Guest Blog – Good v Bad Science – Good v Bad Birdwatching by David Christian Rose

David is currently studying for a PhD at the University of Cambridge.  His research looks into how the interpretation of climate science affects biodiversity conservation policy-making and practice in England.  He is a keen birdwatcher and has a strong interest in British wildlife conservation.


I have been very interested in recent weeks to read articles on this blog about the nature of conservation science.  Mark’s initial comments on what constitutes ‘good’ science in wildlife conservation were followed by interesting pieces by Andy Clements and David Gibbons, all of whom have very kindly contributed to my university research over the last 18 months.

The authority that science can command as a result of its rigorous methods and peer review process is a major factor in determining why policy-makers seek to use it to underpin policy.    If we present science to policy-makers that is rich and varied, then it is more likely to have a real impact on decision-making.  David Gibbons makes an important point that scientists need to talk to policy-makers to make a difference ‘on the ground’.  And I think this should mean talking to policy-makers in a variety of different forms through a variety of different voices – whether that be scientist, conservation organisation staff member, amateur ecologist or just keen wildlife watcher.  And each should try and use a range of platforms to get their message across, an ambition that has led me to try and write about my work in a much wider way than keeping it ‘in-house’ in academic journals.

I think that the tension between what may loosely be described as ‘top-down’ science versus ‘bottom-up’ science can hold back the richness of science that is presented to policy-makers.  In using these labels I echo the useful comments made on Andy Clements’ article, where two readers point out the value of amateur science.  It is clear to me that there can be a tension between more formal, peer-reviewed science produced by high level experts and more experience-based science, which is undertaken by amateur enthusiasts ‘on the ground’.  Mike Hulme, author of ‘Why We Disagree About Climate Change’, writes that scientific knowledge is still too readily placed on a pedestal as though it were the only way to find meaningful knowledge about the world.  And this can lead to a culture of ‘good science’, which was the subject of Mark’s initial piece on this blog.  I think it can be divisive at times to talk in terms of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ science, and I agree with Andy Clements when he argues that we should not think in terms of whose science is ‘better’.  It can allow a politics of inclusion/exclusion to take place against knowledge, which is not rigidly scientific, but nevertheless may be based upon credible local, experience-based knowledge (Wynne and Mayer, 1993, Ellis and Waterton, 2005).

I am sure that all readers of this blog know themselves the real value of amateur recording, which is something that I feel strongly that all keen wildlife watchers should get into, no matter how old the enthusiast.  I think all those passionate about UK nature conservation were filled with enthusiasm with the dedication shown by the 10 year-old contributor to this blog.

In academic studies Brian Wynne’s case study of sheep farming in Cumbria (1995) is a widely cited example of where lay knowledge was ignored with negative consequences.  In June 1986, the UK Ministry for Agriculture imposed a ban on the selling and moving of sheep in Cumbria after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.  Scientists had assumed alkaline clay soils, which would quickly decrease the levels of radioactivity, but instead acid, peaty soils predominated.  Therefore, sheep were exposed to continual contamination.  Scientists had assured local farmers the ban would only be in place for 3 weeks, but due to their basic, flawed assumption on soil type, there were still 9 farms under restriction by 2000.  There was strong evidence to suggest that the local farmers knew themselves the soils they had farmed with for generations, but there was a perception from ‘outside’ expert scientists that they knew best and this local knowledge was not sought.  Despite the fact that the local farmers hadn’t reached their conclusions through a formal scientific method, they still had the experience that outside scientists did not, and this experience-based science is vital in conservation.  The experience of reserve managers about their own reserve or the experience of enthusiasts ‘on the ground’ of their ‘local patch’ can be vital in the formation of conservation knowledge.  In the case of the keen enthusiast ‘on the ground’ they are often able to ‘see, hear, and even smell in a way’ that outside experts cannot (O’ Neill, 1993, 161).

