Can Nature Nerds Save Civil Discourse?

By Lisa Micheli, President & CEO

Sonoma County’s Dr. Scott Loarie is the co-founder (along with Kenichi Ueda) of the iNaturalist (iNat) app. iNat’s mission is to connect people to nature and generate scalable streams of high quality data for science and conservation. The value of the iNat platform is really twofold. With over 2.5 million users worldwide, it is the largest source of biodiversity observations the globe over. As a tool, it was created to crowd-source observations from anyone with a smartphone able to take and upload a picture of a species: plant, animal, fungi… even sounds can be recorded and crowd-sourced for identification. The app is hailed as a model of civil social media, but it’s more than that – iNat truly connects people with the natural world all around them, making nature and science accessible. 

The iNaturalist community made international headlines after the first hoodwinker sunfish (Mola tecta) seen in North America was shared and then identified via iNaturalist by some dedicated participants that included an after school group of children. (Photo courtesy of iNaturalist, the full article here:

And by people, I mean adults and children alike! Imagine you’re about ten years old again, and you’re in an after school program, exploring tide pools at the beach. Suddenly, you notice a massive fish washed up on the beach. You and your class walk up to it and find that its eyeballs are roughly the size of the palm of your hand. You’ve never seen anything like this before. This story actually happened in February of 2019. Several naturalists and a group of students in an after school program found a strange fish washed up on the beach near Santa Barbara, CA. After posting the observation to iNat, the observers collaborated with fish scientists in Australia to identify a rare Australian fish that’s never been recorded near California: a hoodwinker sunfish (Mola tecta). Among those scientists was Marianne Nygaard – the scientist who first discovered the fish only a few years earlier. The story made international headlines in 2019, and is an excellent example of how iNat connects people from all different walks of life, to scientists and experts around the world. 

I had the honor of witnessing the launch of iNat before I even knew what a mobile app was, let alone what the term “crowdsourcing” meant. After we opened Pepperwood’s Dwight Center for Conservation Science in 2010, we invited Scott Loarie to join our new Terrestrial Biodiversity Climate Change Collaborative (TBC3). He was then a Stanford post-doctoral researcher who had just published a brilliant paper with David Ackerly, now Dean of UC Berkeley’s Rausser College of Natural Resources, on the velocity of climate change. Scott’s parents’ home was located not far from Pepperwood, and he’d often walk to the reserve from his parents using a path that few know about. During those walks, he created a record of the living things he saw along the way using a new website Kenichi Ueda had developed at UC Berkeley. It was one of the first field demonstrations of iNaturalist, and those observations are still  available as part of our “Pepperwood Vital Signs” project in iNat.

At our 2010 TBC3 convening, Scott delivered an urgent call-to-action: enable everyone with a smartphone to help create a map of the world’s biodiversity before we lose it all. Today, the geo-referenced images of plants and animals he was the first to collect on Pepperwood’s reserve are joined by thousands of observations made by our summer TeenNat interns, dedicated volunteer Stewards, and those who join us for community “bio-blitzes,” which are activities coordinated with iNat partners like the California Academy of Sciences and National Geographic. These observations are part of the encyclopedia of life we are building at Pepperwood’s 3200-acre living laboratory.

At Pepperwood, our scientists and educators promote iNat as a way to empower everyone in our community, from elementary school students to retired adventurers, to become “nature nerds” tracking the distribution of living things across the entire planet. This important work fills knowledge gaps about the natural world, helps in the discovery of new species, and tracks areas where species may be disappearing from our local landscapes.

What we didn’t realize was that in the process of connecting community scientists with biology experts, Scott and Kenichi would pilot a system of “nano-agreements” to resolve conflicts between users to build the consensus needed to support a collaborative knowledge base. Key principles include: “assume people mean well,” “don’t justify identifications with your credentials or dismissive comments” and “you don’t have to have the last word.” Our international tribe of nature nerds are generating a glimmer of hope for healthy online conflict management and resolution. So now iNat has innovated new ways to build healthy relationships between the millions across the globe dedicated to understanding and protecting our natural world. Judging from my own experience, if scientists can resolve potentially heated debates about where organisms land on the tree of life, maybe there is hope for all of us. 

This story is immensely validating to me since my personal response to the clatter of social media (mis)conduct is to tune out and walk into the woods, where nature reveals how we all actually need one another to survive. Now, iNat is not only inspiring other people to join me in the woods for the purpose of observing nature in all its intricate diversity but also providing a framework for healthy collaboration that can be adopted anywhere.

So, let’s tap into these community-building lessons from those bearing witness to the incredibly interconnected, mutually supportive cycle of life on earth. Let’s celebrate how the North Bay and its innovators can  exemplify how passion can build harmony, rather than foster conflict. By committing ourselves to organic agreements that support mutual respect, we can all express our diversity of opinions, advance a shared understanding of our living world, and find our place in it as explorers, innovators, and peacekeepers.

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