Saturday, May 9, 2020

A Field Kit for Critical Thinking

This post is the final lesson to students in my Spring 2020 anatomy courses, which were disrupted mid-semester by the COVID-19 pandemic. In our live sessions, it was fun to help them sort through the rampant misinformation and promising leads on COVID-19 treatment, and they asked if we could keep meeting throughout the summer. Maybe we will, but in any case, I hope that this guide gives them a few last pointers on how to survive in this bizarre new era.


We live in the Misinformation Age.

Open your news feed, Facebook, or your inbox full of emails from That One Uncle we all have, and you’re going to be tangled in wild and contradictory claims about science. Left, Right, and Center… if humans are involved, then people are going to be spinning B.S. It’s enough to drive many to despair - nothing is real, everything is dumb - but hear me out, there’s hope!

A side perk of taking a science course is that it should give you a few new tools out of the Field Kit for Critical Thinking. As you stride forward into the strange days ahead, I hope you’ll wield these to cut through this dense forest of B.S. and keep you and yours out of trouble. These tools work together, but in rough order of use:

TOOL 1: Check your dang sources! What is the claim, is it accurately reported, and what evidence supports it?
On the face of it, this is the easiest to do and doesn’t have to be particularly time-consuming. Unless you’re a practicing scientist in a narrow field, very few of us sit down with a cup of coffee and a scientific journal to read hardcore primary research. Everything else is filtered through a different outlet: a University press release, a newspaper, a dedicated science aggregator (like, or entertainment media. The further you get from the original science, the more likely you are to encounter outright errors or severe distortion of the research findings. So, what do we do?

First, demand a source if one isn’t provided. Lots of claims can be immediately exposed as, er, “creative narrative” with no basis in reality. To be charitable, there are some fanciful imaginations out there! Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. Despite many recent arguments to the contrary, facts are still a thing (convenient or otherwise) and we can objectively learn about the universe using reason and evidence. Willfully ignoring facts because you don’t like them is magical thinking, is prevalent throughout the political spectrum, and is extremely dangerous.

Next, quickly check out the source. Is it from a remotely credible outlet [more on this in Tools 2 + 3]? If not, can you cross-check it with other, more trustworthy sources? For something sufficiently important, or if you’re embroiled in an argument with someone, there’s no substitute for going to the original research… except that much of the time, this is behind a paywall or completely opaque to non-experts. Are there discrepancies in how different sources are reporting the claim, such as numbers not matching up, how the conclusions are being spun, and so on?

If you take one thing away from this, it’s this key from the legendary Carl Sagan: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Despite what typical, formulaic science reporting would have you believe, scientists aren’t constantly “baffled” and don't have to “have to rewrite the textbooks” three times a week. Science very seldom moves forward in huge leaps! Mature fields have a good idea of what’s going on in their little corner of science, and new evidence mostly refines that understanding or fills in gaps. Completely overturning a robust explanation of something requires pretty darn strong evidence to justify it. For example, we have a deep understanding of how viruses in general work and respond to treatment, so it would take an awful lot of careful studies with strong conclusions to substantially change that model. Similarly, our understanding of new fields (like the biology and treatment of COVID-19, a novel virus) can be modified quickly based on decent evidence. If we don’t yet firmly grasp what’s going on, lots of little nudges in the same direction can bring about large changes in our understanding.

Most people live their daily lives this way: if you have a very good reason to believe something, it takes a lot to convince you otherwise; but if you aren’t sure, it’s easier. Science is fundamentally different from matters of faith because if the evidence is strong enough, good scientists are obligated to change their minds. In short, “keep an open mind, but not so open that your brain falls out.”

TOOL 2: Evaluate expertise! Is this person really qualified to make that claim?
Now we’re getting into the tougher stuff. Who is making the claim in your (hopefully) credible source? In descending order, here’s who you should trust to accurately report a claim:
1) The scientists who did the original research (the claim will be undistorted, but seek corroboration of its significance [see Tool 3 below]);
2) Other scientists in that same narrow field;
3) Non-partisan governmental organizations responsible for overseeing research and making recommendations, like the CDC;
4) Relatively unbiased and accurate media outlets reporting news, NOT Opinion articles that are easily confused with news, even in otherwise legitimate outlets. Here is a link to a widely used media bias chart that can help you assess sources.
5) Everyone else.

