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Who’s Exaggerating the Death of Birds?

You saw or heard the headlines: three billion birds (or 30 percent) have been lost in North America since 1970, according to a new study out in Science.

It was covered by media worldwide, with an apocalyptic portentousness increasingly obligatory in our time. The Emmy for simultaneous best line and money quote goes to New York Times journalist Carl Zimmer, who wrote that University of Exeter conservation biologist Kevin Gason “said the new findings signal something larger at work: ‘This is the loss of nature.’”

Unfortunately, writes macroecologist Brian McGill at the blog Dynamic Ecology, while the decline in birds the study shows is real, the 3 billion number “is one of the less solid numbers and I will argue one of the least important numbers that appears in this publication.”

While praising it, McGill also takes the paper apart a bit. We’ve heard this story before: paper comes out with earth-shattering finding in big journal; small number of scientists rebut it (usually on Twitter); and…if we’re talking scientific misconduct, there might be consequences. If we’re talking a science communication overreach, there won’t be any.

Flash: There won’t be any this time.

Some of McGill’s big points:

  • It’s not useful to say there was a 30 percent average decline across all species — because that’s not what the authors’ estimates show.
  • Instead, they show, as McGill puts it, “a few species have declined drastically, a few have increased drastically, and many haven’t changed that much.”
  • In fact, over 2/3 of the total decline are in the 40 most abundant species, with the majority of the 10 biggest losers all “completely safe” (McGill’s term), extremely abundant species that do very well in human habitats. “Bad?” McGill asks. “Sure. A sign of human impact on birds being large? Sure. But a conservation disaster worthy of words like armageddon? Probably not unless you are selling newspapers.”
  • McGill is worried about the long-term effects of putting out a message that “birds are on their way out. And 20 years from now when they’re still very much around but differently composed, that is going to bite our credibility.”
  • He’s also worried about arguments that all the great headlines this paper is getting get people talking about birds and isn’t that ultimately a good thing, regardless of whether it distorts the science? “As a scientist,” he writes, “I wish there were some really good replicated experiments on whether 3 billion motivates more or less policy action and behavioral change than a more nuanced discussion. I kind of suspect the latter but I can’t prove it.”

It’s a great post worth reading in full, as well as the thoughtful comments and responses by McGill. Toward the post’s end, McGill tries his hand at re-messaging the Science study:

If I were writing a public consumption summary of this I would say something like 57% of bird species are declining and have declined by 6.6 billion individuals while 43% of bird species are increasing and have increased by 3.6 billion individuals. Most of the action in numbers for both increasing and decreasing individuals is in really common species that are not endangered and very often became common because they get along well with humans.

75 words. Is there any chance that complex a message gets through to the public? Probably not. But maybe. Certainly even if it doesn’t get in a headline that is not too much to communicate in a news paper article. Really how hard would it be to explain that that the net -3billion is actually a combination of +3.6 billion and loss of -6.6 billion. And yet that difference is so much more nuanced and accurate and inviting of more questions. And its not hard to animate the story with specific species examples (as I did). And surely a policy maker who is getting 10 powerpoint slides can get that level of complexity.

Yes, but no way it gets the headlines the “3 billion” story got. I daresay it might not even get into Science. Conservation has been writing papers the way McGill messages this one for decades, to little effect. Time to try apocalypse?

That’s why I disagree with McGill when he blames journalists for the “3 billion” distortion and absolves the authors. I mean:

  • The paper is titled “Decline of the North American avifauna.”
  • Its abstract leads with “the net loss of 3 billion,” emphasizes the loss in migratory bird biomass and says this all “signals an urgent need to address threats to avert future avifaunal collapse and associated loss of ecosystem integrity, function and services.”

The authors knew exactly what they were doing, worked hand-in-glove with Science’s PR and editorial staff department on the messaging, and journalists ate it up. Of course they did.

For scientists to fight back, they need to stop blaming journalists for doing what journalists do (writing headline-ready stories that are handed to them) and be willing to more aggressively and over time take on science communication campaigns that distort the underlying science. Which might be at the risk of pissing off Science magazine, for instance.

As to McGill’s question about whether this actually changes anything — we all thought climate change doom-and-gloom hadn’t, until now it looks as if it has. So expect more distortions like this, as science continues to understand how to tell better stories, regardless of whether those stories precisely fit the science.

Who’s exaggerating the death of birds? All of us.