This is why I think we should all take heart from many recent attempts to combine expert and amateur knowledge in environmental decision-making.  For those who are not familiar with the work of several academics at Lancaster University in the ‘Amateur as Experts’ project, this represents an interesting example of trying to combine different forms of knowledge.  Many of these members are also involved in the Loweswater Care Project, which is a good example of how a real impact can be made on policy and also significantly practice, if all forms of knowledge are combined and presented to decision-makers.

As a final point it is clear to me that conservation organisations, particularly the larger ones with many thousands of members, are perfectly positioned to co-ordinate the combination of expert and amateur science.  Of course, they already do this in a variety of forms, but I think there can still be progress.  A more inclusive scientific process would lead to a richer suite of knowledge being presented to policy-makers and would also perhaps harness public support as a result of the fact that knowledge from keen enthusiasts was shown to be widely accepted and useful.  The amateur conservationist would feel valued and I am sure that this would galvanise them further.  Aged 9, I wrote a letter to the RSPB and asked if they’d mind buying the lakes near my house to help the herons and ducks – I still remember how disheartened I felt when I didn’t get a reply!

Although it is of course important to constantly ensure that any science is conducted in a rigorous fashion, perhaps it would help if we stopped thinking in terms of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ science when we are specifically dealing with a scenario of ‘expert’ versus ‘amateur’ knowledge.  If we are to encourage the public to take an interest in nature conservation from an early age, then we should find ways to make them feel valued as part of the conservation science community.  I think we could all do a little bit to make this happen.

And this includes, for example, birdwatchers who themselves are part of the conservation community.  I can relate to younger birdwatchers, for example, that sometimes fail to find their voice in a bird hide filled with older and seemingly more experienced birdwatchers.  This does not, of course, apply to all older birdwatchers- in fact I have come across many who have been very helpful over the years and I remember one older birdwatcher, in particular, at Titchwell who spent a good deal of time pointing out the subtle differences to me between many of the different waders on show.  Although having now reached my early 20s, I can still remember my early days of birdwatching where, looking back, I can see there was and still is a culture of ‘good’ birdwatching and ‘bad’ birdwatching.  I remember this clearly some years ago when I had spotted a Short-Eared Owl at a local reserve, well camouflaged on a fence post against a dark hedge.  There was quite a gathering of more experienced birdwatchers looking for owl species.  I made it clear where the Short-Eared Owl was, but no one paid any attention.  Whether this was because I was very young and dressed in a hoodie and trainers and/or because I had only a small pair of binoculars, I don’t know.

But, here we can see that being young/inexperienced/lacking in equipment meant you were a ‘bad’ birdwatcher, in a way that being an amateur scientist can sometimes mean that you are seen as a ‘bad’ scientist.  Today up to 4 wintering Short-Eared Owls can be seen on my local patch and I find that other birdwatchers now come up to me, now older and brandishing a birding scope (although still often the hoodie and trainers), to ask for my help- a novel experience indeed.

Well, to finish the first story I watched that Short-Eared Owl fly off over the hedge out of sight to the complete ignorance of those looking the other way and walked off back home pleased with my evening’s work while the group of other birdwatchers remained for who knows how long in freezing temperatures to see an owl that had flown out of sight.  I saw a barn owl on the way back to the car- I did think about going back to tell the others about it as the owl seemed to be keen on conducting a detailed sweep of the large field.  But I thought ‘maybe they’d think I’d seen a gull instead’ and carried on home…

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14 Replies to “Guest Blog – Good v Bad Science – Good v Bad Birdwatching by David Christian Rose”

  1. That's a pretty packed blog, David ! And with stacks and stacks of really important stuff.

    I know you've concentrated on the pro vs amateur and raised some very good points. A couple of things I've been musing on - and would value your thoughts - are first the relevance of a lot of science - I remarked one day to a colleagues who'd previously worked in academia about how little I used current science and wasn't there something wrong about that ? O, no, he said, it doesn't matter that you aren't using it in real life because the target isn't application, its the next research grant - its a completely closed system. Its fascinating looking at science output - my conclusion is that the full range of questions aren't being asked because scientists have to chase the fashionable topics - and its probably getting worse with the utilitarian focus of current politics.

