"Mediocre at best..." iNaturalist making me less of an expert but more happy.

Elizabeth (my wife) and I just got back from our little vacation down to south TX -- sorta a copycat trip from @greglasley 's trip with @kueda @maractwin @robberfly @gcwarbler a week before. We went down to see some of the birds and bugs and made a few stops along the way (although, it did rain on us a few days, and that was a bit of a bummer... we spotted lots of stuff nonetheless). I'll be uploading a BUNCH of observations sooner before later, so be forewarned -- your dashboard may fill! I'll try my best to study the organisms that we spotted, but any guidance on the ID's is greatly appreciated. It was filled with new things for me!

We were quite lucky to stay at the Alamo Inn and meet up with a couple of folks that were trapping moths -- Charles and Richard. I was out with them for quite a while, talking a range of topics scientific and not so scientific... Anyways, they asked what my "specialty" was, and I said "well, I'm trying to learn a little bit about everything now." Richard responded, "well, if you don't have a specialty, then you'll only be mediocre at best."

So, it got me thinking -- is iNaturalist making me this way? I finally focus on the entire ecosystem and all of the natural participants, but I suppose I'm becoming less and less of an expert on any group... I'm finding out the names of LOTS of different things, but I have trouble remembering all of their names. When I used to be solely focused on plants, I could name most of the plants in my local area, and perhaps even called myself an active 'botanist in training.' So, is an active 'naturalist in training' always going to be simply mediocre?

I suppose I don't have to prove anything to anyone, and that's a good thing -- I must admit, having this entire ecosystem approach to nature is making me quite happy! It's so much more filled with discovery and ah-ha! moments -- even if becoming an "expert" in it would be out of my reach. :)

Just mumbling some thoughts -- mumble along with me, if you want. :)

Again, stay tuned for LOTS of observations of many things that really excited me this past week! :)

Posted on 23 November, 2015 15:42 by sambiology sambiology


An interesting line of thought. I can now recognize some species of insects, birds, and amphibians I have not previously have known. However, at the same time I find myself unable to remember the names (common or scientific) of a number of plants that I would once have known in an instant. Perhaps to be a comprehensive naturalist means you do just know a little of everything rather than much in one area and very little in another. Brain only has so much file space and once it's full some old file must be deleted to make room for the new ones.

Posted by wildflowerenthusi... almost 8 years ago

Sam, I so relate to this. I always say I know a little bit about a lot of things. It used to bother me that I wasn't expert in anything, but as an interpreter, trying to help others connect to our natural world, it's not very important that I know the Latin name of everything, or even that I know the common name without having to look it up. We're just trying to inspire people to appreciate and save those natural places we love. Overwhelming them with names of things only makes it seem like school, not the emotional connection we try to forge. If they want to know more (intellectual connection), we know how to guide them to find out, or find out ourselves to share with them. There will always be those specialists who know more than we do. Celebrate and use them, but enjoy knowing a little bit about a lot of different things. And I know better...you know a LOT about a lot of things!

Posted by naturemom almost 8 years ago

The laws of physics and time dictate that there is probably some truth to the tradeoffs on the "specialist-generalist" sliding scale of attention*. But that should never discourage anyone from branching out. There is great value--I would argue greatest value--in gaining familiarity with as wide a set of organisms and ecosystems as possible. The counterargument to Richard's well-meaning assertion is that become an expert in one particular thing comes at the price of a lack of some perspective on a broader diversity of critters/ecosystems/topics.

Many years ago at Balcones Canyonlands NWR, while discussing some field sightings with a colleague, I joked that I was becoming the world's expert on the upper right breast feathers of adult male Golden-cheeked Warblers. Now I'm the world's expert on the pyraustine moth fauna of central Salton Drive. At least I'm branching out...

