Computer says no!

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.

Author: Dave Pole

I've spent my life doing a lot of things, all of them interesting and many of them great fun. When most people see my CV they probably think I'm making things up because it includes being a rather bad welder and engineering dogsbody, a potter, a groundsman and bus driver. I taught in a prison and in one of those ghastly old mental institutions as an art therapist and I spent ten years as a community artist. I was one of the founding members of Spike Island, which began life as Artspace Bristol. ! wrote a column for Bristol Evening Post (I got sacked three times, in which I take some pride) and I worked in local and network radio and then finally became an Anglican parish priest for 25 years, retiring at 68 when I realised that the institutional church and me were on different paths. What interests me? It would be easier to list what doesn't, but I love cooking and baking with our home grown ingredients. I'm fascinated by botany and wildlife in general, and botanical illustration. We have a camper van that takes us to the wild places, we love walking, especially in the hills, and we take too many photographs. But what really animates me is the question "what does it mean to be human?". I've spent my life exploring it in every possible way and the answer is ..... well, today it's sitting in the van in the rain and looking across Ramsey Sound towards Ramsey Island. But it might as easily be digging potatoes or making pickle, singing or finding an orchid or just sitting. But it sure as hell doesn't mean getting a promotion, beasting your co-workers or being obsequious to power, which ensured that my rise to greatness in the Church of England flatlined 30 years ago after about 2 days. But I'm still here and still searching for that elusive sweet spot, and I don't have to please anyone any more. Over the last 50 or so years we've had a succession of gardens, some more like wildernesses when we were both working full-time, but now we're back in the game with our two allotments in Bath.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.