The BBC radio programme More or Less often provides, in my view, a reasonably thoughtful counterpoint or qualifier to some of the BBC’s more uncritical and alarming science coverage.
At the end of last month, one topic was the much-vaunted “Insect Armageddon” and the scary claim that insects are facing global extinction in 100 years’ time. I found it an interesting listen, and have also transcribed it here.
During the segment, the presenters examine the claims made in the paper that started it all (“Worldwide decline of the entomofauna: A review of its drivers”, by Francisco Sánchez-Bayo and Kris Wyckhuys), with the help of several biologists and a statistician.
The sort of thing that emerges will be all too familiar to many readers…
Firstly, a method that actively goes out and looks for data that supports the study’s claim, while potentially excluding data that does not.
Casper Albers (statistician): So what they did is they only looked for papers that had the keyword “decline” in the title or abstract. It could be that there are also papers that actually found an increase, but if you look for this keyword you won’t find those papers. So they kind of introduced a bias in the way they looked for the papers.
Then the claim that the study is “global” but which excludes two thirds of the global landmass.
Jane Hill (biologist): Yeah, well, I think that is an inappropriate thing to do, and if you look at where they got their studies from, they can’t really extrapolate globally because most of the studies are from Europe. And so the concern, I think, that I have with the paper is about extrapolating widely beyond the studies they examined.
And there’s the big one, the claim that insects are facing a catastrophic global decline and potentially facing extinction, based on some biomass studies – in just three locations.
It’s beginning to look a bit like climate science…
But the lead author brushes the statistical argument aside:
Francisco Sánchez-Bayo: Even if we don’t have enough data to prove it statistically, whatever, we know that this is happening. So it’s better to do it now than ten years later when we may have more serious problems.
So, a flawed study based on limited, cherry-picked data and heroic extrapolation, which morphs into lurid headlines in the world’s media and then crystallises into a statement of fact in the minds of tearful climate activists and schoolchildren.
I find the final quote by lead author Francisco Sánchez-Bayo remarkable.
If “we know that this is happening”, then for goodness sakes, show it.