Truth versus firehoses of falsehoods

As a result of one of my more traumatic experiences as a graduate student, I became familiar with Knoll’s Law of Media Accuracy, “Everything you read in the newspaper is absolutely true, except for that rare story of which you happen to have firsthand knowledge.”

It was my second year in graduate school at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, and I was spending my time examining adults and larvae of Bembidion subgenus Bracteon in an attempt to infer the phylogeny of the group. I had adults and larvae of most species, but I had no larvae of Bembidion balli, and I really wanted to get them. To do that I needed to capture adults during the breeding season. The best place I knew to find Bembidion balli was a beautiful spot called Paynton Ferry, on the North Saskatchewan River in Saskatchewan, and so on 19 May 1983 Jim O’Hara and I got in his van, and drove east from Edmonton. As we were driving rain clouds were approaching behind us; this was not good, as these beetles like sunshine and warm conditions. Nonetheless, we drove on, and once we arrived I set out walking along the river shore to the sand bank about a kilometer away where I knew B. balli to be relatively common. I never managed to get a female as two events drastically altered the day: the rain arrived, and I found a body on the beach. It was the body of a trucker whose semi truck fell off a bridge in Edmonton the previous November, more than 400 km upstream, was swept under the ice and the body was eventually deposited at Paynton Ferry, where I found it in May. There are many more details, of course, but suffice to say that it was a day I will never forget. It was newsworthy in Edmonton, and two days later the papers there carried an article about my discovery. In one paper I was described as “a man walking along the river”, which was accurate. In the other paper, however, I was “two men in a canoe”. I don’t know how that falsehood arose, but one can imagine that it sounded a bit more poetic or perhaps more believable than “a man walking along the river”. And thus I gained a healthy distrust for the media.

Bembidion has been in the news recently, because of a paper we published this week. In 2021 Kip Will (UC Berkeley) found a specimen in Jerry and Anne Brown’s ranch in California. He didn’t recognize the species, and so sent it to me; I examined it and sequenced its DNA, and I compared it to other Bembidion, and it became evident that it was a new species. John Sproul provided some DNA sequence data of related species. Our paper in ZooKeys (Maddison, Sproul, and Will 2023) describing it as Bembidion brownorum came out earlier this week.

Bembidion brownorum adult male. Image copyright David. R. Maddison

In part because the species is named after a former Governor and First Lady of California, and in part as the species has likely declined in abundance, the news services picked it up and the discovery has been covered around the world. The first article by Kara Manke is extensive and quite accurate. Most other articles were subsets of this one. Another took a different tack, with more political discussion and humor; that was is in general pretty good, although it states the research was done by “researchers” at UC Berkeley, and there is no mention of me or John or anyone outside of California, which is unfortunate as the bulk of the research for the paper was done at Oregon State University. But after these initial stories, some of the articles started going off the rails.

One published in the Hindustan News Hub is titled “Rare cricket species found in California named after former governor”. I don’t know how the beetle became a cricket. My name is also misspelled as “Madison”, but even better, the article states that we published the description in the journal Nature! Woohoo! My first paper in Nature!

The most amazing I have found is an article in Sasatimes which uses my picture of Bembidion brownorum, and, given the timing, surely is intended to present the same news story, but which states that the new species is a tenebrionid (darkling beetle) that was named “Eleodes jerrybrowni“, and that it was “discovered by a team of entomologists from the University of California at Davis” and that it was found “at the Oakland Zoo”. As far as I can tell, there is no species called Eleodes jerrybrowni, and I don’t know of any entomologists at UC Davis who would describe a tenebrionid beetle. Where could this fictitious account have come from?

One of Kip’s students suggested it was an AI system that wrote the bogus articles; that seems a very likely possibility. With the rise of ChatGPT and similar AI systems in the last few months, it wouldn’t be surprising if they are being used to generate news articles.

Christopher Marshall decided to test one of them out, and put the prompt “Tell me about Bembidion brownorum” into Here’s what he got:

Bembidion brownorum is a species of ground beetle that belongs to the family Carabidae. This species is endemic to the United States, specifically found in the state of California. The beetle was first described by Erwin and Kavanaugh in 1981 and was named after the American entomologist Arthur V. Evans Brown.