Number 5 is where the real danger comes in. To see why, let’s pause to talk about expertise.

Expertise means having true mastery of a skill or knowledge. This isn’t something you get in a day, a week, or a year; expertise is earned over many dedicated years of study and practice. Consider a master electrician, a physician, or someone who has run a restaurant for 30 years. Expertise is real, powerful, and very narrow in scope. Just as you don’t want a dentist installing new gas lines in your home, or a skilled carpenter taking out your gall bladder, those with expertise need to stay in their lane. Unfortunately, there’s a trap here. It’s all too easy for those with expertise in one specific field to incorrectly assume that they are also experts in other fields that may or may not be closely related to their area of mastery! “I am the world’s expert in how viruses replicate their genomes, and therefore I can confidently talk about how viruses spread in a population.” Uh, no. You really can’t. These “appeals to authority” are a very common informal logical fallacy, and unfortunately, lots of otherwise brilliant people get themselves into trouble this way. It’s particularly visible among older Nobel laureates, who sometimes start spouting nonsense using the exposure won through their past successes.

Here’s the best way I’ve found to help people avoid falling into this trap, particularly if they’re older, confident adults with expertise of their own (for example, relatives at Thanksgiving…). Say your uncle spent his career designing jet engines. Ask him how much he thinks the general public understands about designing jet engines, versus his personal expertise. He’ll laugh and say, “not a darn thing!” Then gently point out that this is how the experts in any field feel about EVERYONE ELSE outside of that field. Experts in vaccine development recognize that you know “not a darn thing!” about vaccine safety, just as they know nothing of designing jet engines. Intellectually honest people should really stop and reflect on that for a while.

Those who don’t absorb this lesson exemplify what’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect (and look this up, it’s wild). In short, people with the least knowledge about a subject most strongly overestimate their knowledge of it! It’s easy to understand why: they don’t know enough to know what they don’t know. Yeah, read that again. If you’ve ever walked into a test feeling like a rockstar, but then completely bombed it because you didn’t realize that you were unprepared… that’s Dunning-Kruger. We’ve all been there.

Clearly, no one can be an expert on everything. Your professors are typically world experts in one very specific topic, and they can (with varying degrees of success) extend that expertise to teach you about the broader field. Hopefully they are honest about that and will tell you, when they start to get outside of their lane, “That’s a great question! I don’t know, but I’ll find out!” On many occasions in my courses, particularly when we covered something so truly bizarre/horrifying that it stretched belief, I would always make a point of encouraging you to fact-check me. Some of you would do that, and return with haunted eyes. That’s implied in every lesson for every class you will ever take: trust, but verify.

Why am I belaboring this explanation of expertise? I warned you that there’s a danger here, and it’s in confusing experts in a field who can credibly comment on a claim (#2 above) with experts in different fields who aren’t staying in their lanes but are seen as authorities because of their unrelated expertise and credentials (#5). For examples, let’s talk about two prominent media personalities who have been back in the news lately: Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil.

Dr. Mehmet Oz is an accomplished cardiac surgeon on the faculty at Columbia University. He also hosts a television program in which he makes dubious medical claims about supplements and other interventions. Independent evaluators have demonstrated that at least half of these are either inaccurate or totally baseless. In fact, he was summoned to testify before Congress, and an attempt was made at formal censure by the American Medical Association. Why would he do this? We’ll think about that below in Tool 3. Recently, although he has zero expertise in epidemiology or virology, he has regularly appeared on TV programs making claims about COVID-19 that are again contradicted by best evidence.

For more on the highly questionable practices of Dr. Oz, check out this article in the American Medical Association’s Journal of Ethics.

Dr. Phil McGraw, another television personality raised to prominence by Oprah Winfrey, is a clinical psychologist… not even a physician and not licensed to practice (check out his Wikipedia biography for some sordid details). Like Dr. Oz, he has also been back on the media circuit making claims about COVID-19, and his celebrity has granted him a platform to talk about something that is very far indeed from his area of expertise. So, uh. Why do people do this?

