Unconventional wisdom: the art of being a know-it-all

There is more to being an expert than just memorizing facts, and I often find myself having to point out things that don’t naturally occur to a formally-trained specialist. Everyone has different types of knowledge and ignorance, so here are some less-often-heard concepts that will add to your repertoire as an iNat identifier…

  1. A beginner can know a species very well and correctly identify it without any biological training. I call this the “white-tailed deer rule”. Let’s say the observer is a hunter who has never heard of the genus Odocoileus and yet the ID is right. It’s hard to explain the concept of ubiquitousness to an expert, they find it confusing just as you might meet someone who doesn’t have the education that you have and yet is better at something than you are.
  2. Sometimes the poster is the most knowledgeable person about the species, or you might have an unforgettable encounter that was impossible to capture. When my camera card died I had to upload a blurry, reconstructed image to which someone said “please itemize the details that makes this P achrostichoides”. iNat is not just for identifiers.
  3. If you’re the best in a certain field you might be tempted to find all the entries for that genus, write a formula letter and cut-and-paste your knowledge hundreds of times, not knowing someone may find this impersonal and unwelcoming. Technical expertise can sometimes be lacking in empathy, because when you’re good at something you don’t imagine there is any down side to it.
  4. You’re not obligated to engage in technical disagreements. Someone who posts “please itemize” instead of just saying “use” is going to be easily baffled, you just have to say “No I want you to take my word for it”. Some things aren’t worth arguing to death, it’s not as bad as some of the intellectual spitting contests that result from trying to fight fire with fire. People memorize information for their specific advantage; the way to counter this is don’t wear your knowledge on your sleeve, resist the urge to show your hand. This isn’t mean-spirited, it’s just an arrow in your quiver if the need arises.
  5. For all of these reasons, the correct ID is ultimately decided by the poster. Someone will respond “But science…” to which the answer is “Then why does the reject button exist?”. There are unforeseen circumstances. The poster has the power to delete their observation or even their account, they are like the owner of the property where you are making your identifications.

So all of these sort of fall under the umbrella of standing up for a novice if you feel they are being ganged up on or you’re faced with unsolicited criticisms. There’s a convention that professionals always represent the database and people are only disadvantaged by facts, but I’m a professional and I don’t necessarily believe that. It’s also a struggle not to sound like an antagonist when it might be the other person who’s the antagonist, we all have opinions and this might be the most valuable contribution I’m able to make. There are concepts no one in the databases has ever heard of; if you’re curious one of them is called antiacademics. It’s a place where delinquents study overachievers as strange as that sounds. I sometimes feel I’m the only one. Thanks for reading.


I don’t see how anyone woul see copy-pastes of iding as bad, it’s an encouraged thing.

You need to explain your id unless you want it to be bumped at a higher level or stay casual. People won’t take your word for it if you want them to agree with your id, if you can describe something not seen on the picture, many iders will believe you, the same way sketches are believed, being nice with iders will go a long way.

The id is ultimately decided by community, if you turn off the community id for no reason, your observation will get marked as non-improvable or people will start avoiding your records altogether.


It is your obs. But once it is on iNat, it is ‘owned’ by the Community ID. We are a community with the friction and friendliness that includes.


I agree with some of your points about amateurs vs experts, but the great thing about iNat’s community ID system is that it works on a one-user-one-vote principle that is a great leveller and broadly allows people to collaborate on an equal basis regardless of their background. Sure, academics and specialists may sometimes highlight their formal training in comments to add weight to their arguments, but it still doesn’t give their ID vote any extra weight in the algorithm, and other users can choose whether they consider said justifications to add credibility to a certain person’s opinion.

That’s not in the spirit of iNat at all. When one uploads an observation to the site, one is effectively donating the data to science (even if retaining copyright on images) and submitting to the democracy of community ID, on the assumption that many minds are generally better than one. (Community ID can be turned off, and there may be niche legitimate reasons to do that, but in general it is not in the spirit of the iNat project.)

You’re not obligated to engage in technical disagreements… you just have to say “No I want you to take my word for it”.

Well, of course you don’t have to get into arguments, but on the other hand nobody has to take your word for anything. One is of course free to upload observations with incomplete evidence of ID – or even no evidence at all – but you can’t expect anyone else to “take your word for it” and verify your ID in such cases.


I customize everything I post, I find formula responses disingenuous. Marina it sounds like you’re describing a perfect system, is that what you believe? When I joined the mineral database Mindat.org a member sent me a long list of camera equipment that was a veiled criticism of my photography. I found it very unwelcoming considering the joy it gave me to contribute and considered deleting my account. A person can be correct and still have a customer service failure. So what you’re saying is a poster is not self-determining, that my own reasons for posting my minerals are expendable. Are you self-determining or do you see yourself as a spokeswoman for the website?


