Having gone on – perhaps a little too lyrically – about the joys of big data in yesterday’s post; I came up against one of its limitations today. It was nothing; or it was something …… who knows, but it was a wonderful example of the way that – re-using the phrase I used yesterday – absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Or to put it in more immediate terms – there is little to no evidence that the plant in the photo has ever been found in, or anywhere near, the Lost Gardens of Heligan – or even in East Cornwall. This may of course be because the gardens – being lost – cannot be invaded by this plant because it can’t find them. On the other hand, there it was in front of me on Wednesday, and all I knew for sure was that I’d never seen one before …… but it was almost certainly a form of comfrey.
So I spent quite a few painful hours checking and then double checking but, as an amateur, you have to hang your hat somewhere and so I decided it was probably but not certainly Symphytum bulbosa. The haunting possibility is that it’s something entirely different; so much so that any halfwit would have known its real name. Common as muck! Where have you been living, you botanical imposter. And there’s the crux of the problem. There are two possible outcomes to the conundrum and one of them is to submit the record to the scrutiny of someone who actually knows what they’re talking about, but who may dismiss me scornfully they may also be looking at the same maps, records and data as me and go on to say that tuberous comfrey simply doesn’t grow where I saw it and so, QED I was wrong.
Now this isn’t that big a deal – it would hardly be a hardly a paradigm shift if I turned out to be right; but the sheer inertia of the system resists change and for a learner like me, taking on a system is a really big deal. Nobody dies either way, whether I’m right or wrong; but if I don’t submit the record because I don’t want to rock the boat, everybody loses. I miss an important lesson, and the maps and data are just that little bit less accurate than they could be.
So I bit the bullet and filled in the online form; emphasising my lack of experience and humility (I wish!) in the company of experts and all that blah blah, and then spent twenty minutes trying to change a GPS reading from my phone to British National grid without realising that the programme accepted it either way. The only thing I forgot to fill in was the species name which by this time I had forgotten. So once I’d found the name again I filled in the form and immediately a red triangular warning sign appeared against the entry; I’d been flushed out before I’d even pressed the send button!
So there we are. My contribution to citizen science is out there, somewhere in cyberspace, awaiting final judgement by a recorder who may well be knackered and daunted by a stack of 10,000 records that they wished they’d never signed up for.
Today the sun shone. There was a stiff northwesterly wind and so we found a sheltered spot in full sun on the beach and I recorded some celandines and sea beet. At least I know what they are.