Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Skeptoid podcast on Colony Collapse Disorder

Posted 05 Jan 2017 / 0
2017-01-05a.pngCCD infographic courtesy of Giulia De Rossi, DensityDesign Research Lab via Wikimedia Commons
Interesting to consider how the information in this image jives with the information in the podcast below!

For the various papers and projects that I have assigned over the years in my Ecology course, no topic has been as popular as colony collapse disorder (CCD). The idea that human impacts may be threatening bees is very salient, and for good reason: we rely on bees (mostly domesticated varieties) for the pollination services they provide, and many of the crops that we grow would not bear fruit without these services. But because this idea is so salient, it has also led to a lot of misinformation. There’s a lot of public confusion about why CCD is happening. This confusion in some ways parallels the confusion of researchers, who have not been able to unravel the complete cause of CCD. But what researchers know (that CCD appears to be caused by a confluence of factors… see graphic above) hasn’t seemed to penetrate to the general public very well. This “poor scientific penetrance” — a common phenomenon — probably emerges for a variety of reasons, one of which may be the public’s poor understanding of how how multiple factors can interact to cause ecological phenomena like CCD.

I am also amazed by how much confusion there is about the “victims” of CCD. Routinely when I hear people (including my students) talk about CCD, there’s almost no distinction made between domesticated honey bees used for crop pollination/honey production and wild bees (who also do their fair share of pollination). There’s evidence that the some of the parasites that cause CCD “spillover” to wild populations, but as this popular account of this science shows, the propensity to overstate what is scientifically know is particularly pernicious when it comes to bees.

I have become particularly interested in threats to pollinators in general and threats to bees in particular thanks to my recent involvement in the Pratt Manhattan Gallery art show called NECTAR: War Upon the Bees. I had nothing to do with the show’s curation, but post-curation I have been helping Nick Battis, Director of Exhibitions, to identify a scientist to speak at an upcoming closing event for the show. I’ll eventually get to posting about the show, but for now I am trying to become as educated as I can about CCD.

So I was excited to find a podcast from a guy named Brian Dunning called Skeptoid. Dunning as a short segment on CCD. You can listen to this podcast here:

You can also find the podcast (and a transcript) on the Skeptoid website and on iTunes.

I love the very technical and logical approach of this podcast. On the Skeptoid site you can see that this podcast is well-researched, although he has not dug down to the primary science that supports all of his claims. Still, this seems like a pretty reasonable (and scientifically conservative) analysis. And I can’t agree more that when parties bring ideology to a problem that can be understood scientifically, those ideologues almost always need to distort the science in order to maintain their ideology. This is a cultural evolutionary phenomenon that deserves attention: how and why do particular ideologies lead to science denial?

I like the work of so-called Skeptics (of whom Michael Shermer is best known) because their approach is to try to honestly look at the science related to particular social ideas. But I have also learned that so-called skeptics and others claiming to take a “rational” approach are not immune to bias. Even if you claim (or even honestly believe) you are looking at the science “objectively”, your personal biases can cause you to look at some scientific findings more favorably than others, or simply to highlight only the science that supports your position. I have found that the skeptic’s bias is generally conservative: their blind spot is being insufficiently skeptical about the claims of predominant science. It will be interesting to assess — as I do more CCD research — how well Dunning’s depiction of CCD compares to all the science being done to understand this phenomenon.

A Minor Post, Biodiversity Loss, Climate Change, Conservation Biology, Habitat Destruction, Invasive Species, Pollination, Pollution, Public Outreach, Radio & Podcasts, Risk & Uncertainty, Science in Art & Design

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