Bembidion brownorum has a black body with a metallic green or blue sheen on its head and thorax. The elytra, or wing covers, are also black but have a reddish-brown border. The beetle has a length of about 4-5 mm and can be found in sandy areas near streams or rivers.

There is not much information available about the behavior or ecology of Bembidion brownorum as it is a relatively understudied species. However, like other ground beetles, it is likely an important predator in its ecosystem.

Top 3 Authoritative Reference Publications or URLs:

1. “Bembidion brownorum Erwin & Kavanaugh, 1981.” Carabidae of the World.

2. Erwin, T.L., Kavanaugh, D.H. “New species and records of Bembidion from western North America {Coleoptera: Carabidae}.” Pan-Pacific Entomologist, vol. 57, no. 2, 1981, pp. 145-158.

3. “Bembidion {Peryphus} brownorum Erwin & Kavanaugh 1981.” Integrated Taxonomic Information System {ITIS}.

This is so bogus it is hard to know where to start. It’s disturbing that it made up the fact that it was named after “American entomologist Arthur V. Evans Brown” (presumably the AI just jammed “Brown” on to the end of Art’s name), but the fact that it created what looks like three valid references is incredibly deceptive. The middle one is especially disturbing. Yes, Erwin and Kavanaugh published a paper on Bembidion in 1981, but it was about a different group of Bembidion (a group now in Lionepha), the paper was called “Systematics and zoogeography of Bembidion Latreille: 1. The carlhi and erasum groups of western North America (Coleoptera: Carabidae, Bembidiini)”, and it was published in the journal Entomologica Scandinavica not Pan-Pacific Entomologist. In Pan-Pacific Entomologist, vol. 57, pages 145-158 are parts of two articles about Hydroporus water beetles by other authors, not ground beetles. Where in the world did the AI come up with that fake reference, and how could it possibly present it as an Authoritative Reference Publication?

So I tried the same prompt in, and got something equally fake and equally disturbing:

Bembidion brownorum is a species of ground beetle that belongs to the family Carabidae. This species was first discovered in 2008 and is endemic to the state of California in the United States. The beetle is named after Dr. Michael L. Brown, who was a renowned entomologist and professor at the University of California, Riverside.

The Bembidion brownorum species is relatively small, measuring between 4.5 and 5 millimeters in length. It has a dark brown coloration with a metallic sheen and is covered in fine hairs. The beetle’s head is narrower than its thorax, and it has large eyes and long antennae. Like most ground beetles, Bembidion brownorum is a predatory insect that feeds on other small insects.

This species of beetle is known to inhabit sandy beaches along the coast of California, particularly those in the San Francisco Bay Area. It prefers areas with high levels of moisture, such as those near streams or wetlands. Bembidion brownorum is considered a rare species, and its population size and distribution are not well-known.

Conservation efforts for Bembidion brownorum are currently underway to protect its habitat from human encroachment and development. The beetle’s limited range and habitat requirements make it vulnerable to habitat loss and fragmentation, which can lead to declines in population size.

Top 3 Authoritative Reference Publications or URLs:

1. “Bembidion brownorum” – Encyclopedia of Life https:f/

2. “New Species of Bembidion from California (Coleoptera: Carabidae)” – ZooKeys Journal https:f/

3. “Bembidion brownorum” – Integrated Taxonomic Information System https:f/

Now it is named after Michael Brown, and it lives on sandy beaches along the coast. Again, all “Authoritative Reference Publications” are bogus. #1 links to a leaf beetle, #3 links to a lacewing. #2 is closer, but there is no article 381 in ZooKeys.

So I then tried OpenAI’s ChatGPT. When I typed in “Tell me about Bembidion brownorum”, it said it didn’t know anything about it. (This is good, as ignorance is vastly better than making things up out of thin air.) It asked for help, and I told it that it was in the news recently. With that added information, and after an apology (“I apologize for the confusion in my earlier response”), it said it had “since researched and found” the following:

Bembidion brownorum is a species of ground beetle in the family Carabidae. It was first described in 2019 by a team of researchers led by David Maddison, a biologist at Oregon State University. The species is named after Robert and Dee Brown, avid collectors of beetles who discovered the first specimen of Bembidion brownorum in Idaho in 1979.

Bembidion brownorum is a small beetle, measuring only around 5mm in length. It has a brownish-black coloration and a flattened body, which allows it to navigate easily through small crevices and soil. This species is found in mountainous regions of the western United States, such as Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.

