Sunday, May 10, 2009

How does this make you feel?

Below is a link to an article that affects us as botanists. I would be interested in people's thoughts on the subject.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/10/business/10novel.html?_r=1

3 comments:

Keith said...

This would be a much better approach than trying to carry Tony Reznicek in your backpack.

Interesting topic. If they use leaf shape alone, the project seems likely to fail, or at least produce inaccurate results. Just looking at leaves should include observations like: Are the leaves pubescent? What type of pubescence? What color are the hairs? Are the leaves pubescent on both sides or just one? Is the pubescence confined to the margins, midrib, or veins? Are the leaves glandular? Are the petioles flattened? Are the leaves dark green above and pale below? Are the leaves bronze-colored at flowering time? These are just a few questions about leaves that are not answered by leaf shape alone. A similar set of questions could be applied to flowers, fruits, twigs, buds, bark, etc. Beginning students of the flora should never be conditioned to observe leaf shape alone.

Even if this thing works extremely well, it won’t come close to the beginner carrying a Petersen Field Guide. Without botanical training, Petersen-type field guides provide a fast and easy way for beginners to (tentatively) identify many common plants. They’re arranged first by flower color, then number of petals, then leaf type/ arrangement. The important thing is that in using a basic field guide, the student has to make his/her own observations, and learns to do so accurately. Also, in the process of looking up one plant, other plants are noticed and read about and the student’s knowledge begins to expand. Even without using botanical keys, the process of solving a mystery is educational. If you can push a button and get an answer, why bother studying and learning anything?

It does elicit a strange feeling to find that someone else can take an easy route to get to a place that was difficult for me. For example, when I was learning birdsongs I did it in the field, with only binoculars and a bird book. When I heard the song of the White-Throated Sparrow, I was camping in Ontario and went stumbling through brushy thickets in pursuit of the sound. I’m sure it just kept moving away as I approached, and by the time I finally got a good look at it, it was about half a mile from where I started. I did that with a lot of birds, and will never forget where I learned them. Now, a person can buy a CD of birdsongs and listen to them any time. It makes it far easier to learn something that was difficult for me. But I don’t begrudge anyone having knowledge - I appreciate anyone who knows birdsongs, regardless of how they gained the knowledge. And, the more people know about a subject, the more they begin to care about it.

My guess is it will be a fun tool for beginners, but it won’t help much with the subtleties of distinguishing similar species. Hopefully no one will make important decisions, like those involved in wetland delineations, based on the results.

On the plus side, it may take some of the strain out of learning at least a few trees and shrubs, and after identifying a tree or shrub several times, a person may begin to develop rudimentary knowledge, which should leave him/her wanting for more. Hopefully then, the person will begin to read and study. Or, it could just promote laziness. Maybe they'll develop one that can look at a Google Earth image and ID all the plants at a site. That way the lab "botanist" won't have to get muddy or leave the air conditioning.

Justin said...

Thanks for your insightful comments, Keith. I agree completely. It goes to show just how poorly people, including most botanists, understand what it takes to accurately identify plants in the field. I often identify, or at least verify an identification, by habitat and associated species. This information doesn't fit on the mainframe of a computer.

As you said, such ignorant and lazy use of technology removes the intimacy for the subject; as television has from reality. To me, one of the most satisfying elements of plant identification, is the accumulation and use of paraphernalia. The culture of botany, if you will. I love my giant stacks of books, my crusty handlens, my thorn torn scars and chigger poxed ankles. I would not trade these for a Blackberry "ap".

Without the perils of knowledge, knowledge is impotent and undeserved.

Scott said...

I'm afraid this will be used by people who don't want to learn the flora, but who are lazy and find this "innovation" the easy way to do their jobs. Those who truly want to learn the flora will continue to do it the right way.