Thursday, September 22, 2011

am I doing the right thing with this blog?

best guess unknown goosefoot
best guess Chenopodium sp.
Amaranthaceae (formerly Chenopodiaceae)

posted 10/02/11 - I featured this plant 06/30/11 when it was just beginning to flower. While doing a search not too long ago for another plant, I found a similar looking plant to this one, and it was not an amaranth. Unfortunately, I failed to make a note of it and can't find it again. Can you ID?

I hope I'm reasonably clear when I am uncertain about an ID. I've added a new label * best guesses for those items which I'm really not sure of the ID. For some posts that I assume I already know, I don't do much research. For other posts, I spend way too much time searching and checking to make sure my ID is correct. It's a challenge to convey how much I do know and how much I'm making my best guess based on the information available to me. Now I always include embedded links to outside sources and better information in the IDs under the pictures.

Yes, my blog is titled Nature ID (and recently re-subtitled "from Monterey Bay and CA areas beyond" to better reflect the locations presented here). I've expressed concern the mere name may lead people to believe I know way more than I do. I seem to experience a constant IDentity crisis. I can't tell you how many e-mails I get from people wanting me to ID their pictures from places I have never been (please don't, btw). I do try to state clearly in my welcome! section in the sidebar that I am not an expert.

With that said, I believe I have a natural visual talent to distinguish shapes and details. I have refrained from talking too much about my education or work here, because I'm afraid readers will make assumptions and judgements about me and this hobby blog. However, for the record, I graduated summa cum laude from the Ohio State University with a Bachelor of Science in Entomology, only after also variously majoring and minoring in fine arts, dance, liberal arts, chemistry, and biology. Through fortune and misfortune, I was a professional entomologist and headed the Invertebrate Zoology Department (which included malacology) at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. I've had a handful of peer-reviewed research papers published, but I do not consider myself a scientist. I have also worked in the publishing industry as a science content editor at CTB/McGraw-Hill and as an intellectual property manager (rights, permissions, copyrights, and trademarks) for what became National Geographic School Publishing. What's that saying, "Jack of all trades, master of none, though often times better than master of one"? Once again I am wanting to do something different and meaningful in my life. Thanks to doing Nature ID, I'm considering going to graduate school to study salamanders. Still, I am not sure I would make a suitable graduate student or a respectable "real" scientist.

I prefer approaching nature without any preconceived notions and with a "what can I learn?" attitude. Since I don't attempt to ID until I get home and look at my pictures, I try to observe all that I can while out hiking. There are benefits and drawbacks to this practice. It's been fascinating to watch my own learning process. What may stump me one year is perfectly obvious the next year after I have looked up hundreds of other IDs. I do like details, and I try to be as accurate as possible. However, in nature and what we know about it, accuracy is often a relative term.

For over two years I've searched extensively online for local IDs of everything from plants to herps, and I feel I'm slightly more knowledgeable and thorough than some other blogs/sites which sometimes post completely inaccurate information. Considering it irks me how much misinformation is online, I sometimes try to gently correct them (e.g., John Game claims he will change his incorrect Wikipedia photo for Pipera yadonii, which has been reviewed on CalPhotos as likely P. elegans; and the most dangerous site is Plants of California, where they talk about how you can eat soap plant and then picture death camas as their example! Yet, I would not stake my life on the fidelity of the 850+ IDs I have made on Nature ID.

Sigh... the reason why I'm even bringing this topic up is due to the numerous correspondence I received this past week about my blog. Some were lovely e-mails that made me smile and grateful that I am an active blogger (you know who you are, and thank you!). I enjoy blogging and am proud of what I have created here on Nature ID.

I also received a permissions request from a journalist at Pour la Science to use photos of my CA horn snails (I've added a postscript to that post with more information). I was very excited. I've received permissions requests before but never from such a big publication. She found my pictures through an online image search and liked mine. However, when I made clear to her that I am not a professional malacologist, she seemed under deadline stress and declined use of my pictures since she didn't have the time to have my ID checked. Big bummer. I took it to heart.

