20 January, 2022

Thoughts for iNatters

Recently, absolutely nobody asked me what facts or skills I wish every iNatter had. As such, here is a short list, some of which I think is applicable in countless facets of life:

1) I wish every iNatter treated observations like submissions of specimens to a museum. The fact is that we don't know how, when, or why our observations will be used. We also don't know by whom. Just like museum specimens are being used hundreds of years after they were collected in order to investigate things that the collectors couldn't even dream of, there is absolutely no reason why iNat observations could not be used literally hundreds of years from now, also to investigate things which we can't even dream of right now. Documenting things which we currently see as completely insignificant and useless could potentially become very important details in the future. While there's an infinite number of things which we could be paying attention to, my point is this- don't just submit the bare minimum that is needed for identification. Identification should NOT be the end all be all of iNat, so please submit multiple photos, each with unique information. I could go on and on about this, but the bottom line is that documenting "irrelevant" traits and the context in which organisms are found is also important.

2) The curse of knowledge- Wikipedia defines it as

a cognitive bias that occurs when an individual, who is communicating with other individuals, assumes they have the background knowledge to understand. This bias is also called by some authors the curse of expertise

While there are many really smart people in iNat, just be aware that what you know may not be blatantly obvious to everyone else. Other people don't necessarily know that the habitat you were walking through cannot support the growth of species X, and therefore what you saw could only be species Y. Similarly, I may be able to identify certain species, but ONLY if I know what the host was (for example). Even if your photos clearly show that the aphids you saw were growing on plant X, say so! Someone may know that plant X is only affected by species Y or aphids, but may not be able to identify plant X. When it comes to parasites, galls, mushrooms, and herbivores, please always mention what the host or substrate is, if that information is known.

3) Memory SUCKS- Your eyes aren't video cameras that faithfully record all you see in HD, and your brain isn't a hard drive that faithfully stores a single, coherent copy of your memories that you can access without altering as many times as you want. Instead, your eyes are actually pretty awful- the area in your visual field that you can see clearly is about the size of your thumbnail held at arm's length, and the rest of your visual field is very blurry and doesn't perceive colors very well. As for your memories, countless studies and events have shown that human memory is absolutely abysmal. The way memory works is that you store little bits of information and associations, and recalling a memory involves putting all those bits of information and associations back together again. Each time you recall a memory, you are re-making it. Little bits of forgotten information are extrapolated and filled in, and the way that all those disparate bits of information are reconstituted again depends on your current state of mind, your current beliefs, and your current perceptions. It is impossible to remember things without altering them, and each and every single time you remember something, you are changing it just a little. That is why "fish stories" get more and more exaggerated over time. It's not that the person is purposefully lying, it's that their brain is accidentally misleading them.

The bottom line of all of this is that you should try your hardest to avoid having to rely on your own (or other people's) memory. Don't just assume that you'll remember what you saw, where you saw it, when you saw it, etc. You could easily be mistaken even if you clearly remember something.

4) Perception is a two-way street- In fact, it's even worse than just memory being bad. Even the very first time you experience a perception, you are not faithfully and objectively recording reality as it is. What you perceive is inextricably linked to what you already think, believe, and feel. I think a good demonstration of this fact is how AWFUL untrained people are at drawing. Without being specifically trained to draw, people are simply and utterly incapable of making a remotely realistic drawing, even of things that are right in front of them. It's not because they don't have the dexterity to draw the correct lines, it's not that they can't sense the differences in lighting or the fine details of the object, or the fact that lines all go towards a vanishing point, and it's not that they can't tell that their drawings are crap. It's that they don't have the knowledge to PERCEIVE and notice those kinds of things. A naive person has an incredibly poor, cartoony version of the objects that they see in front of them, and it often mostly consists of just the bare minimum amount of detail that THEY think is necessary for identification (regardless of whether this is actually the case or not), as well as whatever feelings they have associated with them ("this is dangerous!" or "ew, gross!" or "aww, so cute!"). That is why people have to undergo fairly intensive training to just be able to SEE what is in front of them. People have to taught to pay attention to the relevant features of the world, and they have to be trained to be able to set aside their feelings so that they can merely see what is in front of them more accurately.

All of that is to re-emphasize the idea that you should always SHOW, don't just tell. People's experiences, how they interpret those experiences, and how they later remember those experiences, are incredibly unreliable and dependent on countless factors which are very difficult to control for. I can't tell you the number of times that I've seen people (myself included), who were very certain about what they saw or experienced, be astronomically wrong about almost every aspect of that experience. Even experts with years of experience are often massively wrong about the most mundane of things. A famous demonstration of this is with eyewitnesses. Humans are extremely good at recognizing faces (we have specifically evolved to be good at it), and it is trivial for us to recognize whether someone has long hair or is bald, whether they're wearing a hat or not, what color their clothing is, and so on. And yet, countless psychological experiments have shown that people REGULARLY get all those things wrong about a person even moments after they've encountered them (alternatively, they don't notice when those things change). If people can be so amazingly unreliable when it comes to recognizing things that their brain specifically evolved to do, and which they have decades of experience doing, just think of how reliable people really are at remembering details about things they've only seen or encountered a couple of times in their life. Not reliable at all.

In other words, "pics or it didn't happen". lol. Show, don't tell.

Posted on 20 January, 2022 23:53 by davidenrique davidenrique | 2 comments | Leave a comment