TOOL 3: Evaluate motivations! What are they trying to sell you… and what are you trying to sell to yourself?
When someone makes a claim, always ask yourself: what are they trying to sell me? Everyone is trying to sell you something… otherwise, they wouldn’t be engaging with you in the first place. Much of the time, this will be some kind of political/policy stance, meant to influence you to their side (and reinforce their own opinions too). They may be trying to sell you a physical product, with convenient links on their website. They may even just be sowing chaos for “fun,” like typical online trolls. Some do all of these at once! Alex Jones, the prominent host of InfoWars, has built an empire selling bogus conspiracy theories and physical products. The cornerstone of his legal defense during a custody trial for his children (which he lost) was that he is a “performance artist” and his InfoWars personality is a dramatized character not meant to be taken seriously. This is important context for his legions of dedicated fans, particularly as he continues to insert himself into national politics… as a self-proclaimed cartoon character.

Fear is an incredibly powerful motivator, driving people to want clear-cut and simple solutions (or denials) of their problems. Bad actors thrive in this environment, making it more important than ever to tread lightly and use your tools. If everyone is trying to sell you something, find the “products” that are most legitimately fact-based, helpful, and transparent. If you’re looking at an accurately reported claim [Tool 1], made by a governmental body like the CDC that is typically apolitical and charged with tracking the progress of a pandemic and the nation’s response [Tool 2], then they are most likely trying to “sell” you a fact-based set of recommendations on how to keep yourself safe and improve national outcomes. If you’re looking at a medical claim without cited supporting evidence [Tool 1], by a TV personality with a very poor track record of providing accurate advice [Tool 2], and they receive promotional consideration ($) for touting that product while maintaining their national brand [Tool 3], it’s probably B.S. In his response to a formal complaint by other physicians, Dr. Oz said he presents his claims “without conflict of interest.” Well sure, if you totally ignore the money and airtime; the estimated net worth of Dr. Oz is disputed, but in the tens of millions of dollars at the low end of the range. The most famous huckster in history, P.T. Barnum, recognized that when people are given a choice between attractive “humbug” and cold, hard reality… reality doesn’t stand a chance.

That is a deeply important lesson, and one that brings us to our last point. What are you trying to sell to yourself?

Everyone suffers from cognitive biases… it’s just how humans work. We want certain things to be true because they reinforce our values, our self-image, or are otherwise attractive or reassuring. In many cases, bright people with expertise can become even more susceptible to B.S. because they are skilled at motivated reasoning, coming up with justifications for false beliefs that sound plausible but don’t stand up to scrutiny. If you really want something to be true, take a step back and carefully reassess why you want it to be true and the extent to which that influences your view of the claim. Oh man, does this take practice. Motivated reasoning has never been more of an attractive nuisance than it is today in the Misinformation Era of narrowcast media. It is easier than ever to get trapped in an echo chamber of identical, self-reinforcing viewpoints that may or may not correlate with reality. Navigating this strange world, just like success in science, requires an awful lot of humility. Recognize that your expertise is limited, that you are probably wrong about many things in ways both large and small, and that the search for Truth is going to require you to cut through that forest of B.S. seeded daily by swindlers, politicians, and otherwise well-meaning but confused people. Hidden in this shady grove are still some good folks trying to help.

It’s wild out there. Good luck - I believe in you.


Saturday, February 18, 2017

And another one

So Iowa has embraced a horrific Race To The Bottom, considering and too often adopting wildly regressive policies statewide. One of the latest is House File 7, introduced by a particularly benighted member of the State House, which would effectively extend vaccination exemptions to anyone who just doesn't really feel like participating.

I took exception to this and, as is my custom, made my opinion known.

The QC Times published my letter today; please check it out. Text below, for archival purposes.


This letter is in regard to House File 7, the bill that would broaden vaccination exemptions in Iowa.

This is not a personal freedom issue, this is a public health crisis. Just as we no longer allow our streets to serve as open sewers, nor our ER waiting rooms to be cigar lounges, we should not open the door to vaccination exemptions that will only lead to the resurgence of easily preventable diseases. A population of vaccinated, healthy adults provides “community immunity,” keeping the most vulnerable members of our society - infants, cancer patients, transplant recipients - from catching potentially fatal infections.