This virtual experience makes me wonder once again if my blog is adding to the same online misinformation that I so detest, because I do make mistakes! Since I include both common names and scientific names in all my ID posts, my blog is often found through internet searches. For those not familiar with my blog format or translating from another language, it can be difficult to know what information can be trusted. I guess that's true with any site found online. I have considered stopping this blog and not having it available for public consumption. Nature ID really is my personal learning tool, and, at times, I don't think I'm adding much quality to the blogosphere. After all, I don't particularly like taking photos, and I struggle with writing. And, there are much better nature blogs out there, although very few local ones. For the time being, I will continue as I have... learning something new every day.

Here are relevant links:
The Skeptical Moth has a series of media mistakes titled "Genius of the Press".
Deep-Sea News has a field guide to distinguish between scientists and journalists.
Deep-Sea News has a recent blog post about the gap between scientists and journalists.
The Biology Refugia has an excellent discussion about mass media and science.
Culturing Science talks about young or inexperienced science bloggers (with great links).
Nature of a Man does a much better job explaining his IDs and providing references.

ps - As with any post that naval-gazes this much, I will likely continue to edit it for a few days.

pss 10/04/11 - I edited this post a couple times now and made an ID correction. I originally posted this as best guess Amaranthus sp. Thanks to Cindy's comment of the flower buds looking like an Atriplex sp. but with different leaves, I went on a wild goose chase... er, goosefoot hunt. The leaves look like spinach, and after this picture was taken the seeds are starting to look exactly like quinoa. I've corrected my best guess above to a possible Chenopodium sp. Also, I'd like to tell everyone that the journalist I mentioned above sent me a very nice e-mail about how she truly enjoys my blog and nature, and she was simply making a journalistic choice to not publish one of my pictures due to lack of time to check them. I appreciated hearing back from her again.


Imperfect and tense said...

For the record, if I lived in and around Monterey Bay, I would be very appreciative of the time and trouble you go to in sharing your ID adventures.

As I'm not even on the same continent, I enjoy experiencing Nature from a different part of the planet, with the added bonus of the occasional personal opinion from KatieWorld.

But I'm sure you ain't bloggin' for the rest of us. And neither should you be. It has to feel right for you and the muse needs to be there, otherwise it's a chore.

So should you decide to hang up your keyboard, I would simply like to express my thanks for all that you've shared in your informative and educational blog. Now go and be happy with some Nature! Best Wishes, Graeme

Cindy said...

It's Sunday morning and I am taking a few minutes to review the draft post I was working on last night. And of course, I checked to see what Katie and Biobab have recently posted. Your blog teaches me new plants, insects and hikes and keeps me current on what is showing up. I think your links to web-based ID sites is particularly good and I sent a Santa Cruz buddy there the other day for help. I also enjoy helping you out when I can. The flower buds on this plant look like an Atriplex sp. but with those leaves, I'm just not sure. I too wonder if I have my facts straight, how people get to my natural history blog, and how they are using the info. I try to put the name of the species in the photo caption now in hopes that helps the Google search be more specific. I've waited months to research a small question before finishing a post and I don't think that is always a good thing because then the season has passed and I don't think the info is as useful. So I would say that what you are doing is meaningful but feel free to adjust as you learn. Blogging is still relatively new. I am really glad to know more about your background - I've been astonished to hear about your caterpillar rearing adventures. Now I am encouraged to finish my post on Vanessa caterpillars even though I'm still unsure about the associated plant ID. Keep trucking!

biobabbler said...

Oh, Katie, please do not stop this blog IF what is bothering you is some possible errors.

If you have lost your taste for it, or if it has evolved in a direction you don't like, that'd something else. If the former, then maybe you need a break. If the latter, then I'd say change it into whatever YOU want, and what serves YOUR goals best.

One thing I've heard from bloggers over and over is that if you change what and how you blog to please your audience, burnout is not far behind. If you blog about what you want, and how you want, then you're way more likely to stay with it.

That said, I think that your message (by example) is that people can learn a LOT about their world, expert or no, if they just take the time to see it, and look into it. Sure, there may be errors, but I think you qualify your pronunciations (species A v. species B) plenty.

Experts make errors. ALL the time. All of my favorite scientists are CONSTANTLY in a state of learning. The science people I trust most are the 1st to say "I don't know." It's called intellectual bravery, and is pretty rare.

