Friday links: weirdest foraging experiment ever, beer and stats, abuse of parental leave, and more

From Jeremy:

#anglingforanIgNobel: someone glued breakfast cereal flakes to an agar-covered globe in the locations of major cities, inoculated with slime mould, and compared the spatial spread of the foraging slime mould to the historical development of road networks. And got a paper (well, an arXiv preprint) out of it. See for yourself.

This will get you in the holiday spirit (or not…) Cheap Talk notes a psychology experiment in which someone sent Christmas cards to a bunch of randomly-chosen strangers. Many of them sent cards back, often with lengthy handwritten letters. Which illustrates that many of us feel obliged to reciprocate friendly gestures–a fact that some charities exploit to increase response rates to funding drives. Charities that send little free gifts (say, some preprinted address labels) along with their request for donations get much higher response rates. What I’m wondering is, are there evolutionary examples of this sort of thing? Examples where norms of reciprocal altruism have evolved–and which some organisms have then evolved to exploit the way some charities do? What are the conditions required for this sort of exploit to evolve?

Here’s why brewers helped invent statistics, and winemakers didn’t. Seriously!

Continuing a recent theme here, Kent Anderson at The Scholarly Kitchen has a nice post critiquing publishing metrics and altmetrics as blunt instruments that don’t really tell us much, that motivate the wrong behaviors, and that have been oversold relative to the limited value they do add. He suggests that what we need is not more or better altmetrics, but alternatives to metrics (“alt2metrics”). Time to insist that not all things worth paying attention to, or that need prioritizing, can be measured. As shown by the fact that we somehow manage to decide what papers to publish, and what grants to fund, mostly without any recourse to metrics.

From Meg:

This Science Careers piece on the importance of paternity leave seemed so promising to me when I first saw it making the rounds on twitter. I definitely agree that paternity leave is important, and that having both men and women take parental leave is important for making the climate more favorable for women in science. But the way the article describes Harald Junge as using parental leave does NOT help women in science. Parental leave policies exist because having a newborn is incredibly demanding. If the release time from teaching and other obligations is used by men to do extra work in the lab, that just gives them an extra leg up as compared to a woman who just gave birth and is using the same leave to recover from birth, nurse the baby, etc. I realize that this use of parental leave happens, and it is hard to prevent. And whether or not it was the right move for the Junge family is up to them. I just object to it being used as a key example in an article that is arguing that paternity leave is important for women in science (without recognition that this use doesn’t help women, at least).

From the archives:

Since I just talked about why do statistics, it seems like a good time to note that I’ve already talked about why do experiments. Note that the most obvious answer (“to test predictions”) is far from the only answer.

12 thoughts on “Friday links: weirdest foraging experiment ever, beer and stats, abuse of parental leave, and more

  1. Appreciate the reminder that a brewery worker invented the t-test. I’ll have to work it into one of my classes (though I suspect that few of my students drink Guiness!)

    Back in the 80s I spent a year working in the microbiology lab of a brewery which was fascinating for many reasons (big breweries are COMPLEX!) not least because of the diversity of bacteria and yeasts that beer can harbour. There are some interesting microcosm experiments that could be done using beer and its microbes, I’m sure.

    • Certain sorts of brewing really are just applied microbial community ecology. In particular, the Flemish sour ales I drink (where bacteria like Lactobacillus and their waste products are a key part of the process, not contaminants) are brewed using open fermentation. Basically, your fermenting vessel is open to the air and you brew with with whatever microbes happen to colonize. I’ve always liked the optimism of that (“Let’s just brew with whatever happens to be floating in the air in the brewery. I’m sure it’ll be fine!”) The brewing process is very long (18 months) and there’s a whole community succession that goes on as the pH, alcohol content, and other properties of the batch change. To get some repeatability to the product, I believe brewers do inoculate with known strains of yeast and bacteria, which could be done as simply as by taking a sample from one batch and using it to start the next batch.

  2. Yes, traditional cheese makers in the UK use the same approach and I’ve seen anecdotal stories about batches of cheese failing because production was shifted to a new building where there was no inoculum floating in the air, on wall surfaces, etc.

    The brewery I worked for used open fermentation vessels for its ales but not its lagers. But innoculation by various Saccharomyces strains was always used.

    Has anyone studied the 19th century brewing literature for early examples of ecological concepts such as succession or facilitation? Was it recognised as such then, even if those terms weren’t used?

    • Good question re: the old brewing literature. I don’t know the answer. I could certainly see this being a good source of engaging examples and fun exam questions for undergraduate ecology students.

  3. I think this is an area you really have to be careful and you need very careful, thorough and systematic product evaluation or you can make some serious inferential mistakes that would affect a lot of people adversely. I initiated research along these lines some time ago in fact, so no need for excessive worry.

  4. I appreciate your thoughts on parental leave, Meg. I didn’t see the original article (yet) — thanks for highlighting it. I have certainly suspected male parental leave has been used like this in a few cases at in my department (but definitely not all of them). However, when my youngest was born, both my husband and I consecutively took a semester of parental leave, which made having a baby and juggling two academic careers almost sane (not quite). Nonetheless, you can still see the effect of our youngest on both of our publication records (I have a dip that lasts about a year for each child 🙂 — not complaining, just noting).

    • Thanks for the comment! My husband and I also used back-to-back leaves with our first, and I agree that being able to do that was really important for maintaining some level of sanity. The semester where he had leave and I was back to teaching, it definitely helped me to focus on my work more, and I agree with the overall premise that paternity leave can help women in science.

      Your comment about the effect on publication records struck me because I realized that was something I thought about a lot before having my daughter, but you comment made me realize I haven’t actually checked to see whether there is an obvious gap. I don’t think there is. I guess we’ll see what happens once #2 arrives!

      • Just so long as there’s no gap in your blogging. #priorities 😉

        On a serious note, my wife took all of our parental leave when we had our baby. I was on sabbatical at the time. Everyone was complimenting me on the good timing, but in fact we didn’t plan it, that’s just how it happened to work out.

      • Ah, yes, the timing question. It always drives me a little nuts when people say that women can just time it so they have the baby in late May or something like that. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t.

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