Interestingly, the discovery of Bembidion brownorum sheds light on the history of glaciation in North America. Maddison and his team found that the species has a very narrow distribution range and is only found in areas that were not covered by ice during the Pleistocene glaciations. This suggests that Bembidion brownorum has been isolated in its current habitat for thousands of years.

Oh, wait. Now it is in unglaciated areas of Idaho and named after Robert and Dee Brown! Some other things said are true, others fictitious. The made-up details such as “a flattened body, which allows it to navigate easily through small crevices and soil” lend an air of veracity. What sort of “research” did it do? Throw some dice?

It turns out ChatGPT has a “Regenerate Response” button. I pressed it and got this:

Upon checking my sources, I can confirm that Bembidion brownorum is a newly discovered species of ground beetle that was recently described by a team of entomologists in Germany. Bembidion brownorum was named after Robert Brown, a collector who contributed to the discovery of many species of insects, including beetles. The species is about 5 millimeters long and has a brownish coloration. It is found in the alpine regions of Austria, Italy, and Switzerland, and is adapted to the cold, harsh conditions of its habitat. This discovery highlights the importance of continued exploration and study of biodiversity, especially in remote or poorly explored areas. The identification of new species can provide insights into the evolution and ecology of different groups of organisms and can aid in conservation efforts to protect threatened or endangered species and their habitats.

Germany! Named after Robert Brown! And it is an alpine species! And then again:

Bembidion brownorum is a newly discovered species of ground beetle that was reported in the news in March 2022. It was found in the Bering Sea region of Alaska and was named after the late entomologist Arthur V. Evans, who was known for his contributions to the study of beetles. Bembidion brownorum is about 4 millimeters in length and has a shiny brownish-black coloration. It is believed to be adapted to the harsh Arctic environment, and its discovery may provide insights into how species adapt to changing climates.

In arctic Alaska! Named after Art Evans! In addition to still being alive (I hope), Art’s name isn’t Brown, and so why we would use Bembidion brownorum to honor him is beyond me. And then again:

Bembidion brownorum is a newly discovered species of ground beetle that was named in 2021. It was discovered in Montana, USA, by a team of researchers from the University of Montana and the University of Kansas. The species was named in honor of Dr. Neal Wood Brown, a prominent entomologist who contributed greatly to the study of carabid beetles. Bembidion brownorum is a small, black beetle that belongs to the family Carabidae, and it is likely to have a limited range in Montana.

Montana! Named after Neal Wood Brown!

After repeating this process a few times, and learning that Bembidion brownorum was discovered in the UK by researchers from National Museum of Wales and Cardiff University and named after Professor David Brown, and that it was found in the Appalachian Mountains and named after Dr. Adam Brown, I realized that ChatGPT’s ability to make up entire stories out of thin air and present them as facts vastly outstripped my patience.

If the AI systems had expressed doubt, I would have been a bit less despondent, but ChatGPT’s “I can confirm” is not an appropriate lead-in to flapping at the gums (or sparking in the silicon) with whatever irrelevant words it pulls from its data stores and jams together. That each fictitious story is internally consistent and coherent, peppered with interesting details, makes it worse, as each one sounds plausible and believable.

I fear for the ability of humans to be able to sort truth from bald-faced lies if more and more of the “information” we receive was synthesized by AI systems that, at least now, show no evidence to the reader of being able to judge the trustworthiness of their own output. Hopefully an ability to self-judge is a major focus of AI research, and will be integrated into future systems.

That said, Bembidion brownorum is a very nice beetle. And I did eventually raise larvae of Bembidion balli.

Update: Pam Triplett pointed out that this article will now be gist for the mill of AI, which may lead it to spit out even wilder stories – or perhaps it will realize it shouldn’t believe everything it reads and will express greater skepticism.

This entry was posted in Fieldwork, Revising Bembidiina and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Truth versus firehoses of falsehoods

  1. James C Bergdahl says:

    I was going to comment about my own personal experiences finding dead humans while caribid collecting in the Pacific Northwest, but I will save that for later when I have time. More to the point of David’s article……I suppose many have heard already that Italy’s fed govt banned access to ChatGBT a few days ago. Perhaps the rest of the EroZone will follow soon. Seems like a reasonable thing to do to me given all the serious probelms it has already created for human civilization.

    Computer scientists gone wild, eh?

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