I think all of this is important for folks to know.

Anyhow, whatever you do, your work and diligence has certainly been inspiring to me. Thanks so much.

randomtruth said...

If you're worried about adding to Internet misinformation - don't. You do a fine job of calling out your uncertainties, and if people don't catch that, then they aren't doing proper research.

Does sound like your blog name is getting you ID attention though. I've only had a few people ask me for IDs via my blog. Most often, my ID requests come through flickr.

For what it's worth - I started just like you - taking pics of everything I didn't know, and then going online to figure them out. But, instead of putting the unknowns on my blog, they go on flickr, where I can use groups and my contacts to help me with IDs. In my experience, flickr is full of nature geeks and scientists that are happy to help.

As for your unknown plant - I can't help ya. Doesn't look like any non-natives I've seen in the wild, so I'd guess that it's a ride-along cultivar.

And yes - BB is right - science is all about making mistakes and correcting them.

That said - I can't believe you haven't screamed on that Plants of CA site about their death camas photo! I'm gonna have to... :)


ryan said...

I think you should blog if you want to and not blog if you don't. And you don't have to hit publish if an ID doesn't meet your personal standards. People can easily decide for themselves how much to trust the information you are offering. The case with the journalist from Pour la Science is a failing on her part, not yours. She wanted something for free but didn't have the time or expertise to make it fit her needs.

Randy said...

For what my opinion is worth, I think you shouldn’t let the emotional fallout of one disappointment discourage you from doing something that you obviously have a passion for. It’s clear to me that your blog is not claiming to have a completely infallible pedigree. I have misidentified wild flower ids lots of times, but I have also been careful not to inadvertently position myself as an expert. I have been lucky to have internet contacts whom are experts, and are willing to share what they know. And like you, I do go back and correct any ids or descriptions that I have discovered to be questionable. I haven’t developed such a high opinion of myself that I cannot enjoy the interaction. It is actually the humanness of your writing that drew me in, and keeps my following you activity. I would be disappointed if you stopped.

Hugh said...

My sentiments agree with those above, and I would add that taxonomy is a tricky, ever-evolving activity, and no one is always right, or at least not forever. I think that most people with some experience in natural history are conscious of the perils of (mis)identification, and will check more than one source to make sure they know what they're dealing with (there's plenty of misinformation to go around). They also know (or should) how much effort it takes to produce posts with the content and detail you provide.

Neil said...

Ditto what everyone else said. Your blog is a wonderful mix of facts, questions and ruminations and stands as a nice reflection of the curiosity and open-mindedness that any student of natural history should aspire to cultivate. I don't think there is any reason to worry that you are spreading misinformation. Of course there is always the possibility that the things you post could be taken out of context by a careless reader, but that is really their problem - not yours. It is very different from cheerfully recommending that folks snack on some tasty death camus.

I see randomtruth's point that your blog title might give new visitors the wrong impression of what you are trying to do here. You could always post a disclaimer that might discourage people from bugging you with random ID requests.

Of course if it gets to be a headache you certainly deserve to take a break from blogging, but your loyal readership would certainly be the poorer for it! But we would survive, somehow.

Katie (Nature ID) said...

Wow. I am humbled by all of your thoughtful comments. I'll have to read through them again and consider what you have said.

I was in a rush to post this morning, so we could get our butts outside and enjoy nature. I've already made edits to the above since this morning; it just goes to show that I'm not great shakes at writing out what's floating around in my head.

I regularly think about not doing Nature ID, and yet I continue plugging away one ID at a time. Why? Because I love learning new things, doing something just for me, and doing it the way I want it done. I only wish I had more time to do it.

Some very close friends have no concept or appreciation of what my blog is about even though I chatter about it and my nature finds all the time. Sometimes I feel like I'm living two different lives - my real life and my nature blog life. Maybe I need some new friends?

Yes, my main worry is I could be spreading misinformation with incorrect IDs or linking to sites with crappy info, especially since I know google and bing images send people to my blog more frequently than my regular readers.

I've thought about changing the title or format of this blog, but then I get stuck. I'm already experiencing a massive headache as I've tried to update past posts with better information and revamped my labels to reflect the greater variety of life I now feature.

