How “phylogenetically conserved” are views (and study results) on controversial scientific questions?

Everybody’s familiar with the idea of an academic lineage–you’re the “academic offspring” of your PhD supervisor. And perhaps of other mentors who also had a big influence on you. So you can imagine arranging academics into a sort of “phylogenetic tree” tracking lines of academic descent.

Question: how “phylogenetically conserved” are scientists’ views on controversial scientific questions? To what extent do mentees tend to share the views of their former mentors on controversial matters?

I’m particularly interested in cases in which there’s high conservatism not just of opinions, but of results. Are there any cases in which members of one “academic lineage” tend to obtain one sort of result, and members of another “lineage” do similar studies but yet tend to obtain different results than members of the first lineage? The first possible case that comes to mind is fluctuating asymmetry. Rich Palmer (1999) did a meta-analysis of the literature which asked (among other things) whether empirical studies by certain prominent authors tended to obtain different results than studies by other authors.

Sociologists of science must have studied this. Anyone know of any references (he asked lazily)?

We (and all other websites) are not nearly as widely read as you’d think from our traffic stats (CORRECTED)

Just a quick navel-gazing post that will be boringly familiar to many of you but might be eye-opening to others.

As you probably know, this blog gets a lot of traffic for a science community blog: about 60,000 pageviews and 25,000-30,000 unique visitors per month. (Thanks for reading, everybody!) But as some of you may not know, those numbers give a very overinflated impression of our audience size. Because guess how long the average visit to Dynamic Ecology lasts? Seriously, guess!

No, lower. 🙂


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Summer conference advice

Summer conference season is here! No matter what conference(s) you’re attending, we’ve got you covered with plenty of advice on how to prepare, and how to get the most of the conference once you’re there. Most of it’s from us, some of it’s from others, and most have excellent comment threads with additional advice. Share your own tips in the comments!

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Why I voted as I did in our controversial ecological ideas poll

Recently we polled readers about their views on various controversial ideas in ecology. Here’s how I voted, with links to key references explaining my thought process. I share my thinking in the hopes of encouraging others to share their thinking as well. We’ll all learn something that way. And hopefully it’ll be fun (though I recognize that disagreeing with other people about science on the internet isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, which is fine.)

Recall that the poll asked respondents to indicate on a 5 point scale whether each idea was definitely false (1), definitely true (5), or somewhere in between. Respondents were asked not to provide an opinion on any idea about which they knew nothing, and to indicate their level of expertise on each idea (expert, know something, know a bit, know nothing). Ideas are listed in rough descending order of how controversial they turned out to be among poll respondents.

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What academics can learn from business I: the hats a PI (or grad student) wears

I spent 9 years working as a computer consultant for a private company, consulting with many very large companies that are household names. At the age of 30 I left business for academia and for the most part am much happier and feel like academia is a much healthier place to work for me. But there are days and times I find myself remembering my days in business and wishing academia would be more like business. I’ve mentioned in the past that I think business has at least the potential for doing a better job of dealing with bullies and harassment.  In general, I’ve found academics have a lot of curiosity about life “on the other side” and what areas businesses do things better. So I’ve planned a series of blog posts on the topic*.

This post is focused on using business language to be more clear about the roles a PI needs to fulfill (and for that matter most graduate students and postdocs need to at least begin learning how to do and in other cases outright take responsibility for on their own). I frequently make the following analogy with my graduate students.  I tell students that they are president of their own company (which starts with only themselves as an employee but often grows to have a dozen or more workers) and they need to know and wear all of the hats a company president wears including human resources, marketing, etc. Even if we’re in academia and not profit-motivated, humans are humans, and human enterprises all have the same basic needs.

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Friday links: the taxonomic sin that nobody ever actually commits, confidence vs. expertise, and more

Also this week: #rebrandaspecies, the scientific paper with the most citations on Wikipedia, Darwin’s finches that do not exist but really should, why biologists argue with one another, worst statistics joke ever, and more. Meghan’s back with #sabbaticallinks!

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Independent projects in large enrollment labs? Part III: how it went and what we’d do differently

Note from Jeremy: This is the third and final guest post in this series by John DeLong.


Our experiment running independent projects in a large enrollment Ecology and Evolution class is now complete. Check back to Part I [link] and Part II [link] of this  series if you would like to catch up on the motivation and origin of this experiment. The short version is that we wanted to replace all of the canned lab activities with student-centered activities throughout, from statistics modules to actual projects. I recently learned that what we are doing is a type of CURE (course-based undergraduate research experience), if that connects any dots for you. The hope was to give students a more authentic scientific experience, from initial ideas through to experimental design, trouble-shooting, and discovery.

In this third and final post, I will attempt to answer three questions about the overall experience: 1) What are the things that went wrong (and how we plan to fix them), 2) How the grading worked out, and 3) Would I advocate for broader adoption of this approach?

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What is the biggest change of mind about ecology that any ecologist has ever had?

In an old post, I shared the biggest ecological idea I’ve ever changed my mind about, and invited readers to share theirs. Today’s post is a variant on that: what’s the biggest ecological idea about which any ecologist has ever had a change of mind?

I’m most interested in changes of mind by ecologists who are or were prominent enough to have widely-known views. Has any prominent ecologist ever done the equivalent of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who famously developed two completely different theories of language and meaning, the second of which refutes the first? I can’t think of any off the top of my head, but that may just show that my memory and/or knowledge of the history of ecology leave something to be desired.

Casual googling reveals various cases of prominent scientists in other fields changing their minds about important topics within their area of expertise. Geologist Wallace Broecker changed his mind about the cause of the Younger Dryas cold spell. Climatologist Stephen Schneider changed his mind about the contribution of human activities to global warming. Astronomer Michael Brown’s own discoveries changed his mind about whether Pluto is a planet. Richard Lewontin dismissed the Price equation as trivial and uninteresting when he first learned about it, then later changed his mind. Further back, Charles Darwin famously changed his mind about the importance of Lamarckian evolution, allowing a greater role for it in the 6th edition of the Origin than the first edition. Years ago The Edge asked prominent scientists what they’d changed their minds about, but many of the responses were about matters outside the respondents’ area of greatest expertise, or stretched the definition of “change of mind”.

There’s a cynical old joke that science advances one death at a time. It would be interesting to try to quantify the extent to which the joke is true. Quantify the extent to which the consensus view on some important scientific topic changed due to scientists changing their minds, vs. scientists with one view dying (or retiring or switching to other areas of research) and being replaced by scientists with other views. Has this been done?

I raise this topic just because I think it’s interesting to think about, not because I think ecologists should change their minds any more or less often than they do. Indeed, I have no idea how often ecologists change their minds, and have no reason to think it’s any more or less often than for other scientists.

Friday links: overly honest faculty job ads, Jeremy’s “DJ name” revealed, and more

Also this week: old school blogging, fake anteater news, an easy way to make multipanel figures in ggplot2, Canadian higher education is weird, tweetstorms vs blog posts, the last man who knew everything (?), the biology of superheroes, Wittgenstein vs. emoji, and more.

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