Why are some ecological ideas controversial? (UPDATED)

Why are some ideas in ecology much more controversial than others? You might be tempted to say that “Ideas that conflict with other ideas, or with empirical data, will be controversial.” But I think that’s wrong—in ecology there seems to be very little correlation between the amount of criticism or controversy surrounding an idea, and the theoretical and empirical support for that idea.

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Being influential doesn’t compensate for being wrong

All scientists get things wrong. And not just matters of empirical fact. Hypotheses, methods, conceptual frameworks, and even entire subfields that initially seemed promising can turn out to be unfounded, nonstarters, or dead ends. Even very widely-believed empirical claims, well-studied hypotheses, popular methods, established conceptual frameworks, and popular subfields can turn out to be wrong.

When a very influential idea turns out to be wrong, it’s often argued that the idea’s influence compensates for its wrongness. “Ok, that idea turned out to be wrong–but look at all the good science it inspired!” I’ve heard something like this said about neutral theory in ecology, a commenter on this post said something like this about much of Stephen J. Gould’s work, and one could imagine saying something like this about lots of other influential-but-wrong ideas in ecology and evolution, like the intermediate disturbance hypothesis.

I don’t buy it. I don’t think the fact that an idea is influential compensates in any way for it being wrong.

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Friday links: down with grant deadlines, Boaty McBoatface redux, and more

Also this week: final exams vs. zombie ideas, the replication crisis in biomedicine, Q&A with Hugh Possingham, Stephen Heard vs. his book (or his book vs. him, I’m not sure), advice for early career researchers, and more. Including terrible Octopussy jokes! I hope.

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How much do scientists lecture, and why? Poll results and commentary

Thanks so much to everyone who completed my little poll on how much science faculty lecture, and why. I conducted the poll because of my admittedly-anecdotal sense that much of the vigorous online debate about how to teach–in particular, whether to lecture–is a bit disconnected from the practical decision-making of many faculty. The online discussions I’ve seen tend to focus narrowly on what pedagogical research says, with the implicit assumption that pedagogical research is or should be the most important determinant of how people teach, and that the main reason people still lecture is because they’re ignorant of pedagogical research. In practice, there are many considerations that go into how to teach, and their relative importance seems likely to be sensitive to individual circumstances. For instance because most faculty have other duties besides teaching.

Here are the full poll results. Below the fold is a summary of the main results, and some comments. The bit I found most interesting is that people who mostly lecture and people who mostly don’t are making their pedagogical decisions for very different reasons…

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How to write a good introduction section. And tell if yours is bad.

The introduction section is an important part of any scientific paper. Introduction sections serve various purposes, but the most important is in my experience also the most often neglected: motivating your work. Explaining why you did what you did, in terms that others will appreciate. You need a good reason to do any research project, but many seemingly-good reasons actually are weak reasons.

Fortunately, help is available. I just found these mini-templates for how to write a good introduction section. (ht Brendan Nyhan) They’re from political science, but they generalize to ecology and other fields. For instance, one template is (i) This topic is important–>(ii) but something is missing/wrong–>(iii) and I fix it.

I only wish the author had included some mini-templates for bad introductions.

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Bonus Friday Link: 13th consecutive male Waterman Award winner

NSF has announced this year’s Waterman Award winner, chemist Mircea Dincã. He is clearly an excellent scientist, but I am disappointed to see that NSF’s streak of male award winners continues. Dincã is the 13th consecutive man to win the award, over the past 12 years. (In 2012, two men won the award.)

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