AP's Weird Science: Who Needs Data When You Have Anecdotes?

Update below.

Anecdotal evidence is pretty much useless in science, a discipline steeped in empirical data. But that's no matter to the Associated Press or the Washington Post, which published an August 31 AP article about how "Scientists See Fewer Fireflies." The subheading quickly qualified that the "[e]vidence is anecdotal, but experts fault sprawl, pollution."

Of course some of the quoted experts in Casey's article aren't really experts, they're amateur scientists at best, with sprawl and pollution serving as coded language for faulting capitalism for allegedly raping the environment.

AP writer Michael Casey waited until the fifth paragraph of his Thailand-bylined article to confess that "[t]he evidence is entirely anecdotal but anecdotes abound" about a mass worldwide holocaust of the flying luminous bugs.

This after quoting one Preecha Jiabyu, a tour guide on Thailand's Mae Klong River, who dropped an unsubstantiated statistic for readers. "The firefly populations have dropped 70 percent in the past three years," insisted Preecha, whose entomological credentials Casey failed to establish for readers.

Casey failed to examine how reliable the 70 percent figure is or if it was just a guesstimation of Preecha, but he did notes how Preecha competes with "polluting motorboats" for tourism business on the river.

The Thai tour guide was not the only non-academic "expert" consulted. Casey quoted one Lynn Faust, who has "spent a decade researching fireflies on her 40-acre farm in Knoxville, Tenn., but gave up on one species because she stopped seeing it."

Faust relayed to the AP her decidedly politically-tinged gripe:

It's these McMansions with their floodlights. One house has 32 lights. Why do you need so many lights?

Of course, Faust's scientific credentials were also unexplored, probably because she likewise is not an academic. Faust is, after all, an amateur naturalist lamenting a problem that may not actually exist except according to her observations in, literally, her own backyard.

But greedy capitalism spoiling the priceless wonder of nature is too juicy a storyline to let numbers, or the lack thereof, get in the way.

Update (1:26 a.m. CDT): ABCNews.com now has this story in their top headlines rotation. Casey is bylined as an AP "environmental writer."

The front page tease:

Lights Out: Why Are Fireflies Vanishing? No one's sure why, but firefly populations are dwindling all around the world. 

Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd is the Managing Editor for NewsBusters