How much impact do implicit nature biases have on what's reported? Pretty privilege and Uglification

I’m not sure if this is a Nature Talk or General post, but I feel it’s about human nature so I’m sticking with that direction.

By now we’ve all heard about implicit bias: the revelation that virtually all of us have hidden biases in our minds about things and people based solely on the shortcut of internal prejudices. It made a lot of sense to evolve this sense and I think other organisms have too. Survival is rarely accommodating to ‘wait until we confirm the data’ for most living things. At least, not in a timeframe that would survive fight or flight responses.

But it does mean that when we get to the stage of studying nature for the sake of understanding it more deeply, implicit biases based on organisms’ reputation and/or appearance have have a long history of getting in the way of true study.
(Somebody else please supply some great examples?)

And now iNaturalist, where many new participants come into the experience with specific favourites and rejects lurking about.

But it’s amazing how so many (my hand is up too) quickly find themselves full of awe and focused interest on subjects which they had either completely rejected or ignored, and now are stunned to realize that their sense of ‘beauty’ has completely shifted.

What once repulsed now attracts. What was once so cute and adorable might even be considered threatening to what is now beautiful!

I think this is one of the greatest aspects of the iNat experience: the revelation of how much bias baggage we carry, and what a joy it can be when it this revelation is accepted and dealt with.

The reason I’m bringing this up is I am working on a presentation for a local amateur photo group which I just joined, and it’s about macro photography.

They’ve asked me to show them some of my stuff and this very act has brought it home to me just how tricky it is to select things which don’t trigger many of the common implicit biases people have against certain subjects. I have quite a few nice shots of spiders for example. Spiders probably could be the ‘poster child’ for a public awareness campaign to reduce harmful implicit nature biases.

But it’s a spectrum. I find lichen, mosses, fungi easily as beautiful as greener blossoming gonads (oops, naturalist bias) – but I know that if I include tiny flowering buds, it will illicit ‘ahhs’ from a good chunk of this group much more than my dewy liverwort ‘garden scapes’.

All this selection thought has made me curious as to how things lean within the iNat databases in terms of submitted observations and whether that’s concern-worthy or even if there should be some kind of active program to help participants evolve the appreciations into wider scopes.

And at the very least, promote more public awareness that things like spiders, snakes and slime moulds can not only be appreciated for their wonder and beauty, but also as fascinating and very important elements in the whole ‘life’ picture.

That’s why I want to hear your thoughts on this topic. Is it now time for the iNaturalist ‘nation’ to get more active in reducing unwarranted implicit nature biases here, and for the public — or am I just being the kid in the backseat asking, ‘Are we there yet?’ way too soon?

Oh, and thanks to vreinkymov for being the first to introduce the ‘implicit bias’ term to the forum back in August.

Maybe it shows some of my implicit bias at the time that I didn’t think more about his post then as I do now. (Bugger!) (D’oh! Oops.)


I totally agree that the preferences of observers drive many patterns that we see in iNat data, and I certainly agree that it could be valuable to encourage folks to observe less “popular” organism types, especially when it comes to conserving them. However, I don’t know that the specific idea of “implicit bias” is the most applicable to these preferences.

In my experience, the concept of implicit bias is largely applied to biases against human social groups (see definition here for instance). It’s associated with biases that have an ethical dimension (ie, it’s not ethical to discriminate against someone based on their ancestry). Implicit bias also must be unconscious (ie, the person with the bias is not aware of it). So based on those criteria, I don’t know how well the term/concept would apply to the types of behaviors that drive the patterns we see in iNat data (ie tons of birds, very few lichens).

For instance, many of these behaviors are driven by conscious processes (eg, I love birds, I think lichens are boring, I find spiders scary). Those are often preferences/likes/dislikes of which the person is consciously aware. Likewise, I don’t personally think that there’s an explicitly ethical dimension to these preferences: it’s ok not to be interested in lichens - it’s not a ethical issue if someone doesn’t like spiders (though one could certainly argue that it might be unethical to harm/kill spiders just because one doesn’t like them). So, in sum, I think if the goal is understanding patterns in iNat data or how one might go about changing user’s behaviors, it might be more productive to just consider users’ preferences as such rather than as implicit biases per se.


Animal bias in general is quite strong. The New Mexico magazine photo contest last year had 2 crane submissions and a kestrel in the top 5 Personally, the moth photo is more interesting than all the birds combined.

I tend to agree that a lot of this falls under explicit bias

Explicit bias is a demonstration of conscious preference or aversion towards a person or group. With explicit bias, we are aware of the attitudes and beliefs we have towards others. These beliefs can be either positive or negative and can cause us to treat others unfairly.