It's the oldest of epistemological conundrums...but I guess you hear people say that all the time. ;-)

Posted by gcwarbler almost 8 years ago

Great points being made. In my own case, from 1975 and before, up through about 2000, I focused totally on birds. I got pretty good on birds, too. I was eventually on national and state rare bird committees, I published 100 or more articles on birds in various journals, I led professionally guided bird trips all over the western hemisphere, etc., etc. Then I found dragonflies, then butterflies, then other things and though I still love birds, I am not focused on them any longer. I shy away from making expert commentary these days (though I am asked to do so all the time) on rare bird records any more, since I just have not kept up with all the intricacies involved in feather tracts, molts, etc. Am I sad or upset about this?...nope. I enjoy the natural world and learning about this planet we find ourselves upon. I still know a few things about birds, dragons, butterflies, etc., and am eager to lean more about robberflies....and yes, @gcwarbler, leafhoppers. So, Sam...be an expert in some area(s) if you want, or be a generalist. Or maybe have a higher than average knowledge about some groups, less in others. There are no rules...do what makes you happy. I spent many years just on birds and don't regret it, but I'm now enjoying the bigger picture.

Posted by greglasley almost 8 years ago

I've considered this issue as well. I'm tackling it from both ends: picking up info about a little of everything by looking at everything I see, but also picking one or two areas to focus on each year. So I keep adding a new area of expertise while also broadening my coverage of everything. I'm pretty good with reef fish and birds, and am currently studying both dragonflies and butterflies. When I feel I've got a decent handle on those (in North America) I'll probably pick another group to study in depth. Spiders might be next. Meanwhile, each time I'm in the field I try to pick one interesting-looking plant to identify (and hopefully remember), and also look at a broad range of insects, as well anything else that catches my eye.

Posted by maractwin almost 8 years ago

Oh heck, I just like to walk around in the woods! I'm not an expert in anything so I suppose that means the pressure is off, but from my own experience I have noticed that there is an ebb and flow to my observations. In the spring, especially when it was damp, fungi were everywhere. Then one week after the torrential rains it seemed like frogs and toads were plentiful. Then it got warmer and everything dried up- no more fungi, but lots of wildflowers. Of course, maybe one advantage to being limited to an iPhone is that my observations rely on what I can capture, which some days isn't much. If knowing a little about a lot of things as opposed to being an expert in a few is mediocre, then I'll own it- I just enjoy seeing it all and learning what I can from others.

Posted by jblinde almost 8 years ago

Thanks for all of the comments -- one thing is certain, I am definitely more happy observing the entire ecosystem... So much of it is new to me, and that's pretty exciting. :)

Posted by sambiology almost 8 years ago

"I must admit, having this entire ecosystem approach to nature is making me quite happy!" I think you've already found what to become an expert on; your happiness in the engagement. I've known quite a few experts that end up down an expert path because they feel its necessary for them from a career point of view, but I also notice that many of them are the ones that delight most outside of expert time in the wonders of things they know little about. For me I'm not an expert in any field and I find delight in the dotted lines that tie it all together. I'm much more excited to see all the little data points, no matter how rough or blurry, non-expert they are pointing me at a story or a process that expands the limits of my imagination on how all these animate and in-animate things tie together.

To another point in your blog, iNaturlist I feel at some levels allows me to forget things and this isn't a bad thing, because just like a really good notebook I can be right back to that observation in no time, which then allows me to spend more time thinking about the things I haven't experienced yet and how to get those experiences. This I find is wonderful for myself and when I work with students or people new to wanting to learn about the natural world, because they don't feel overwhelmed at having to know everything right now. Hearing someone that seems to know a lot say "I don't know, but I know how to figure it out and I can show you," is really powerful.

Posted by damontighe almost 8 years ago

My general observation is that yes, iNat pushes existing naturalists toward having a broader array of taxonomic interests. Pseudo-ex-birders like Greg are our bread and butter! I (obviously) don't view it as a bad thing, since I believe (but cannot prove) that a more holistic understanding of nature can only enhance your understanding of any specific part of it.

What would be interesting to me is if iNat somehow works against specialization, or turns off specialists. I doubt it, but maybe.