Daniel I appreciate your thoughts. You are right that people can post unqualified garbage if they want to, I didn’t take that into consideration. We have to put things delicately at the sacrifice of making a point sometimes. I was saying self-made enforcers can be verbally destroyed, because… they asked for it. Someone on the other side could tell you how to keep the peace as well and nobody would be right or wrong. The community you describe has a disadvantagement that goes completely unsaid, a person may have so many facts a novice doesn’t know they’re his preferences and just keels over like a domino.

I’m struggling to see what your point is - both with your initial post and with the one I’m responding to here. Your use of the phrase know-it-all, this sentence - quote ‘There are concepts no one in the databases has ever heard of; if you’re curious one of them is called antiacademics. It’s a place where delinquents study overachievers as strange as that sounds. I sometimes feel I’m the only one’

Like I don’t know if you’re trying to be patronizing or just trying to be collaborative and I’m misinterpreting your way of speaking. But I feel intensely patronized right now, and frankly a bit annoyed because you seem to be talking down to people who want to share (both give and receive) information.


I was trying to be collaborative. Universities believe they are responsible for educating the public but there are higher levels of intelligence they don’t know about, one of them is omnipotence. There are people who don’t have the expertise you and I have who just know things. But I realize it’s going to be necessary to work with academicians to overcome the intellectual backsliding we see in today’s society. When I give identifications I try not to sound like a know-it-all because people don’t like being corrected.

Gotcha. I’ll give you a piece of advice, and please take this kindly, as a person who is prone to being a bit of a sesquipedalian (especially when she’s been indulging in libations of the alcoholic variety)

Use smaller words, my guy XD

EDIT: There’s actually plenty of scientists and educators that are reaching out in social media spaces to help educate people that aren’t, necessarily, in a field of science - I don’t think society in general is as bad off as your implying, especially on a space like iNat that is explicitly a site meant for collaborative citizen science.

And while I’m flattered that you lump me in with the experts, I’m firmly not an expert in most things and I will be the first person to tell you that. I’m just a person who probably should have gone to college for a science degree instead of, LOL, video game design.


M, there’s a whole thread specifically for those texts, I’ll watch you iding thousands observations a day while writing a separate new comment each time, and then let’s discuss it again.

I don’t get you at all here, how did you connected your experience on another site and me somehow being a spokeperson? You made a new thread on a public forum, I’m answering you how things are here, that has nothing with reasons for posting, we’re iding both good and bad photos, but if person is interested, they can search for topics about equipment.


I think a point that’s sort of hinted at, but hasn’t explicitely been stated is gestalt identification, where an observer knows what something is from field experience, but doesn’t have the vocabulary to state why. Also, this video showing how it’s done.

I approach Nature from the beginner / non-academic perspective, but interacting with both kinds of observers and identifiers has taught me that:

  1. Neither academics nor amateurs are better at IDing by default, both make mistakes and some things are just hard to ID.
  2. Both use gestalt identification
  3. Academics have the vocabulary, knowledge, and resources for communicating with others why something is species X vs. species Y

I have no formal education. Don’t have a university degree. But I consider myself an expert on some taxa. And the community generally agrees. If I’m the top IDer for a taxa, people don’t ask for my credentials.

I agree with the academian outlook that for something to constitute information, it needs to be provable. If the data isn’t there, then the data quality assessment should be used appropriately. I think iNat’s community ID system is amazing. And I love cut-and-paste responses. I only have a few minutes each day to get on iNat a lot of the time and in that time I need to ID 20-30 geckos. I move fast. Sometimes, I make mistakes by moving so fast, in which case I am happy to be corrected. I don’t usually converse on IDs I make in under a second, though. I just ID and move on. Only on something really unusual do I converse and I rarely have any problems unless a user is misrepresenting data in some way, which I’ve encountered on only very rare occasions.

When I have time, though, I sometimes get on to help with onboarding new users, such as during City Nature Challenge or if a friend of mine is teaching a class to a bunch of newbies. Cut-and-paste responses are necessary there because there are some basics of using the app that just aren’t explained in the onboarding process. So, you have to tell 50 new students the same thing in a short period of time. Luckily, other iNat users have drafted the Frequently Used Responses page that give the student just what they need to use the app and provide helpful links. I haven’t had a single problem with that system except in the annoying and extremely frequent case of a user using the app one time and never again.


Oh man I’m so glad you said Gestalt Identification, because now I have a name for what happens when the husband and I are out in the woods trying to figure out good ways to remember big key identifiers without always having the words for it.

So just so everyone knows, I got him to remember what young tulip trees look like by saying the bark looks like it has stretch marks.