    The other one that interested me a lot was the UEA climate change emails scandal. My reading was that scientists who can be rather unworldly and do genuinely, I believe, have a code of open thought and discussion were being very aggressively bullied by a group of people with a fixed agenda that had nothing to do with science. Going underground probably wasn't the right answer but then these people weren't politically astute like their opponents. They weren't up against bad science - they were up against the 'non-science' we've seen on this blog before from eg songbird survival where it seems permissible to cut and paste the smallest qualification into the conclusion if it suits your argument.

    And, on your last points, take heart you'll get your own back, I can assure you ! Fortunately, there are adults who make a huge effort to foster younger people's interest - my experience was the same as Mark's, a dedicated teacher at school who, like mark, set me off on a career in the environment. And on Findlay's latest blog he's thrilled to be helping a local ringer and there's no doubt that handling Fieldfare can only increase his knowledge & commitment.

    1. Thank you for your comments. On your first point I agree entirely. During my research I have tried to interview academics who are particularly keen on disseminating their research more widely and that are concerned with having an impact on practice. I do think that more needs to be done to limit some of the 'blue-sky' studies and try and give out funding that stipulates that the research must have some practical value. This, I think, would lead to more evidence-based conservation policy and practice.

    2. "being very aggressively bullied"

      By this chap - a semi-retired mining investment analyst?

      "Steve McIntyre lives in a small brick house near downtown Toronto ... he is sitting at his well-worn desk, illuminated only by a small energy-saving bulb on the ceiling.
      This man, with his thinning gray hair, is an unlikely adversary for climatologists, and yet he is largely responsible for the current tumult in their field. “This is the computer I used to begin doing the recalculations,” he says, holding a six-year-old Acer laptop with a 40-gigabyte hard drive. “My wife finally gave me a new one for Christmas.” (Spiegel On-line, 2010)

      Since when has persistence in pursuit of FOIA requests been regarded as bullying? If so, some well-known birders are bullies of the first order.

  2. Is it true that amateur science is typically characterised as bad? Much of the data used to monitor the fortunes of our fauna and flora is collected by amateur ornithologists, entomologist, botanists etc (even if the analysis is usually by professionals) and the expertise of these enthusiasts is widely acknowledged. Surely 'bad science' is science that is slipshod in execution or methodologically flawed, in which case it is right to label it as such and prefer to base policy on well planned and executed science?

  3. Thanks for this excellent blog. I help to lead an RSPB Wildlife Explorers/ Wildlife Watch group for 8 - 12 year olds. One of the benefits I find is although most of the young people have inexpensive binoculars, the eyes behind those binoculars are considerably better than mine. Their memory of subtle differences between willow and marsh tit for example is also far more retentive than my 70yr old,rapidly worsening one

  4. The point I would like to take up is the one where experience out ways qualifications. My life was all about experience as I never went to University starting down the road of knowledge in forestry which was why the RSPB took me on. We actually did management in those days!! Today the next of kin applies for a job on a 3 page application form which gives little on the imagination but when he or she does not get an interview even though it was asking for certain experience the world seems a different place. The laws of work now allows a person to take the company to court if they feel that their qualifications were not taken into account over experience. Like planting a tree without a plastic tube you need to care for that tree not just walk away and expect that the tree will look after itself!

