ESA 2012: Wednesday highlights

Sorry folks, I’m keeping this fairly short again. I think I’m coming down with something, I need to practice my talk and then go to bed.

Stephen Cornell gave a nice talk on deriving analytical species area curves for individual based stochastic models. A good example of the importance of scaling up from “microecology” to macroecology.

Spent much of the afternoon in the symposium on “growing pains” of 21st century ecology. As predicted, an eclectic buffet. Josh Tewksbury spoke passionately and well on the future of natural history, and Stephanie Hampton deservedly scolded us all on missing the opportunity to make “big data” out of existing small datasets. Unfortunately, didn’t get to ask my question of both of them: if you think that 21st century ecologists need a lot more training in natural history, and you also think they need a lot more training in the skills needed to handle “big data” (computational skills, programming, very advanced statistics), then what do you propose we subtract from the standard range of things that ecologists these days are mostly trained in? And if your vision is that people trained in, say, natural history will collaborate with people trained in, say, computationally-intensive statistics (as opposed to [futilely] trying to train everyone in all those things), what areas do you want to train fewer people in? I mean this as an honest question, not a rhetorical one, and absolutely not as a criticism of either of their talks. All I’m saying is that, as the science changes–in ways we want it to, and perhaps ways we don’t–the mix of training should and will change, both for individuals and in terms of the mix of differently-trained individuals who comprise the field of ecology. Opportunity costs are ever-present and unavoidable. Even if we start attracting vast numbers of new people to become ecologists, the question still remains of what you want to see those people trained in–and thus what you don’t want to see them trained in. A vision of what sort of training we need more of necessarily is only a partial vision of future ecology. A complete vision would also specify what we need to do less of.

In the same symposium, marine biologist turned filmmaker Randy Olson told us all some hard truths about how rubbish we are at communicating the “stories” of science in ways that resonate with the public, but was very funny too. Great talk from someone who totally knows what he’s talking about.

Peter Kareiva knows what he’s talking about too. I agree with a lot of what Peter had to say about what our real conservation problems are, and aren’t (hint: “too many people on the planet” is not the ultimate problem) And I see the force of his argument for what to do about it (engage with big business), even if I’m a little wary of it, for obvious reasons that Peter himself I’m sure recognizes and understands better than I do.

Finally, Jarrett Byrnes gave a very fast overview of the sorts of social media tools that are out there and how they can help scientists do better science. He was kind enough to use this blog as an example. Judging by the big laugh he got when he mentioned my “zombie ideas” posts, I suspect that many of the folks in the (packed) room aren’t yet familiar with the blog. So I may toss off a quick “welcome” post for curious new readers. He used the whole time, so I didn’t get to ask him any questions. Given the chance, I’d have asked him about how you would filter and find the best stuff in a hypothetical future world full of ecologists who’ve followed his advice and starting blogging and tweeting and etc. Right now, of course, it’s easy–just read this blog and you’re good to go! 😉 I’d also have asked him about whether doing more social networking wouldn’t tend to homogenize our ideas. As any evolutionary biologist or ecologist knows (well, should know!), the conditions under which dispersal promotes either local or global diversity are somewhat limited. It seems to me that increasingly wide and rapid “dispersal” of ideas might well have the effect of simply homogenizing everything, so that we all end up mostly paying attention to and talking about a very small number of ideas. Distributions of things like numbers of blog readers or pageviews, or number of Twitter followers, or etc., are extremely skewed–a few people have lots of readers, or pageviews, or followers, most people have very few. I would’ve liked to hear Jarret’s thoughts on that.

4 thoughts on “ESA 2012: Wednesday highlights

  1. Speaking of skewed, does the size of the audience from talk to talk seem more skewed this year than in previous years?

  2. Pingback: The ESA blog attack « theoretical ecology

  3. So, Olson’s taken his “scientists are abysmal communicators” and “everything’s just a big story folks” schtick to the ESA conference now eh? I guess he’s not grown tired of it yet.

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