EDIT: Honestly, if anyone wants a great example of a botanist who knows what he’s talking about but also manages to explain stuff in a way that laymen can both understand and enjoy, I’d suggest Crime Pays but Botany Doesn’t on Youtube. I watch him enough that while I’m still awful at the names for different structures, I’m at least getting better at being able to put flowers into the right families.


I agree, gestalt is often how any of us ID something. I don’t need to be an expert in a particular species but if I’ve seen it hundreds of times in the field I can often ID it easily in someone else’s photo. I might not be able to explain all the characteristics of how I know it’s that, it just is (to me) based on what I know from that area and in comparison with other possibilities that it can’t be, based on the evidence.

But don’t take my word for it, wait for others to weigh in on my ID. Maybe I’m wrong.


It is true that there can be an arrogance to experts that is off-putting. Expertise should be respected certainly, but experts sometimes need to remember that expertise is a tool that should equip them to persuade others of their views, not an automatic ticket to being agreed with. And so I acknowledge at least some of the points made in the original post. Having said that I have found most experts (with formal or informal expertise) on this site are humble and respectful enough to engage in critical discussion.

I remember once reading a review paper on the hoverflies of a very obscure archipelago and I went IDing there. Some time later someone disagreed with me on one observation and gave reasons - I still thought I was right and was writing a reply when I realised that the person disagreeing with me was the author of the paper I was using! I thought harder, but was still convinced I was right, so I came back (rather nervously) with counter arguments, and to my relief they conceded that I was right! Does that mean I know more or have greater skill than them - far from it. But it’s great that iNat gives us non-experts the opportunity to cut our teeth in this pratical way, and in general I find that most experts do not bristle at being levelled but mainly enjoy sharing the workload with enthusiastic amateurs, spreading their own knowledge, helpfully correcting and (much less often) being corrected and even learning from lesser mortals.

The melting pot of different levels of knowledge and experience working together (rather than having a ‘client/service provider’ relationship), is what I love most about iNat, and what makes it such a phenominal learning and development tool. Those who upload but don’t ID are missing out on this - so if that is you, Dear Reader, may I encourage you to take some tentative steps in the world of identifying for others :) (and if you do unfortunately happen to meet a more uppity expert, don’t be cowed!)


I have over 200K ID’s, which is a lot to have a personalized message in everyone, even if we just restrict it to people who ask, that’s a lot. I actually ended up writing journal posts to answer some of the more common questions.

As to saying “just trust me”, that would likely just come off as condescending. If someone asks for a reason, they are actively trying to learn.

For “but science”, if we are going to have entire wikis listing papers using this data, then we do have a certain responsibility to ensure it’s accuracy.


Haven’t there been requests to change this feature?

This. I understood your point right away. With all of the threads we’ve had basically saying that common names are worthless and we should use only Linnaean binomials – do people realize how elitist and exclusionary that is? Implying that only those who have access to, and read, the latest taxonomic revisions know anything about the natural world?

When I’m out in the countryside, and a campesino is trying to explain to me, with my limited Spanish, the name and uses of a roadside plant, I’m not going to question whether they really know how to ID a plant that they have grown up using. I’m not going to ask for the latin name, either. If they call it piñón, then I know how to recognise a piñón and what to do with it when I need to. The campesino’s unfamiliarity with the term Gliricidia sepium does not decrease their understanding of the taxon in its context.

I have had to learn to look at who the observer is. If I post the exact same copypasta identification guide on many observations by the same observer, that makes me look at best pedantic, if not condescending. There are observers who will upload many observations of the same taxon, and they don’t need to be schooled over and over again.

EDIT: One further thought. In some ways, can’t academic knowledge disconnect us from nature? I remember a story I heard about La Selva Biological Station, Costa Rica. The field biologist comes into the laboratory building with muddy boots. The phytochemists notice and remark, “Oh? Is it raining?” If I’m sitting up over herbarium specimens trying to create a key, is this more connected to nature than the campesino who knows the community’s local names for trees and herbs, and the ways those trees and herbs are important to the community?


Depends, I write comments myself, and if it’s an unmarked planted thing I write them on a couple of observations, cause it’s for iders too.

There are systematists and taxonomists who may never have seen a live example in the field of the organisms they are studying and publishing on. For some biologists, the lab is their study site. They are experts in some aspects of their research organisms but they aren’t actually getting into nature in an iNaturalist sense. To me that’s rather sad.


One of my trusted identifiers that I value most is a beetle scientist. Valued first because he is willing to say - I don’t know. Valued second - when he agrees with my tentative Coleoptera ID - which tells me that, even for him, there isn’t enough data in the pictures or in already named species, to take the ID finer.

Trust me, I’m a scientist - does not entice me to ‘agree because scientist!’