• Andy Davis

Science and monarchs in the age of Trump

Greetings all,

Well, I guess you could say a lot has happened since my last post. That's an understatement! In case you didn't get this reference, I'm referring to the change in administration at the White House of the United States, my adopted country. Whether you are for or against this new president, one thing is for sure - this is a clear turning point in American history. In this post, I'm going to share some musings and thoughts on what this could mean for research into our beloved monarch butterfly, and how we got to this point.

First, let me apologize for getting political in this blog, which was always intended to be just about monarch research. However, with something so incredibly historic going on right now, it's hard to think about anything else.

So let's start with the obvious - this administration appears to have a distinct disdain for all things science. For example, there are plans underway to dramatically cut the Environmental Protection Agency to one-third of their original size. I have also seen reports of changes coming to the Endangered Species Act. Then there have been reports of gag-orders on government scientists, which is essentially telling the scientists that they cannot talk with the public about their research, and in some cases, they may need to have their studies reviewed by a government official before publishing it. This is an all-out war on science, really. So what will this mean for research on monarchs? This is unclear now, but it is safe to say that federal funding toward all science-related activities is going to be reduced in the next four years. This would mean fewer graduate students studying monarchs, less funding going toward monarch meetings (remember Minnesota 2012?), and probably less funding toward conservation activities geared toward monarchs and other pollinators.

Let's back up now and think about how it came to this. Why does this administration believe that science is not important, or is an impediment to progress? To answer this we should look at the people who elected this president. Full disclosure here - I'm a legal green-card holder in this country and cannot vote, but I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have voted for this person. But for those who did, it is pretty clear that science is unimportant to them as well. Lately there has been a slew of stories all relating to the low regard a lot of Americans (and mostly Republicans) have for science right now. Let me point to a few of these...

I read one about a survey done back in 2014 - before all the hubub about the election and campaigns - which looked at American attitudes toward science. It found that while attitudes among Democrats (toward science) has generally remained high over time, support for science among Republicans surveyed has been weakening over time. Interestingly, the survey also showed that for the first time, the internet surpassed TV news as the American public’s primary source of science news. This is something I discovered myself in a survey I conducted last year, and also blogged about. As I said in that blog, I find this to be a little troubling, because it means that people are now getting their information about science from a variety of online sources, which may or may not be accurate. I believe this reliance on the internet is not only watering-down the science information people get, but it also creates this atmosphere where actual scientific content is competing for attention and space alongside unreliable ("Fake News") sources.

This next one I'll point out is a very interesting story about another, more recent survey conducted last year, about why Americans deny science. This story is less about how people don't value science, and more about why they don't believe scientific evidence. Note - it would help to read the report before going further in this blog entry. In a nutshell, there has been a growing phenomenon in our culture where people purposely choose not to believe a scientific study if it goes against what they think in their heads about that issue. This is called "cognitive bias", and it is something that psychologists have been studying a lot recently, especially since this last election cycle and the with the rise in "Fake News". In that story above, the author talks about why people don't want to believe the science around climate change, or evolution, and other hot-button issues. Essentially people choose not to believe the science if they have a vested interest in the issue, like with smokers - according to the article a smoker may not want to believe her or his habit is really going to cause lung cancer, because that would mean the person would have to quit.

Believe it or not, in the world of monarchs, we have this issue as well, with the science around tropical milkweed. This plant is the source of tremendous controversy among the monarch faithful. As my readers probably know very well, this plant is non-native to the United States, but it is sold readily by nurseries and garden stores. People buy these plants and plant them in their gardens, thinking they are helping monarchs, because as everyone knows, monarchs need milkweed. The problem with these plants is that because they are tropical by nature, they remain in leaf much longer than native milkweeds do, and will even stay in leaf year-round in places where it doesn't freeze. This leads to a buildup of OE spores on their leaves, which then leads to infected monarchs. This doesn't happen with native milkweeds, which die back each fall. All of this is well-documented in the scientific literature, and it was even confirmed in two different studies (see Study 1 and Study 2). BUT, despite this clear evidence that it causes harm to monarchs, there are lots of seasoned monarch people out there who insist that it does not, and who contend that these studies are wrong. This is cognitive bias, because if they did accept the results of those studies, it would mean they would have to remove those plants from their garden, and they don't want to do that. It would also mean admitting that they are harming monarchs, and they definitely don't want to do that.

Another report to point out about cognitive bias is this one. It is a story about a research study on cognitive bias that was presented at a recent symposium of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology annual convention in San Antonio. According to the report, "when it comes to facts, people think more like lawyers than scientists, which means they 'cherry pick' the facts and studies that back up what they already believe to be true. So if someone doesn't think humans are causing climate change, they will ignore the hundreds of studies that support that conclusion, but latch onto the one study they can find that casts doubt on this view. " Getting back to the case of tropical milkweed, this has already happened. A few years ago, an essay was written in American Butterflies magazine (which is not a scientific journal) that attempted to refute the idea that tropical milkweed is bad for monarchs. Ever since then, people have been touting this one essay in a magazine as the evidence for why they should keep their tropical plants, and/or why they 'disbelieve' the scientific studies.

I don't want to get into this tropical milkweed issue too much here, only to show how cognitive bias works, and that we see this in the monarch world.

Let me now give you some musings I been having on the role of scientists in all of this. I've been a scientist for many years, and over the years I've been doing this I've come to the painful conclusion that we scientists are partly to blame for this slow degeneration of public-interest or valuing of science. I think we as a group are, unfortunately, very bad at communicating our work to the public. We're certainly not trained in public speaking (at least to non-science audiences) in our post-secondary education. We're also nerdy, dorky, and often not gifted public speakers by nature. Plus, we often work on boring stuff. We as scientists certainly think it's exciting, but everyone else doesn't. So put all of this together, and you have a real problem. Furthermore, besides the public-speaking thing, we also don't do a good job at communicating our research on the internet, and this I think is the biggest problem. Given that most people get their science information from online sources these days, we scientists need to do a much better job at making our research more accessible to the online community. Most scientists I know don't do this at all. They publish their research in scientific journals, they give presentations at scientific workshops (to other scientists), and nothing they do ever reaches a non-scientist's ears (or eyes).

It was always my hope that this blog would be a partial solution to this problem, where information about scientific research about monarchs is relayed in a non-technical way. If you are reading this very sentence, then you must be someone who can see the value of this idea. I only wish that more of my scientific colleagues would do the same. This election cycle has proven that too many Americans do not value science, or disbelieve it, and this is a very bad thing.

OK, again, I apologize for getting political - I'll get back to science in the next post.



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The science of monarch butterflies

A blog about monarchs, written by a monarch scientist, for people who love monarchs