And, I'll admit my ego got bruised with the permissions request and withdrawal, and I was mainly venting. Like many grad student bloggers I follow, I often feel like a fraud.

randomtruth said...

Two different lives... totally understand. Many of my close friends and family aren't nature geeks and don't read my blog or follow my flickr stream. It's just not in their wheelhouse of interests.

Which is a reason why blogs and flickr are so great - because there's lots of people out there, such as the 7 cool people who commented above, that DO love nature and are interested. In other words - you already have found some new friends, Katie.

But - if you wanna find some local friends that you can get all geeky with - join your CNPS chapter. Best thing I ever did - it's an org chock full of botanists, naturalists, etc., and they take terrific field trips all over CA. Our chapter even does keying sessions to help us learn how to ID flora with Jepson...

Oh - and come March I better hear about how you're going to be coming up to our Edgewood Park to see some rarities with me... :)


John W. Wall said...

Your blog is your own learning experience. What others do with your blog is *their* learning experience. Keep up the good work, and keep it fun!

Ingrid said...

Katie, I agree with all of the commentary above. Although I've been a lurker up to this point, I enjoy and appreciate the eclectic content of your blog. I've never been led to believe anything other than what you yourself say and describe in your posts.

As a photographer and writer, my own approach to nature is admittedly unscientific and more liberal arts-ish -- visceral and aesthetic. As such, your efforts (to me) are monumental in terms of the painstaking detail you do apply. I'm fascinated by, and continue to learn from, all of you here who have the expertise and diligence to sort through the taxonomy ... especially the complex botanical ... although I did enjoy your post on the Heermann's Gull. I'm in a perpetual learning curve when it comes to gull identification, what with the plumage distinctions.

With respect to Pour La Science, my experience is along the lines of what Ryan said. People are sometimes in a last-ditch effort to meet a deadline, and the photography becomes a casualty of the short timing. I would not take that one to heart at all. He's right. It had nothing to do with you.

Blogging is supposed to be the public representation of a personal journey. You regularly indulge disclaimers to this effect, and I (along with many others) obviously enjoy the experiential ride you provide. Thanks very much. I miss my Northern California, and I stay connected to home through blogs and images like yours.

Linda said...

I add my agreement to the comments above, and would say (internet misinformation to the contrary) the world is full of people who know a lot about a tiny area of expertise. That's important in expanding the borders of knowledge, but it's also important to have people who try to see how the different parts of the world fit together, who look closely at the interactions in a single place, and care about the natural world even when it isn't their job.

Katie (Nature ID) said...

(Sorry, let's try this again)

Oh my, I'm starting to feel a little embarrassed as I wasn't fishing for compliments. Thank you, all, for your sincere comments and support. It feels good to hear from those of you who rarely or never commented on my blog before. I'm proud that my blog gets the attention of incredibly smart folks like yourselves.

The reasons why we blog seems to touch each of us bloggers. About twice a year, I ruminate about the value of blogging. My last post like this was back in February and I received a number of comments then, too.

As updates: I edited the post, changed my ID of the plant above, and added another postscript to explain; I posted to flickr for additional ID help; I have been thinking of joining CNPS (even though I don't particularly like joining groups) but have been out of town on each of their monthly mtgs.; and, yes, I did "scream" at Plants of CA and never received a reply.

Again, thank you for taking the time to read and thoughtfully comment here.

randomtruth said...

FYI - I'm blasted that Plants of CA with a comment every day until I hear a reply. :)

Jennifer said...

Hi Katie,

I think you are doing a great job on your blog. I love the name of it so please don't change that! You have a scientific mind and are open minded and humble in your nature quest. You are not afraid to correct yourself when necessary or admit if you are unsure about an id, you are detail oriented and always search for the truth. Those are things that give you credibility.
Keep it up!

randomtruth said...

Hey Katie - check out that Plants of CA page for soap plant again:

They never responded, but turns out that the site was using an image from a flickr friend of mine, so I asked her to make it private...


Katie (Nature ID) said...

Ken, you crack me up. At the very least I'm glad the picture has been removed.