A Tale Of Two Headlines

I’ll freely admit science journalism is a hobby-horse of mine, but I don’t think you need to be either a scientist or a writer to detect the not-so-subtle difference between the two headlines above.

In fact, you could be forgiven for thinking they were written about two different scientific papers; but they weren’t. They were written about the same paper by Roel van Klink and others in the prestigious journal Science. (You may be able to read the whole paper here.)

Both Damian Carrington, Environment Editor for The Guardian, and Nick Kilvert, Environment reporter for the ABC, apparently read it and reported on it. Those were the headlines for their articles; Carrington’s full article is here, and Kilvert’s here.

Here’s the ABC’s front page link:

So it’s pretty clear what Mr. Kilvert and the ABC think is the main message:

Scientists Got It Wrong And Over-reacted Again

Here’s The Guardian‘s front page link:

So Mr. Carrington and The Guardian are equally clear about the main message:

We Are Losing Insects And It Is A Problem

So which article is “right”? Well, here’s a pull-quote from the actual paper:

Such a decline is concerning given the critical role that insects play in food webs and ecosystem services and may contribute to other changes such as the declines observed for some insectivorous bird populations. 

That sounds much more like The Guardian‘s interpretation than the ABC’s. In fact it’s probably worth pointing out at this stage that the paper itself doesn’t use the term “insect apocalypse” at all. That’s something Mr. Kilvert and the ABC thought was important, not the paper’s authors.

Here are two more quotes from the actual paper:

This means that locations where human land use is most intensive, and thus where the strongest effects on insect trends might be expected, were underrepresented. To infer broader patterns across the ecosystems of the world and for more comprehensive tests of human pressures, more data are needed from these underrepresented regions experiencing both low and high environmental change. […]

there are clear limitations to our analysis, so we remain cautious about generalizing these patterns

In other words, don’t go making too many generalised conclusions from these data. Like the ABC…

In fact the clearest overall message from the paper, which analysed data from 1,676 different sites, was that changes in populations were quite variable, and a “more nuanced view” was required.

What was also required was a lot more data and a lot more research. In fact there was so little data available from Australia that even the Australian Broadcasting Corporation article noted

There was not enough data from Australia to establish a trend.

So the paper’s authors tell us that the overall trend for terrestrial insects is a 9% loss per decade, and that’s “concerning”. They also tell us that there are significant local differences and that more data is needed. Finally it’s noted that there isn’t enough data from Australia to say what’s happening in Australia.

However Mr. Kilvert and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation don’t have a headline saying Australia lacks vital data on insect populations. Instead they infer that the “insect apocalypse” has had cold water poured on it…

Let me remind you that the term “insect apocalypse” doesn’t feature in the scientific paper at all. That’s something the ABC and Mr. Kilvert decided was the focus of the article and its most important conclusion, not the paper’s authors.

In support of their focus on the “insect apocalypse” Mr. Kilvert and the ABC also seize on the reported fact that “freshwater populations are actually increasing”, and they use this to support their claim of doubts about the “insect apocalypse”.

The paper’s authors, on the other hand, don’t draw that conclusion at all. What they do say, paraphrased, is:

  1. There is significant variability in population change both by habitat (such as land versus water, or trees versus soil) and by location.
  2. There isn’t enough data on changes in the most highly pressured habitats, and it’s dangerous to generalise.
  3. Fresh water represents only 2.4% of the earth’s terrestrial surface, so comparing freshwater insects and terrestrial insects “is likely to be a poor representation of trends”

The reason the paper’s authors point out the increase in freshwater insects is not because it throws doubt on the “insect apocalypse”—something I’ll remind you again doesn’t appear in their paper at all—they point it out to demonstrate the variability in changes by location and habitat. They also point out that not only is it a small fraction of the total area, it may not even represent a real increase in numbers, but “partially reflect recovery from past degradation”.

The ABC and Mr. Kilvert forgot to point those things out.

How Mr. Kilvert and the ABC make the leap from the scientific paper’s contents to their sensational claims about the debunking of the “insect apocalypse” is therefore a mystery.

Quite apart from the peculiar interpretations they’ve placed on the actual facts in the scientific paper, it’s worth noting two other things.

Firstly, that the data from a German study cited in the paper that showed a 75% loss of insect populations in a specific region has never been thrown into doubt. That outcome was described as an “apocalypse”, and rightly so. Nobody has suggested that those figures are wrong; what this paper correctly observes is that these results aren’t true everywhere and that much more research is required, but that a global loss of around 9% per decade is highly probable.

Secondly, although it could be debated whether a 25% loss of insect populations in a human generation represents an “apocalypse” or not, the most clearly important and concerning fact arising from these results is not that the loss is a bit slower than some people extrapolated, but that it means that in another generation we may have lost half the world’s insects.

Maybe the most important question, then, isn’t whether to label this an “apocalypse” or not…

Contrast, then, the two responses to that chilling data: the ABC says “you were wrong, we’re not all going to die in twenty years (it might take two or three times that long)”; The Guardian says “we have confirmation of a serious problem here”.

It’s a pity that the ABC was unable to recognise the real significance of this scientific paper, unlike The Guardian, and present it to the Australian public appropriately, rather than grabbing sensationalist words that weren’t in the paper and fashioning a narrative that minimises the fundamentally important facts:

  • We have been, and are losing terrestrial insects at an overall measured rate of about 9% per decade
  • Most of our data comes from unstressed habitats like national parks, and not from stressed areas like croplands that are of vital significance to our food supplies
  • We don’t have nearly enough data to understand what’s really going on, the real figures could be different again. For example, there is practically no data at all from the whole of Africa, an entire continent

In future I’ll be paying a lot more attention to Mr. Carrington and The Guardian on scientific matters than Mr. Kilvert and the ABC.