Monday, May 19, 2014

Science: the strong and weak forms

So I've just been skimming through the memoir of Ro Lowe-McConnell.  Will have more to say when finished with it but already it is proving very interesting.  Ro did a study of Lake Malawi's Tilipia just post WWII.  Tilipia at the time were thought to be the Lake's most important fishery and Ro, a fish biologist, was sent by the British colonial government to learn more about them.  One of the most interesting things about the book so far is the tension that exists, if one looks for it, between what one might call Ro's "strong" scientific statements and her "weak" ones. An example is illustrative.

In chapter 2 Ro states that "we now know that this Lake [Malawi] has more species of fish than any other lake..."  This is quite a strong statement of scientific fact i.e. "we know...."  Yet in her introductory remarks to the book Ro makes what I would call  "weaker" statements of scientific fact that are in large measure contradictory to her chapter 2 claim "to know".  In those remarks she talks about the "fragility of the scientific edifice" particularly in regards to Lake Malawi's taxonomy and how in its current form that taxonomy "may be transient" because it is based on "techniques of [a] time" now past and finally that at any rate "the concept of the species is fragile in such a rapidly evolving group as the cichlids [which constitute roughly 90% of the Lake's fish diversity]."

So which is it?  Does the Lake have more species than any other lake or given the "fragility" of the species concept for Lake Malawi, should we be more circumspect in how we describe the lake's diversity?

Now certainly we know which statement is the one most frequently heard today.  Repeating the assertion that "Lake Malawi is the most biologically diverse lake in the world" has been the sine qua non access key to vaults of funding for evolutionary biologists wanting to do research on the lake for at least the past 40 years.  It has also been critical to the development of Lake Malawi's cichlid fish into sought after international commodities in the aquarium trade in the West and as a tourist and conservation attraction in Malawi.

But what about that "weaker" statement?  Well if pressed I suspect Ro would have stuck to it more than the stronger one, but society and scientists themselves tend to be uncomfortable with modest statements particularly when interests, both monetary and professional, are at stake.

I'm sure there will be more to come.


Wednesday, May 7, 2014

News from the Beach....and Korea!

-So as usual its been a little while since my last post.  Joy's Place in Mzuzu has been shot off like a fire cracker and we are having a lot of fun hosting guests both in the restaurant and hostel.  Thanks to everyone who has supported us in our first few months of operation it really has been a blast.

-Aquanuts Divers and the Maru Research Center are likewise busy.  We've had some great interns this year and I'd like to take this opportunity to welcome two upcoming interns.  Gift from Thailand will be arriving soon for three months and Danielle will be arriving in a few months time.  Both are university students keen to get their hands dirty doing some practical field research here at Kande and we look forward to hosting them and showing them the ropes.  We are also very excited about the possibility of publishing some of our research results with the help of a local Peace Corps volunteer.  Any efforts to spread the word on Lake Malawi's beautiful ecosystems are always welcome!.

-Also say hello to our newest Jack Russell Terrier, "Sweetie Pie" (or just "Pie" for short).  Below she is hanging out with her best friend and uncle Tank.

- And yes Joy and I are currently away from Malawi for a few weeks visiting family back in Joy's motherland of South Korea.  Its been 3 years since we've been back and we are looking forward to it!  Joy's is also going to be stuffing our bags to overflowing with Korean goodies for the restaurant.  Our baggage limit is not big, however, so stayed tuned for a rash of specials at Joy's when we get back none of which will last long!