Posted by kueda almost 8 years ago

I doubt it, too, kueda. I know there are people on iNat (and other forums) who only look at one group or a limited group of taxons, and that is fine. I think iNat will always benefit from experts in certain fields. There are some great lichen folks here (of which I know NOTHING as you saw first hand), a number of very good bird folks, lep folks, and a few odonate folks. I am really starting to appreciate the botanists and many others who so generously share their knowledge with us laymen. Actually, I wish we could attract some more exerts...such as in the fields of Orthoptera and others. I hope we will, eventually. But in the larger sense, I think there is a very broad-based group of very knowledgeable people here that sort of bond us into a family (of sorts) of people of discovery...of all life forms.

Posted by greglasley almost 8 years ago

Sam, to quote your words....
"I'm finding out the names of LOTS of different things, but I have trouble remembering all of their names."

Perhaps it is not a coincidence that I have had thoughts along these same lines you mention the last couple of weeks.

Enjoyed the great comments from everyone.

Posted by connlindajo almost 8 years ago

I personally have a great deal of respect for those who know a little about a lot of things. It is a different kind of specialization. It's more like specializing on a geographical area or certain habitat types. Those people can always get organisms in the general area on sight. Once you've got that, there are many resources out there that can get you to an accurate ID (I can usually get a plant from Texas IDed if I only know the Family; genus makes things a lot easier though). I've sort of gone the generalist to specialist path so far. I used to photograph everything (always with an emphasis on plants) but later became fascinated by Euphorbia sect. Anisophyllum. From my experience, this site has made me even more specialized in Euphorbia sect. Anisophyllum but has encouraged me to branch out in a few areas (into the broader Euphorbia a little bit) and get interested in the area that I was interested in before (plants of the Llano Estacado). I probably would branch out more if not for my compulsion to try to identify every E. sect. Anisophyllum plant I see. Since the plants occur worldwide, I probably will never get board with them or it will at least take many years. I don't know if that adds much to the discussion, but this is my experience with the subject.

Posted by nathantaylor almost 8 years ago

I love this thread. What a great conversation starter! I am so thankful for the active experts we have in the community already and I hope that we'll continue to attract more. I'm definitely a generalist and I think iNaturalist has enhanced that tendency. I'm ok knowing a little bit about a lot of different things. When I was doing field work in Tanzania for my PhD, I already had sort of an iNaturalist mindset in terms of what I photographed even if I couldn't identify it. I took photos of anything I thought was interesting or that I might want to identify or that I thought someone else might someday be interested in, even though I didn't know how easy iNaturalist was going to make it for me to share them. I also find myself forgetting names (but in general, I am absolutely amazed at what I forget in life). I like what @damontighe said about iNaturalist being a great notebook--it's so true! I record things because I know I'll forget :-)

Posted by carrieseltzer almost 8 years ago

Being mildly competent in everything makes you a genius, or at least pretty darn on top of it. The world keeps pushing towards specialists... we need more polymaths and general naturalists. Granted I am pretty biased here, but I am also a specialist when it comes to something kind of obscure (natural community mapping and classification) so I think it's great to branch out. Except with birds. Too many people already documenting those in relation to other things.

Posted by charlie almost 8 years ago

Think of Thomas Jefferson , Benjamin Franklin , Leonardo Da Vinci etc . I wouldn`t call their work or observations mediocre . They were called renaissance men .

Posted by kevinhintsa almost 8 years ago

from one alluded to so-called "specialist" - (moths in my case).
nowt wrong with having a general perspective, Sam. Actually, being a "generalist" is probably more useful in your educator's role - being able to point people in the right direction after saying "I don't know, but....." is a great asset. Many specialists can't do that as they're too focused on their own subject to be able to put it into the grander ecological perspective, i.e. where it fits in the web of life. Specialists are great for documenting what life forms there are, but generalists need to have some basic understanding of all (well, many) groups and how they inter-relate in the real world, be able to call upon specialists when they get stuck, and put all this information together in a way that is stimulating for the general public to assimilate.
Keep up the good work.

Posted by hkmoths almost 8 years ago

Thanks so much for all of these comments -- this has given me a lot to chew on, and that's a good thing. :)

Posted by sambiology almost 8 years ago

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