In attempting to advance the noble cause of personal freedom, this bill’s authors seem to have missed the point that that your personal freedom stops at my, or my child’s, body.

It is ironic that the only reason that this bill is even under consideration is that vaccines have been tremendously effective at pushing the horrific epidemics of the past into fading memory. Listen to the pediatricians. Vaccination is both the moral and the rational choice.

Neil Aschliman, Ph.D.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Letter to the editor

I've gotten old.

Once upon a time, I relished a good fight. It helped that I was a student of evolutionary biology at a university of around forty thousand who were decidedly neither Down With It nor afraid to show it. I'll never know who produced them, but maroon "Darwin Lied - Genesis 1:1" shirts were as commonplace as "Truth" fish, devouring Darwin sigils, on vehicles. I wanted a piece. Nineteen-year old business majors at the coffee shop, professing a profound mastery of biochemistry and physics that "disproved evolution"? Baited hooks. Mostly harmless crackpot Tom Short spouting nonsense on a sunny day in the quad, rocking Hawaiian shirts and six-day creationism? Blood in the water.

I was the kid who was first up on the mike in the Q&A sessions following engineers/executives/whatever who were brought in to attempt to discredit science. I could never understand why most of my professors, and in particular a short, irascible Yankee, would never get involved. Save one bizarre and ill-advised [more on this in a moment] debate between our department chair and Mike Behe, poster boy of Intelligent Design (think Creationism with a spoiler) and some weird beers out afterward, most of the silverbacks would just shake their heads and listen to me vent.

I loved the fight. Upon meeting Genie Scott, former director of the National Center for Science Education, while I was in grad school, I probably would have quit on the spot to accept a job offer.

I've gotten old.

...but I haven't given up the fight. It took me a long time to realize that my advisors weren't choosing to abstain, to abdicate some responsibility to the maintenance of sanity and reason in society. They were just doing it smarter, and they didn't have the teenage Gibraltar-on-one's-shoulder that I bore. They knew that Some Men You Just Can't Reach. Indeed, that's why I would go spar with Tom Short; not to win anyone over, but to correct any gross falsehoods (and boy, were there some howlers!) that he or his scions would sling to see what stuck.

These guys just coolly breathed science and reason into everything they did in class. Arguably the best positioned to do so was not the Evo prof, but rather the mild-mannered and brilliant guy teaching Embryology. There is perhaps no better class for demonstrating key principles of both evolution and development, and without the Day One stigma to the recalcitrant of a class called "Evolution."

This is the best that we can do through science. Demonstrate how evolution is the only remotely viable lens through which to view the objective reality of life on Earth; in other words, Daniel Dennett's "universal acid." This has so far been my joy of the semester - teaching a small but bright group of students how "Life found a way" across the scope of biodiversity.

So what do we do for everyone else? Not for the pre-physical therapist or budding researcher, but for the lawyers and librarians and contractors of the world, who are every bit as bright but are neither a captive nor particularly interested audience (on average)?

The one thing we should not do is consent to the entirely sisyphean, futile prospect of public debate. I've seen it in our Chair vs. Behe, in Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham. Civil debates work, and only work, if the participants present data that are generally recognized to be credible and can bolster one perspective or position or the other. That is most definitely not how "debates" over evolution vs. creationism work. Please indulge a dramatic reenactment:

Participant A: "Here is something that is the case."
Participant B: "That is false."
Audience: "Well, crap. I guess we have to go look everything up when we go home."

And, without fail, people will cleave to their narrowcast sources of choice and will reinforce their previous opinions irrespective of anything that actually transpired on stage. It certainly doesn't help that much of the subject matter is esoteric as all get-out; see coverage of the Dover v. Kitzmiller trial if you want to visualize a judge's eyes rolling back in his head from days of testimony over the majestic bacterial flagellum.

