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Skeptical Reefkeeping: Experts and Changing Your Mind

by Richard Ross

In the previous installments we talked about skeptical methodology and how it can be used to sort through the overwhelming amount of reefkeeping information that is now at the virtual fingertips of reef hobbyists. We also discussed how skeptical thinking has impacted the idea of sustainable reefkeeping, scientific terminology, magic products and more. In this installment we’ll take a look how to decide which expert to listen to and the most important tool in the skeptical reefkeepers toolbox.

A brief reminder to set the scene

Skepticism is a method, not a position. Officially, it’s defined as a method of intellectual caution and suspended judgment. A skeptic is not closed minded to new ideas, but is cautious of ideas that are presented without much, or any, supporting evidence. In our hobby there are tons of ideas presented without much, or any, supporting evidence. Being a skeptical reefer essentially boils down to taking advice/products/new ideas with a bucket of salt. Being a skeptical reefkeeper requires that you investigate why, how and if the suggested ideas actually work. As a skeptical reefkeeper, you decide what is best for you, your animals, and your wallet based upon critical thinking: not just because you heard someone else say it. The goal of this series of articles is not to provide you with reef recipes or to tell you which ideas are flat out wrong or which products really do what they say they do or which claims or which expert to believe – the goal is to help you make those kinds of determinations for yourself while developing your saltwater thumb in the face of sometimes overwhelming conflicting advice.

The guys is fragging corals while wearing a lab coat which is the only metric you need to know he really is an expert – photo by Phyllis Houlihan Schiavone

Experts

In any endeavor, it is always great to be able to consult with someone who has more experience than you do. There is no need to reinvent the wheel, and avoiding avoidable mistakes can save you time and money, as well as lives of animals. However, there are ‘experts’ everywhere you turn, and it can be difficult to know who’s expert advice is worth listening to and who is just spouting opinion or perpetuating something they heard somewhere under the guise of being an expert.

Here is the important thing – experts are just people like everyone else. Sometimes they are right and sometimes they are wrong. Sometimes they are trustable and sometimes they are bending reality to sell a product (sometimes they don’t realize they are doing the bending) and sometimes they are defending a position to protect their ego (No need for embarrassment – we have all done it).Since experts are just like everyone else, since they are inherently fallible, it is important that you try not to use them as a replacement for your own brain. Here are a few questions to ask when trying to determine which expert to trust.

Does the expert have formal training?

Formal education in subject can often lend credence to an expert’s advice. In reefing, a perfect example would be the chemists that are also reef hobbyists. These people have a chemistry education and they do chemistry for a living so it makes sense that their advice regarding the reality of chemical processes is sound and based on actual, formal expertise. It also helps that in chemistry, there are often actual correct answers rather than subjective interpretation of transient events. The popular reefing chemistry experts have also been around for a while, have their own forums, have written a lot and have generally been thoroughly vetted by the hobby at large. Therefore, you can ask them a chemistry question and be pretty confident their answer is right.

However, it is important to note that the pedigrees mentioned above don’t necessarily mean that a person is an expert or that their advice should be accepted out of hand. For instance, just because someone has a degree in Marine Biology doesn’t mean that they have practical experience in captive marine husbandry. In fact, people with Marine Biology degrees sometimes/often have little to no practical training in keeping animals alive long term. Just because someone knows all about the morphology and physiology of a coral doesn’t mean they know how to keep it alive in captive conditions. It’s more important to listen to what is being said than to accept what is being said just because someone has a title or works at a Public Aquarium or Tropical Fish Store.

Look at all the people listening to this diver – he must know what he is talking about right? – Photo by Rich Ross

Are you biased knowing that you are getting input from an expert?

Sometimes just knowing that the person giving you advice is considered an expert affects the way you take that advice. Generally, we shut of our skeptical brain in this situation, which, I hope the above has shown, is not the optimal way to process any information. Nowhere is this more true than online as there is something about seeing expert ideas in writing that seems to make us more likely to think of the advice as ‘right’. To combat this, I suggest ignoring the author of reefkeeping threads or articles when you initially read them. This can help keep our ‘expert bias’ (and any other bias we may have towards particular posters), contained. If we read the threads for the information they contain rather than for who wrote them we are more likely to process the information with our critical thinking facilities which allows us to get more out of that information.

Do they have experience to back up their advice?

While there are reef hobby experts that have much experience to back them up (some reef lighting and fish breeding people come to mind) sometimes in this hobby we see people giving expert advice when they really haven’t done the ground work needed to support their advice. Cutting and pasting advice, but without links to the original posting, is all too common on the reef interwebs. Sadly, there is often a lot missing in these simple cut and pastes, important stuff contained in the original context and more important exceptions and explanations in the surrounding text. Is the person telling you how to raise clownfish larvae actually raised them? Is the person telling you that a particular food is bad actually tried it? Do they have the overarching experience to create an educated opinion even if they don’t have direct experience? If the answer is no, you might want to dig deeper and find the people with direct experience before taking the expert advice from people who just present themselves as expert.

Pseudanthias tuka is a really beautiful, hard to keep fish. This one has been in captivity for over 4 years. The guy who keeps these fish alive is probably worth getting advice from (at least about these fish!) – photo by Rich Ross

Has the expert been around for a long time?