  5. I second Rod's first sentence!

    At the risk of sounding pedantic (I am, but experience has taught me that clarity of language can help to reduce the likelihood of misunderstanding), I think we should remember that an “amateur” is a person who pursues an activity for love, in contrast to a “professional” who does it for money. I was for many years an amateur ornithologist and conservationist, but after retiring almost 19 years ago I became a professional because I became paid. My expertise changed not a jot, and my bank balance only modestly, as I am paid only for a few days a year. One's degree of expertise is quite independent of one's paid status: there are expert amateurs, inexpert amateurs, expert professionals and inexpert professionals. You can also draw distinctions between those who are scientifically trained and those who are not, and between activities carried out by the same person on an unpaid or paid basis, but that would be well beyond the scope of a comment even on such a thought-provoking blog as this.

    The other point I would like to make concerns our understanding of political decision making. This is not something about which I know much (general cynicism about politicians seems to be the order of the day), but I found an article on p75 of The Economist of 19 Jan about the work of the late James Buchanan, an economist who died earlier this month, quite illuminating, and well worth reading.

    Good luck with the research, and don't worry too much about the unfortunate age discrimination. I don't know why it happens, but it obviously does and it behoves us all to do our bit to counter it when we can.

  6. I can't comment really on the "good/bad science" part of your blog David as it's not in my field of knowledge. I can relate sadly only to well to your remarks about your early days in birding as it seems an all to familiar tale, one that almost echo's my own expeience word for word. Now I shall tell my tale and Mark hold onto your chair, I don't want you falling off it through laughing so hard....I was at a local reserve walking my dog, and I saw this massive brown bird of prey, with no knowledge I walked into the hide where there was a group of birders, "there's a Golden Eagle out there" I said (I'm in Northants, not Scotland)...massive laughter, and one cocky so and so quipped "yeah I saw a Flamingo" instantly I knew I had made some sort of faux-pax, only today I knew how BIG of a mistake I had made. However one old birder with a massive beard stood up and "show me lad" so I did. he passed me his binoculars and we watched it soar over the reserve "that's a Common Buzzard" flicking through his book "see the markings" I looked at his book, the Buzzard now long gone "now look at the Golden Eagle, see the difference in the plumage" I could. "Easy mistake to make, Scottish people call Buzzards tourist eagles as they are often mistaken for Golden Eagles, sadly you'll only find them in Scotland as they've been persecuted so much" He then invited me into the hide and started to show me the various waders etc on the scrape "stick with me lad and in thrity seconds I'll teach you more then ignoramus in this hide will ever know" he wasn't wrong and became a very good friend who has taught me a lot, the most important being to always believe someone is right even if they are wrong if it hadn't been for him I would've thought birders were a bunch of t****** and wouldn't be bothered about the natural world....picked youselves off the floor yet everyone 🙂

  7. Mark, I hope you have no objection if I bring your followers up to date with the latest good news on the future funding for the Wildlife Crime Unit. The RSPB have just announced The Home Office and Defra have committed £136,000 each for the next financial year, securing the future of the unit for the time being. The current funding arrangement was due to run out at the end of March. No decisions have been taken for funding the unit beyond 31 March 2014.

    The press release also mentions the fact that only 138 MP's signed the Early Day Motion 603 which no doubt helped secures the new funding.

    Mark, I am sure a list of all those MP's who did not sign the EDM 603 must be published now as a matter of urgency to show these individuals either had no interest in wildlife or they did not care. Why not use your blog to bring these names to all your many thousands of followers? You could start the list with my MP Mark Menzies.