I have been invited to participate in such a debate, and I will no more fall into this snare than engineers on the Apollo project will debate moon landing hoaxers. The optimal outcome is that I would do a passable job of defending the notion that we can use our minds to learn more about objective reality, with the inevitable side effect of lending credence to mysticism by elevating it to a position of false equivalency and providing the opposition with exposure and a fund-raising opportunity.

It worked out pretty well for Ken Ham, and we was trashed by The Science Guy.

So. Uh. Why are we here today? Because this letter to the editor was published in our local paper last week, and I saw in it an opportunity to respond from a less conventional perspective.

Probably the thing I love most about my school, which is a church-affiliated institution, is the opportunity it's given me to befriend and collaborate with bright, thoughtful theologians. Last spring, I gave a joint lecture with my buddy on the Biology and Theology of Monsters ("T-Rex vs. Leviathan" - more on this in upcoming posts), and our friendship has broadened my perspectives on the historical interplay between religion and science / natural philosophy.

The truth is that young-earth creationism is a bankrupt philosophy that in its current, fundamentalist form is surprisingly young and born of a rejection of societal change. Think of it as a weed. Refuting (again, ultimately up to the audience to fact-check claims with reputable sources, a grueling exercise) scientific claims one-by-one is like snipping the terminal leaves of the weed. It won't kill or keep it in check.

You have to go for its deep roots, exposing them as deeply and philosophically rotten: science is not inherently evil nor anti-religious, and indeed science and religion have been and continue to be two complementary Tools of Knowing for most of humanity.

When I chose to respond to the creation "science" letter, I knew it was fruitless to lance sciencebolts from on high. I took the other path. Here is the link to the QC Times letter, which is edited and for which I am trying hard not to read the comments, although I was pleasantly surprised by the retorts to the creationists' post. Below, I reprint the original, uncut letter.

I hope my nineteen-year old self would approve. My biologist and theologian friends have.


To address Mr Brouard’s comments in his recent letter:

The claim that science must “hide behind judges” is one of the most astonishing bits of misdirection I have seen outside of the caucuses. It is in fact creationists who have fled to litigation as well as legislation after being soundly defeated in court. From 2004 to 2011, over forty “academic freedom” bills promoting creationism in public school science classes were filed in 13 states. Science and rational thought are on defense for once.

Mr Brouard lists several prominent scientists who believed in a Creator. This is irrelevant. All of these men were also white males. Are only theistic, white males capable of good science? The tremendous technological achievements of recent decades suggest otherwise.

The statement about “falsehoods” is a mishmash of, ironically, abject falsehoods and straw men. Trotting out old Haeckel’s drawings to undermine modern biology is akin to denying modern astronomy because early sketches of Mars were inaccurate. Just as we now have rovers and orbiters exploring the red planet, biology has advanced to a degree that Mr Brouard would likely find incredible.

Finally, the idea that science leads inevitably to atheism belies a poor understanding of both theology and history. This is known as the “wedge strategy” of those who recognize that they can’t win with science. Historically, scientists used natural philosophy as a way to interpret creation and God’s design. Metaphors in the Bible were understood to be just that: symbols. Biblical literalism is a surprisingly recent contrivance of Western society.

Creationism is head-in-the-sand denialism that is neither science nor sound philosophy. It obscures two of the most beautiful truths of all: the objective history of life on Earth, and our place in God’s creation. Science and religion can be in harmony if we use evidence and our gift of reason to shine light on the How of creation, and our hearts to understand the Why.

Neil C. Aschliman, Ph.D.


After publication, I received a voicemail invitation to debate, as well as a letter from the NCSE that mentioned cribbing my "head-in-the-sand denialists" line and made me geek out pretty hard.

It was a good day.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Devil Ray's in the Details

So mantas aren't a thing anymore... - paraphrase, David Shiffman's liveblog of my talk at the recent meeting of the American Elasmobranch Society.

Wow, is that going to require some explanation! Did I steal these guys away under cover of night? Did they pull a "so long, and thanks for all the fish" on us? No, this is a story about the power of naming, and one that may have serious implications for the conservation of these amazing animals and their close relatives.

