The Loom

Last week I wrote about an important new study showing that three very different groups of species–plants, butterflies, and birds–have all been declining at the same alarming rate for over 40 years in Great Britain. The authors concluded that if the pattern is global, it may mean that we are entering one of the biggest bouts of mass extinctions in the past 500 million years.

The media handled the story pretty well, although some reports got ahead of the science. Here’s a story that may give you the impression that the study documented the extinction of entire species, for example. The researchers only recorded the extinction of a few species in Britain, which can still be found elsewhere. But many populations of plants, birds, and butterflies are in rapid decline. Species are made up of populations, which means that if populations keep declining for a few more decades, the species can’t survive for very long.

I’ve also been searching for criticisms, but to my surprise I can’t find a single mention of the study in outlets that have attacked these sorts of studies in the past. Could it be that these folks are hoping that this study just disappears if they don’t call attention to it? Or are they at a loss for a rhetorical trick to misrepresent the findings? Or do they accept that this may be a sign of a sixth pulse of mass extinctions, but is simply not worthy of commentary?

If anyone has found such a response, please let me know.


  1. #1 Steve
    March 22, 2004

    Well, let me look around Reason for a minute. While I have some libertarian sympathies, they’re often totally insane when it comes to science. As any good biologist in Russia can tell you, when you let politics dictate your science, you’re on the road to lunacy. Nope, nothing at Reason. Guess I’ll check the conservative sites. Nothing at has a reprinted Associated Press story. Nothing at Nothing at Nothing at Instapundit. nothing at Nothing at National Review. Yeah, it seems the anti-science people haven’t noticed it yet, or are avoiding it for some reason.

  2. #2 George Scott
    March 24, 2004

    Courtesy of

    Humans are overrated. Sure, we have opposable thumbs, and yes, we sure are good at creating mindless forms of entertainment to distract us from the mind-numbing, ongoing existential crisis called “employment after college.” But sadly, humans are also really good at using petrochemicals and poisoning just about every single thing we come across in nature. And that’s where the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement comes in.

    They’re not kidding.

  3. #3 Joe
    April 17, 2004

    There’s a fairly critical response here by Tony Gilland:

    He tries to distinguish the science from the speculation:

    “When I spoke to the paper’s lead author, Jeremy Thomas, from the Natural Environment Research Council’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, he freely admitted that ‘to go from UK butterflies to world insects is a massive extrapolation’, and stated that while the authors of the paper ‘are confident about the UK data, the rest is speculation’. It is worth asking why, then, so much attention has been paid to the speculation.”

    but is more critical of an admitted tendency to simplify the message for policy makers:

    “If nobody but botanists and biologists cared about the fate of Britain’s butterflies and plants, there might be more merit to such a headline-grabbing approach. But given that there is an official obsession with biodiversity in the UK – and, indeed, a reluctance to believe anything but scare stories – this latest extinction hypothesis seems rather unnecessary and unhelpful.”

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