  8. I tend to agree with what Roderick is implying, that scientific investigation is driven by funding sources rather than by a desire to unearth the truth. There seems to be no doubt that funding for research work is more readily available for global warming believers than non believing scientists and i have been told that some non believers have to hide their true views otherwise thay may lose their funding,lose their jobs or both.
    I have had an amateur interest in this global warming debate for many years and having read much of the research literature I still cannot make up my mind as to who speaks the truth. What seems to happen in many cases is that scientists are cherry picking the data or sections of the data to suit there own agenda. The hockey stick graph at one time was supposed to represent infallible data showing that global warming is linked to CO 2 levels in the atmosphere. Now so many apparent errors have been discovered in the way that this data had been interpreted that we no longer hear the hockey stick graph being mentioned.
    In Sir John Houghtons book Global Warming the Complete Briefing, he suggests that the current rate of increase in atmospheric CO2 levels will lead to a 6 degrees C rise in earth temperature over this century. Then in another chapter to reinforce a different point he states that " with the current amount of CO2 present in the atmosphere there is maximum CO2 absorption over much of the region (of the spectrum) where it can absorb, so that a big change in CO2 levels leads to a relatively small change in the amount of radiation it absorbs. The dependence of the absorption on the concentration of gas is aproximately logarithmic." If Sir John Houghton believes this last statement then how can he as chair of the IPCC recommend to the world that global warming catastrophes will occur at current rates of CO2 increase. What his statement means is that any increase in CO2 is going to have a minute impact on global warming.
    And this talk about peer reviewed research papers being a totally accurate source of data . If the peers reviewing the papers are colleagues working in the same field or are friends then they are going to approve a paper whatever inherent faults are present.
    I have heard much talk about people doing bird surveys on areas where windfarms are to be built. Often the source of the funding for this research work is the windfarm company themselves. If they receive any data which shows that their windfarm should not go ahead because of bird species present then your guess is as good as mine as to what will happen to this data. I suspect that they will find some fault in the survey method and initiate a new survey.
    There is a windfarm in North Cumbria where there were flocks of 450 whooper swans feeding on the fields adjacent to the site before the windfarm was built. What happened is that the windfarm went ahead and this year there was a flock of 650 whooper swans feeding on a field extremely close to the windfarm. Does this not suggest some form of corruption being incorporated into the use of data in some circumstances?
    We have a large peat bog in Cumbria which is being managed largely on the basis of atmospheric CO2 increases driving global warming. The bog has been rewetted to such an extent that tens of thousands of ducks geese and swans use the area for roosting with the addition of much nitrogenous material from faeces. I believe that some where in the region of £30 million has been spent on this process, all based on insufficient scientific evidence and with an unknown outcome at least certainly long term. You only have to consider the increased production of methane which will arise from a waterlogged peat bog. Methane is a greenhouse gas 8x more powerful than CO2 . Nobody knows what will happen to methane levels in the long term !!! Nobody knows what the effects of nitrogenous inputs into a waterlogged peat bog will have on CO2 production!!.

  9. "greenhouse gas 8x more powerful than CO2 "

    In terms of GH effect - 24x. Nitrous oxide has a GHG CO2 equivalence of 310x, and is produced by denitrifying bacteria in similar circumstances to methane. Re-wetting can have undesirable consequences for the environment, and see also phosphorus mobility. But it wouldn't bother a zealot none.

  10. Some interesting points david. With regard to the chernobyl pollution, I remember an "expert" saying that the fallout ocurred on the scottish highlands, the pennines and the welsh hills. I wonder if the relative small human population of these areas had an impact on this statement. Another point to remember is that caesium has a half life of around 10,000 years, not three or four years. The debate between "amateur" versus professional naturalist seems fairly clear to me. There were no professional naturalists until fairly recent times. Naturalists were mainly the clergy or the middle classes. These were the only people who had the time and the knowledge of latin to study wildlife. I think anyone else would be regarded as strange. Good to see you are one of the up-coming generation to carry the baton of Conservation. I hope you manage to use your education to improve policies. One question I would like to pose, if other people are not interested in conservation, why not? Why should conservation be left to a minority? There are some organisations who think that because they are paid to advise on conservation they are the "experts." Also, if an organisation has paid a consultant for a piece of environmental work then the opinion of someone else is not valid! In this respect our society has not advanced, it is stagnant. From personal knowledge of some students work it is clear that using obscure words and phrases in their reports seems to guarantee success. This is then a policy for the future, resulting in their statements being understood by no-one. Good luck in your research and just as a point from someone without any paper qualifications (an amateur) part of climate change (which is nothing new) is as a result of the earths trajectory.


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