Science journalism?

A recent paper published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment (Clements et al. 2011) and subsequent press releases in New Zealand has resulted in a some public backlash. The paper proposes a new index for assessing the extinction risk of a species called SAFE (species ability to forestall extinction). In the paper the authors tested the strength of the SAFE index at predicting the most commonly used species threat measure, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, and found it to perform better than other currently used measures.

The SAFE index is really quite simple. It takes into account two things, the total number of individuals in a species across it's entire known range and, the minimum viable population (MVP) of a species. The minimum viable population is the lowest number of individuals a population needs to sustain itself. A few years ago a cross species review of MVP and found that on average MVPs are around 4169 individuals (Traill et al 2007). The importance of this with regard to extinctions is obvious. If a species population size drops below this minimum, the chances of extinction are greatly increased. See I told you it was simple.
Photo credit: Shane McInnes, winner of The Worlds Rarest Birds photo competition
However, the backlash in New Zealand about this work was largely from ill informed people who have a chip on their shoulder. What chip you ask? Well it so happens that the authors of the SAFE paper are based at Australian institutions. So what? Well the crux of the story stems from the misrepresentation of the work and how it can be applied in a real world situation. Professor Cory Bradshaw was one of the authors who worked on the paper and talked about the work on radio here in NZ. There were also some news articles, one entitled 'Let the wonderfully wierd kakapo die--scientist' specifically got me riled up. The kakapo (pictured above) is a very unique bird in that is a flightless, nocturnal parrot, the only one of its kind in the world, but like so many NZ birds, it is endangered. And according to the SAFE index, with only 131 individuals of the species left, it has little chance of being saved. Luckily there are a huge number of dedicated people, both paid and volunteers, who are trying to get this bird back on it's feet. What Corey Bradshaw had to say was what people hated. He said that the massive expenditure on saving a single species that fell short on the SAFE index is unjustified because, where financial resources are limited, this happens to the detriment of countless other species. The other species may not be endangered but could be on the verge and thus excluded from the conservation effort. Therefore, by the time we realize that these species are becoming rare it may be too late, one because we spent too much money on a single species and don't have much left, and two because they may already be below the MVP threshold. 

You could go and read some of the comments on the news article but I have picked out some of my favourites:

This one is priceless for a couple of reasons. Firstly they cite positive as people who are slandering Corey Bradshaw, and secondly he talks about Darwineans. I think what he means is darwinians, but I have no idea what he means by it, particularly when he talks about saving money etc.

Glad to see so many positive (save the Po) comments, but am surprised at the number who agree with the Aussie! NZ has saved a bird before, and hopefully we will do it again. To those of you "Darwineans" who are against "wasting money" saving it....think of all the money we waste trying to save other humans?? Is that a waste too? Should the NZ government let nature take its course next time you have a treatable illness or injury?
 Another classic. I love how she  calls him a "so-called 'scientist'". And then goes on to attack him because he is Australian. If she had not just read the crap title of the article and bothered to find out about the source material she would ave realised two things. One, that Corey Bradshaw is a "real" scientist who is highly published and respected in his field, and two, that he is in fact Canadian who now lives in Australia. Additionally, he did his PhD in New Zealand.
Please everyone, don't give this so-called 'scientist' another minute of our time. BUT, I guess if we don't, he will think "yeah, no one is commenting about my statement" so he'll think we really don't care about saving our lovely little kakapo. wrong !!!! Keep your Aussie BS to yourself....
 Comments about being Australian were really common. Here's a couple more. These ones are the most ridiculous. Real geniuses!

As many others have said, how about the Australians keep to their own country?! Australia has their own problems to watch out for!

Typical comment from an Australian i mean they have a history with there Native people as well.
The worst part about this is obvious slant the media took and by having a title like it did, peoples minds were made up for them before they actually had any understanding of the topic.


Clements, G. R., Bradshaw, C. J. A., Brook, B. W., & Laurance, W. F. The SAFE index: using a threshold population target to measure relative species threat. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, preprint.
Traill, L. W., Bradshaw, C. J. A., & Brook, B. W. (2007). Minimum viable population size: A meta-analysis of 30 years of published estimates. Biological Conservation, 139(1-2), 159-166.


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