So wrote Noem Chomsky in 1957 to demonstrate that a sentence may be grammatically correct whilst still being semantically meaningless. It is a phrase that bounces through my mind when I read some of the so-called applied science literature. A scientist has a bright idea, writes it up, making careful use of statistics and a thorough literature review to support his case, but … ignores the context within which that science will be applied. Good science but … meaningless. In my case, the context is often that for a piece of science to be useful, it has to dovetail with the legislation and the needs of the organisations responsible for managing the environment. The latter, perhaps, less than the former, but it is good sense not to push a large public sector organisations too far out of its comfort zone without a really strong case.
The article that prompted these thoughts today is a short opinion piece in a journal called Molecular Ecology with the modest title Biomonitoring 2.0: a new paradigm in ecosystem assessment …. by Donald Baird and Mehrdad Hajibabaei. My previous post extolled the potential of DNA barcoding but Baird and Hajibabaei go much further … almost suggesting that a Cambodian-style “Year Zero” beckons for those of us involved in environmental monitoring. In particular, they pick on another review which (rightly) highlights the current lack of knowledge of the response of individual species to stressors. This, in turn, limits our ability to predict the outcome of expensive remediation efforts. Yet the solution is not, as Baird and Hajibabaei imply, to bypass traditional taxonomy altogether, because the legislation that underpins our work in Europe refers to the composition of the biota of river, lakes and coastal waters and the regulators who are responsible for this will be reluctant to change without very good reason. Another reason is that the “biomonitoring” that Baird and Hajibabaei refer to is the ecological equivalent of a doctor taking your blood pressure. No more than that. It is what we do with this information that is important, and improving our knowledge of distinct plant and animal species will help us devise strategies to bring rivers and lakes back to a healthy condition. There is a future for DNA barcoding within ecosystem assessment (see my previous post) but we will need a synergy with the conceptual foundations that have been developed over the past decades if we are to make progress.
Just after I wrote these paragraphs, I heard the geneticist Steve Jones talking on the radio about the gulf between the claims for molecular biology and the reality that scientists had actually delivered. He suggested, mischievously, that the four letter code for DNA, A (adenosine), G (guanine), T (thymine) and C (cytosine) should be changed to H, Y, P and E. I’ve read many excellent studies that use molecular biology to further our understanding. These generally fulfil Newton’s aphorism: “if I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” I’ve also heard several preposterous suggestions that betray ignorance or just superficial understandings of complicated systems. We may well be on the edge of a paradigm shift in the way we collect data for ecological assessment but if we ignore the broader context, we’ll end up with flashy papers in high impact scientific journals and little tangible progress towards our bigger goals.