Wednesday, January 30, 2019

A Scientific Sense of Importance: The Case of the Fire Ant

We scientists like to think that our work is important. And it is. But sometimes we scientists get a little carried away and exaggerate the importance of our particular lines of research. One example that I have personally observed is the invasion of the fire ant, Solenopsis invicta.

Fire ants came from South America to Alabama about 1930, where the young naturalist E. O. Wilson, who went on to become one of the leading evolutionary scientists in the world, found them. They have spread inexorably since that time, restricted to warm wet areas. Right now, in Oklahoma, they live in the southern part of the state but not the northern part. And they can be a menace. If you disturb their nest, they will quickly swarm all over you. And they swarm over and eat some ground-nesting birds and young mammals who cannot run away. They have even killed a person, as told in this news report. They once crawled up the river of snot from a little boy’s nose, very quietly, and when he moved they attacked him. He lived, I think.

There is an annual meeting of Imported Red Fire Ant (IRFA) researchers. I went to two of the meetings, back when scientific travel money was easier to obtain. Both years I presented results of small research projects (it was never a major focus of my work) about the effects of fire ants on plants. I was the only botanist at the meetings.

It is understandable that some scientists would study the fire ants, especially since they are a potential menace. It is important to monitor where they are and what they do. And they have astonishing behavior. Not unlike army ants, they can lock themselves together in a clump, and can float in water. That is how they came across the Red River from Texas into Oklahoma.

But, as it turns out, fire ants have not been a major threat. Cold temperatures and dry conditions have stopped their northward and westward spread. Central Park is safe. They have spread to California, perhaps in nursery soil, but fire ants are way down the list of threats to the health and safety of Californians. Ground-nesting birds have not been driven to extinction by them, and you are about as likely to be killed by a meteor as by fire ants.

But we wanted to make our work important. So we emphasized the potential threats that fire ants posed to public health and safety, and to the economy. For scientists whose research programs were invested in fire ant ecology, it was important to do this. We did not spread deliberately false alarms about the Attack of the Killer Ants, but we put a spin on it that, at least subconsciously, was intended to scare funding agencies into supporting our work.

Everybody wants to think their work is important, and our minds create a bias to this effect. Scientists are like everyone else in this respect. But the scientific method, at least, makes us scientists aware of our biases and requires us to present evidence for our assertions.

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