However, beyond this website, there’s plenty of bias in scientific research and what groups are most studied and best funded. Are those scientists explicitly choosing bees over flies or are they simply embracing larger societal preferences? Other biases in scientific data are towards larger animals, which are easier to study in the field.

Spiders are a tricky subject. It took me a long time to be comfortable approaching them, handling them, and living with them. I had no bad experiences, but I was still scared of creepy crawlies.


I think the paper that is posted every time we talk about biases took a good approach on what kind of biases presented in data collected by all of us.
I’m sure we all here are used to how “regular” people don’t care a second about what interests us, and many have serious reasons for it, if you need to work hard for survival, beauty of nature is not your priority, but there’re tons of people who have pretty easy life and still are ignorant about nature.
Taking that iNat mainly consists of regular people, photos are mostly of the commonest species you can find, though a serious bias is in that major contributers contribute just too much in %, so their person “thing” affects what we have of what groups.

Personally, it’s an ordinary moth photo and I didn’t expect it to be in a photo contest at all, cranes are better, though editing sucks, kestrel is a very nice shot, but not enough space on the left to have so much on the right from the bird.

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The term ‘illicit bias’ has been around for almost two decades now, I think. And you’re right that it is often framed as a social, ethical and human problem. But others say it extends to our judgement on virtually everything. It’s not the target of the bias, it’s the inherent faulty root that defines the condition. And I tend to favour the adoption of a largely ethical human term into our relationship with nature because as we are all learning, to continue to separate ourselves from the reality that is the natural world, is to condemn ourselves to oblivion.

And even if it is to be taken only as an ethical and social human problem, can we continue to make good ethical decisions and develop cooperation between different social groups without understanding the environmental impacts these decisions also have?

It’s sobering that despite all these implicit bias studies, none of the research seems to have come up with any shortcuts to ‘unlearning’ revealed biases. About the best (though very limited) route so far is what they call discretion elimination. Blind symphony auditions is now the classic example of this technique.

But discretion is such a fundamental part of good observation skills, right? I might even argue that it’s demanded in an area which is so filled with deception, camouflage, mimicry and deceit as we find thriving in nature. A lot of those are negative ethical human terms–but if you’re an organism that depends on these to survive, ethics schmethics – right? I think it just reveals how we judge the worth of living species primarily from a human survival standpoint that is too commercial, or just too narrow. And those judgements are clouded with transposed human values that can make getting to the real answers very slow and difficult.


Helping to ID my local Unknowns has broadened my view of what is out there to see.
Feedback on iNat does encourage people. On another thread many said - I don’t upload what won’t get an ID past genus.

Spiders divide my hiking group. Some of us queueing for a photo. And I did get to see one snake - fascinating - one of my most interesting obs - including the scientist who described tail-biting defence of the lizard lunch. Those informed comments make all the difference!


Regarding your specific use case, a couple thoughts occur to me: First, if you are choosing what photos to show based on the concern that some people in the audience might have negative responses to certain subject matter, it could be very difficult to find anything at all, particularly in the realm of very small organisms. Beyond the obvious common phobias like spiders and snakes, dislikes can be rather idiosyncratic and unpredictable. Also, for people who have been brought up with little contact with nature (or “nature” only in highly mediated, sanitized forms), there’s quite a broad spectrum of the natural world which tends to be seen as vaguely “unclean” or undesirable (dirt, bugs, fungi, mites, “creepy-crawlies” of all sorts).

Second, it seems to me that macro photography in particular is excellent for encouraging precisely this transformation that you mention:

Unless one is purely concerned with the pragmatic aspects of getting IDable photos of tiny organisms for iNaturalist :) I think the reason that macro photography fascinates so many people is precisely the fact that it allows us to see the world around us differently. It provides a perspective on ordinary things that we would otherwise not normally see (the hairs on a flower, the reflections in a drop of dew, the scales on a butterfly wing), as well as opening our eyes to the existence of things we didn’t know existed or never paid attention to (your lichens and springtails).

So I think it might make more sense to select photos which are visually interesting and show the scope of photographic possibilities, rather than focusing on worrying about including subjects that are “ugly” or potentially repulsive. I mean, sure, choose some “pretty” photos also, but curiousity and novelty can also be powerful ways to engage your audience.


Choose the pictures of obs where you can share your enthusiasm. (They’ve asked me to show them some of my stuff) That’s the first prize? You can give a gentle warning - spider alert … but I love when I log on to iNat and I see that spider waving Hi! Still trying to make a friend of the headless bodiless bunch of pipecleaner legs however.

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