Human beings love to name things. We do it vigorously and redundantly: a single fish species may be christened with a dozen or more common names by people in different geographic areas, times, or even marketing departments! It helps to have an international-standard system of naming animals to give this enterprise some consistency. It doesn't matter if you know it as Chilean Sea Bass or the Patagonian Toothfish, people worldwide will be happy to confirm for you that Dissostichus eleginoides is indeed one ugly customer.

This system of precise identification in which scientists apply a formal code to name organisms is called binominal nomenclature ("two-part name"). This is often incorrectly called "binomial" nomenclature ("two number," a mathematical expression), even by professionals! The first part of the name is the genus, which can apply to between one and many species that are closely related and resemble each other. The second part of the name is the specific epithet, which applies to one and only one species. These names are usually derived from Greek and Latin. For example, Batrachognathus volans translates as "flying frog-jawed" one, an apt appellation for an odd pterosaur from the Late Jurassic.

A genus (plural genera) should describe some small set of similar organisms. This group should be defined by a common ancestor, all of its descendants, and nothing else (Figure 1A). We call these natural groups, or clades.

This is the ideal case. What happens if you end up with something like Figure 1B? Here, you can see that one genus is "nested" inside the other one: Mobula is not a natural group because it inappropriately excludes Manta. It's easy to analogize this to how, in some cultures, family names are passed down the paternal line. If you, your father, his father, and all male relatives in between are named "Lannister" but one of your brothers is named "Baratheon," something's gone wrong in the process of naming!

Under the current classification scheme, there are two genera of "devil rays": two species in the genus Manta and nine species in the genus Mobula. Besides some slight differences in body proportions, there are a few characteristics that distinguish Manta from Mobula. Most notably, Manta lack teeth on the upper jaw and have a mouth at the end of the head, while the mouth of Mobula is underslung as in most sharks. In recent years it has usually been held that the classification of devil rays is a valid arrangement, following Figure 1A.


Evidence from both DNA sequences and comparative anatomy suggests that current devil ray classification actually fits Figure 1B, making it invalid.

DNA sequence analyses from my doctoral dissertation work [1], followed by a large-scale study performed by my graduate advisor and colleagues [2], suggested that Manta is nested within Mobula. While not all species were sequenced, Manta birostris was indicated to be more closely related to Mobula japanica than it is to other sequenced Mobula. This is based mostly on evidence from one or two genes, with a couple of others rather uninformative. It was compelling enough to get me to delve back through the scientific literature on the anatomy of the group, and what I found was surprising.

It turns out that biologists who have taken a close look at devil ray anatomy have been quietly suggesting for nearly 15 years that Mobula is not a natural group! [3,4] For example:

 • Most devil rays have comb-like teeth, while Manta, Mobula japanica, and Mobula mobular have distinctive peg-like teeth. [3,4]

 • Mobula japanica (>3m wide) and Mobula mobular (>5m?) are among the largest devil rays, comparable in size to the recently described Manta alfredi. [5,6]

 • Among devil rays, only Manta, Mobula japanica, and Mobula mobular have caudal spines (the "sting" in "stingrays"). [5,6]

So is this enough to overturn the current system of classification for devil rays? Not yet. If any changes are to be proposed, someone first needs to perform a formal "taxonomic revision" of both Manta and Mobula. This means that they need to present a sound, peer-reviewed case for the reclassification of these species, which will require physically re-examining them and ideally presenting corroborating DNA evidence. This must include the "type species" for each genus: Manta birostris and Mobula mobular. A type species is the one to which the name of the genus is permanently attached; in this case, it defines "what a Mobula should be." There are to date no available DNA sequence data for Mobula mobular, although we can predict that they will group most closely with Manta and Mobula japanica.

Assuming the evidence continues to build that Manta is nested within Mobula, what happens next? The most likely case is that the genus Manta will cease to be valid, subsumed under Mobula as a "junior synonym." Mobula has precedence under the rules since it was described in 1810, versus 1829 for Manta. There are mechanisms by which a name can be suppressed: the proposed renaming of the fruit fly species that's the cornerstone of much of modern biology would be a nightmare beyond measure (see here), but Manta is unlikely to qualify. Their common names will remain "Manta Rays" and the world will go on turning. Given the scarcity of materials from some species and their often colossal size, I don't envy the gal/guy to undertake the formal review of the devil rays... but it needs to be done. Five bucks says that Manta is going away in the next ten years.*

So why does this matter? Legal issues and conservation.