Being involved in the hobby for a long time allows someone to amass a great amount of practical knowledge that is often worth listening to. At the same time, just being around for a long time may not mean much if the expert is set in their ways, or isn’t trying new things. The reefkeeping world can change very quickly, so how can someone possibly give useful advice on methodologies or products they are unfamiliar with? At the same time, when old methods are given a face lift and trotted out as new, ‘old salts’ can have save you time and money by discussing how we have been down that road before and why it was abandoned.

Long term experts also have the experience and knowledge to extrapolate advice. They have such a good saltwater thumb that they can give pretty good advice on new ideas/products just by applying what they know. It is important though that they make clear this is what they are doing when they are doing it.

Have you seen their work?

If someone is being presented as an expert, ask to see pictures or video of their aquariums. If they are giving advice on how to set up a fish room or culture facility ask to see pictures of similar projects they have been involved in. Ask about the success of these projects. If these projects are no longer around, ask why. Often this kind of information will tell you a whole lot about the quality of the advice. If their aquarium doesn’t look good to you, or they can’t provide you with any documentation to back up their claims, you might want to be more skeptical about the advice they are giving.

Would you take advice from a guy who’s tank looks like this? Maybe maybe not (this is the authors tank after something bad happened) – photo by Rich Ross

Do they give ‘questionable’ advice?

There are people that are claimed to be expert in a particular realm of the hobby that give out advice that many other, trusted experts may find questionable. These people can be really difficult to spot because they have many followers that seem to support their positions, which creates the feeling that the advice must be sound. However, just because many people seem to believe these ideas is not necessarily a good enough reason to believe them yourself – as Tim Minchin says ‘Just because ideas are tenacious doesn’t mean that they’re worthy’(Remember, we were supposed to have a rapture on May 21, millions believed it, but it didn’t happen). Be skeptical of reef experts that don’t answer questions directly, that other, vetted experts question, that repeat their previous points instead of addressing the question being asked, that only report good results of their advice while ignoring the bad results, or refuse to show you the results of their advice. You might determine that you think the ‘questionable’ advice is good, and I applaud that – as long as you have taken the time to do some research on your own to come to that conclusion.

Are they selling a product?

Its hard to not be skeptical of an expert that has their own product line; they are trying to sell that product so of course they are going to recommend its purchase. It isn’t always the case that selling a product taints expert advice, and there are some in our hobby that do both very well. At the same time, there are some that really just want to sell their product, so be careful and ask questions. A good red flag indication is the bashing of similar competing products, respectful comparisons are fine, but bashing is often a strong indication that their advice should be looked at with a skeptical eye.

I saw this Hippocampus bargibanti in the wild, and got a good pic of it. Does that mean I know anything about it?

 

Do they know what they don’t know?

The best experts know what they don’t know and are happy to tell you they don’t know, and are happy to give you suggestions where to look for better information. Experts that seem to know answers to every question from every aspect of the hobby may be trying to present the image that they know everything, which can lead to problems for people taking their advice if the expert doesn’t actually know everything. A one stop expert with all the info is a good thing, but this hobby is so wide ranging that it makes sense to be careful about taking advice from people who claim to know everything.

The most important Skeptical tool of all

I hope this series of articles has shown you why it is important to approach reefkeeping information with skeptical thought, and has given some useful tools that will be helpful in making decisions about your reef tank. There is one last tool that I want to talk about briefly, and it may be the most important of all.

The skeptical method; changing your mind

In western culture the idea that people can change their minds has lost power. Somehow, changing your mind has become evidence of flip floppiness, weakness and ineptitude. In the hobby we see people defending positions not because the position makes sense, but because they don’t want to lose face by showing they didn’t have perfect understanding all along or by admitting they were wrong. However, willingness to change your mind or admit you were wrong, given compelling evidence, is one of the things that makes science great. Science moves forward when evidence overcomes doubt. We toss out the old ideas because the news ones are better. The reefkeeping hobby needs to be the same way if we are to move forward, learn, and benefit animals both wild and captive. Changing your mind based on good evidence is a gift, a chance to learn and a chance to make the lives of your animals better. I love to be shown that something I thought true makes no sense because it makes me a better reefkeeper. Continue to apply the skeptical method to your own ideas and change your mind when those ideas no hold up. This ability is one of the things that makes humans great, and will save animals lives and keep your wallet full.

This whole series is about getting us to use the huge, magnificent brains that fill our skulls. Our brains are knowledge absorbing sponges capable of startling insight and creativity. They are evolved to see patterns and solve problems, evade deceptions and most of all, to learn. But, don’t take my word for this – for any of this. You need to think for yourself, apply some skeptical thought and see if it really is as great as I think it is.

I hope the Skeptical Reefkeeping series has helped you think about how the way you make decisions impacts your wallet and the lives of your animals, and I hope you have found it to be helpful. If you are attending MACNA in Des Moines this summer and want to further explore these ideas, I will be presenting a talk that was born out of this series. Hope to see you there and happy reefing.

I want to thank Reefs Magazine, Randy Donowitz and Libby Palomeque for their support and encouragement on the Skeptical Reefkeeping series. It has been educational and inspiring for me to formally explore all of these subjects, and I hope the reading has been interesting.

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