a thing is from my local patch of experience, the more reliant I am on external sources. Those external sources are subject interpretation and a certain amount of faith. The book I’m using may be the same one that the other guy is using, but depending on our experiences, we may interpret the words differently. Or that other guy may be using a completely different reference written by an author with a different set of definitions for what’s what. They may believe that theirs is the definitive text.
Definitive. Over-confidence in the inerrancy of an opinion. A lot of that going around these days…
It may surprise some of you to learn that I don’t know everything and, more importantly, I don’t believe I know everything. I have my doubts about what other people have dubbed “my expertise”. iNaturalist brings this reality into sharp relief. Using iNaturalist is as much a study in human psychology as it is in participatory citizen science, not to mention an exercise in learning to check my own ego.
I have learned quite bit interacting with folks on iNaturalist. The first lesson is: get used to anarchy. Everyone can offer an opinion and once given, there does not appear to be a mechanism for weighting or removing opinions that are clearly in error. There are folks called curators working on the site, but they do not have the power to add or subtract dubious votes from the general user population (assuming I’m reading the FAQ correctly). This can place some records into an undeserved limbo until enough additional votes come in to over-ride that one outlier.
And that would be the second lesson: the number of folks available to accurately assess data, particularly at a regionally specific level, is not large. The only taxonomic group that is well represented is the birder group and, even in that group, the gull ID’s (among other problematic ID challenges) are pretty sketchy. If you’re interested in confirming a bug or a fish, you will probably have to wait a good long time and the botany answers show a frustrating regional bias which most probably reflects an incomplete understanding of range and taxonomy by out-of-town commenters.
But the third lesson is, for me, the most revelatory: there are some really serious and knowledgeable folks who’ve made themselves available to the rest of us rabble on iNaturalist. There are a couple of snail and slug folks who’ve helped me out, a primatologist, and the guy who reminded me that there are two kinds of raccoons in Costa Rica (Common and Crab-eating).
There is a great deal that I don’t know. I try not to let that get in the way of participating in these larger citizen science projects. We all have things to contribute and things to learn. We may doubt our ability to contribute meaningfully to a citizen science projects, but having doubt is a sign of critical thinking. It’s a good thing. Stating with authority “I don’t know enough to contribute” is a doubtful proposition.
You can explore iNaturalist for yourself at: http://www.inaturalist.org