Savvy folks sitting in the conference room or reading David's liveblog quickly seized upon this question. With Manta recently receiving protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), would lumping these guys in with Mobula expose them (1) under a legal technicality and/or (2) as less unique and worthy of conservation than when they had their own genus? Fortunately, shark conservation experts including Sonja Fordham (President at Shark Advocates International / Deputy Chair at IUCN Shark Specialist Group / conservation rockstar) were on hand to address these concerns.

Fears of CITES loopholes appear to be unfounded. Current protection schemes are thought to be engineered to continue to protect the two named (plus a third suspected but undescribed) species of Manta. Prying at loopholes is sadly unnecessary: countries that would otherwise seek to do so can apparently just opt out of CITES protections (I am aiming an unimpressed glare squarely at you, Canada and Guyana).

In short, this is less a threat to mantas than it may be an opportunity to extend protections to the other devil rays. Most of these species are heavily affected by both targeted fisheries and as bycatch, but they exhibit human-like life histories that make them extremely vulnerable to such pressure. Despite this shared and imminent danger, only Manta - with its tremendous charisma - seems to have found many champions in conservation, evidenced by the fact that only Manta species were proposed for CITES listing. Changing its name won't make these folks give up the cause, but folding all of the devil rays into a single genus can underscore the similarities in vulnerability across species in this group, strengthening the case for offering them equal safeguards in the future.

"Mantas aren't a thing anymore"? Sounds good to me.

*Offer valid for first claimant as of ten years from the date of this article's publication. If I win, I'll pick one of you at random and demand my fiver.

1 Aschliman NC (2011) The batoid tree of life: recovering the patterns and timing of the evolution of skates, rays and allies (Chondrichthyes: Batoidea). Dissertation, Florida State University
2 Naylor GJP, Caira JN, Jensen K, Rosana KAM, Straube N, Lakner C (2012) Elasmobranch phylogeny: a mitochondrial estimate based on 595 species. In: Carrier JC, Musick JA, Heithaus MR (eds) Biology of sharks and their relatives, 2nd edn. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida, pp 31-56
3 Herman J, Hovestadt-Euler M, Hovestadt DC, Stehmann M (2000) Contributions to the study of the comparative morphology of teeth and other relevant ichthyodorulites in living supra-specific taxa of Chondrichthyan fishes. Part B: Batomorphii 4c: Order: Rajiformes - Suborder Myliobatoidei - Superfamily Dasyatoidea - Family Dasyatidae - Subfamily Dasyatinae - Genus: Urobatis, Subfamily Potamotrygoninae - Genus: Potamotrygon, Superfamily Plesiobatoidea - Family Plesiobatidae - Genus: Plesiobatis, Superfamily Myliobatoidea - Family Myliobatidae - Subfamily Myliobatinae - Genera: Aetobatus, Aetomylaeus, Myliobatis and Pteromylaeus, Subfamily Rhinopterinae - Genus: Rhinoptera and Subfamily Mobulinae - Genera: Manta and Mobula. Addendum 1 to 4a: erratum to Genus Pteroplatytrygon. Bull Inst R Sci Nat Belg Biol 70:5-67
4 Adnet S, Cappetta H, Guinot G, Notarbartolo di Sciara G (2012) Evolutionary history of the devilrays (Chondrichthyes: Myliobatiformes) from fossil and morphological inference. Zool J Linn Soc 166:132-159
5 Notarbartolo di Sciara G (1987) A revisionary study of the genus Mobula Rafinesque, 1810 (Chondrichthyes: Mobulidae), with the description of a new species. Zool J Linn Soc 91:1-91
6 Marshall AD, Compagno LJV, Bennett MB (2009) Redescription of the genus Manta with resurrection of Manta alfredi (Krefft, 1868) (Chondrichthyes; Myliobatoidei; Mobulidae). Zootaxa 2301:1-28

Photos from Wikimedia Commons
Manta: LINK
Mobula: LINK