The media is notoriously bad at highlighting breaking scientific research. Usually these stories are in the form of diet advice: Fats are bad! Fats are good! Fats don’t even matter!
We live in a world where clicks matter. So headlines have to entice us enough to actually visit an article. A study finding that puppies are cute because they have big eyes morphs into the headline: “Beware: Puppies Control Humans With Their Unnaturally Large Eyes!” We don’t find out until the end that we’re also endeared to puppies because they’re small and wiggly. And the article completely fails to mention the study was limited to only golden retrievers.
But clickbait also happens to agriculture. And sometimes the resulting headlines come from people who have an agenda.
Enter The Guardian’s environmental editor, Damian Carrington. Carrington’s articles often have a doomsday edge to them, warning us about the latest reason the Earth is doomed and so are the rest of us. Now that’s not to say that we shouldn’t be concerned about environmental issues. We absolutely should be! But sometimes we need to balance the actual risk with the dramatic prose.
Carrington’s latest article is titled, “Plummeting insect numbers ‘threaten collapse of nature.’ ” Scared yet?
The article highlights findings from the first global scientific review on insect populations, published in Biologic Conservation. Francisco Sanchez-Bayo, from the University of Australia, Sydney, interviewed with Carrington for the article. Sanchez-Bayo shares a few scary statistics on insects, like the fact that the total mass of insects is falling 2.5 percent a year. He extrapolates that number to conclude that bugs could be a historical matter in only a century. And, obviously, that would create big problems for the Earth’s ecosystems.
The study blames the entire insect decline on, you guessed it, agriculture. Insecticides and intensive agriculture (whatever that means) must be abandoned if we want to save insects — and all life on Earth. Despite the fact that organic agriculture also has a negative impact on bug mass, Sanchez-Bayo blames the entire problem on conventional agriculture. If we want to survive, we have to put an end to it and embrace organic-production methods.
Carrington, for his part, was happy to use heightened prose and a shocking headline to get the clicks and go viral. But he failed to even mention the shortcomings of the study, or that it’s conclusions are limited. And obviously Sanchez-Bayo wasn’t going there, either.
So what are the problems? For starters, it isn’t based on much. Sanchez-Bayo and his team did a review of the available literature. So they did a search for other studies about declines in insects and tried to put it all together. And they were able to find only 73 studies, which really isn’t a whole lot, especially on such a big topic. The studies also mostly came from Europe, which is hardly representative of the entire world!
The results were also biased in favor of Sanchez-Bayo getting the results he wanted. How? Finnish Nature Society explains:
The biggest problem is that the research focused only on exploring the already declining insect populations. It did not, therefore, contain stable and growing populations, but was limited to material. So just as if you were studying the survival of a human species, and chose only patients suffering from death, it would lead to the conclusion that a person will die of extinction in the next 10 years.
In other words, garbage in, garbage out.
So, no, the world isn’t ending, at least not because the Earth’s insect population is disappearing. Insect populations are incredibly nuanced and that requires consideration of geographic and other local factors.
Carrington’s article was totally out of line. Not only did the underlying study not reach the conclusions he claims, it’s clear he had an agenda. It was an abuse of his position and platform. He published an inflammatory article needlessly scaring people and turning their wrath on conventional farmers.
Unfortunately, such deeds will go unpunished. And even if someone called him out on it, I’m sure he would just blame it on “clickbait” or something.
Amanda Zaluckyj blogs under the name The Farmer’s Daughter USA. Her goal is to promote farmers and tackle the misinformation swirling around the U.S. food industry.