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Where’s the Global Insect Apocalypse?

In lots of headlines, certainly. And in alarming social media posts.

In your inbox as well, probably, and on your reading lists, and (increasingly) in your casual conversations with people as you signal to each other your deep concern about the planet’s dire trajectory. It’s also in your garden or on your windshield, if only in the absence of insects you think you detect compared to the good old days.

All of these places are fertile habitat for the global insect apocalypse, the idea that insect species are not just declining worldwide, but “collapsing” at rates that will lead to their extinction within a century and “threaten the collapse of nature” itself, argued a Guardian story that got enormous play.

Yes, the global insect apocalypse is truly global. The only locations where we haven’t yet found much trace of it are

  1. Science; and
  2. The globe.

So argues a thorough, patient and (to me) shocking vivisection of recent studies claiming local and global insect apocalypse and their communication, published earlier this year in American Scientist by Manu E. Saunders, an ecologist and insect researcher at the University of New England, Australia. (H/T to Pew scientist Jon Fisher for tweeting about the article.)

“Widespread, consistent insect declines are a real concern,” writes Saunders. “Yet there is little published evidence that worldwide decline of all insects is happening.”

Wow. So where did the global insect apocalypse come from? From five places, says Saunders:

  1. A few studies, two of which were stretched too thin by their authors. The apocalypse is based on just three recent studies, says Saunders: two of which were “localized and skewed toward particular taxa,” and one of which (a lit review) was set up to find those studies showing insect decline, results from which the authors then extrapolated from those to claim a worldwide crisis. (Saunders says other studies show mixed results or even local increases for some taxa.)
  2. Overhyped science communications that conflated findings in some of the papers with authorial speculation, downplayed caveats and serious study limitations, and stressed instead global conclusions and the apocalyptic meme.
  3. Sensationalistic media play for those storylines, which dovetailed well with other stories of human activity taking us to the brink of planetary collapse.
  4. Casual observations of insect decline by individuals, which are not data but which function today as truth and ratifiers of those individuals’ worldviews and expertise.
  5. The unwillingness of other specialists who know better to challenge in public the meme, basically because they think any publicity for their specialty will result in more funding for the specialty. (Even in this Ed Yong Atlantic piece asking hard questions about the meme, skeptical entomologists he interviewed basically reach the conclusion that no publicity is bad publicity.)

Saunders’ piece is so good in large part because it is so clear, thorough and itself devoid of hype — so we have no trouble seeing through it why the global insect apocalypse is a disaster for science.

Science is hard, she reminds us, and doesn’t usually doesn’t lend itself to easy storylines. Insects are “complex and noisy” — there are so many factors influencing individual species’ health, so much data still missing and so many dynamics still not understood. If we want to reach conclusions about trends in species, we need excellent study construction, long-term studies and a familiarity with natural history accounts that don’t often rise to the level of “scientific literature.” To reach conclusions about global trends becomes terrifically more difficult.

And yet, Saunders argues, the answer isn’t to take shortcuts and “run with the hype”:

“As scientists, our role is to endorse precision and accuracy. An important part of ethical science is upholding communication standards that accurately convey complexity and context, as well as data and results….The take-home message from these stories should not be one of apocalypse, but one of diversity, interactions, and an urgent need for inquiry.”

What a brave, smart piece. What an absence of bravery and intelligence in the scientific and science journalism communities. The global insect apocalypse is a blueprint for how the science industry can take advantage of a climate of public fear. Whether insects are actually in trouble or not, expect more such apocalypses.