Lots of good stuff this week!
The EEB and Flow asks a great question: do ecologists just keep reinventing the wheel and rediscovering old ideas?
I’ve previously noted economist Paul Krugman’s wonderful old speech comparing the fields of economics and evolutionary biology. For an outsider, Krugman has an impressively insider understanding of the core of modern evolutionary biology. If you liked that, you’ll like this old Krugman essay of similar vintage. In it, Krugman talks about why Stephen Jay Gould was so influential with intellectuals outside evolution, while someone like John Maynard Smith was not. He concludes that it’s not because Gould was a more accessible writer–evolutionary biology has many eloquent and accessible popularizers–but because Gould mostly ignored the mathematical ideas that comprise the core conceptual framework of the field. Many intellectuals outside evolution are math-phobes, and Gould’s writings appeal to them because they appear to give access to a deep understanding of evolution without the need to get to grips with math (Krugman talks about this in the context of a discussion of why a basic economic idea–comparative advantage–is so hard for non-economists to grasp, concluding that it’s partly because the idea is irreducibly mathematical) Elsewhere I’ve noted that Gould’s aversion to math wasn’t confined to his popular writings. Even if you don’t want to read another skewering of Gould, Krugman’s old essay is still worth reading for the very interesting discussion of the various reasons why smart people can fail to “get” a simple mathematical idea. There’s more to it than just math phobia. (HT Jason Collins, via Carnival of Evolution #55)
Paleoecologist Jacquelyn Gill on how to use Google + hangouts to increase your productivity. She makes a good case, even if much of what she describes sounds like new tricks to an old dog like me.
Bit late to this, but over at his own blog ace commenter Jim Bouldin wraps up a lengthy, meaty series of posts arguing that dendroclimatology (using tree ring data to infer past climates) has serious analytical problems. I can’t speak to the validity of Jim’s arguments; I’m not a tree ring or climatology expert. But I like that he’s using his blog not just as a vehicle for discussing published science, or for discussing issues not discussed in journals, but as a vehicle for discussing original, as-yet-unpublished science. One way to think of this use of blogs is as a dry run for future papers; it’s a good way to get pre-publication feedback. It’s something I’ve done in the past, and plan to do again in future.
My recent post on massive open online courses (MOOCs) asked whether they will “disrupt” conventional higher education. Unqualified Offerings says “no”. Not sure that I entirely buy the argument, but I did want to note it. And for a deeper critique of Clay Shirky, the internet guru and MOOC advocate whose original post prompted my own, read Tom Slee. He has a great old post on Shirky’s work, explaining why analogies (like Shirky’s “Napster is to the music industry as MOOCs are to universities”) are almost always loose, and so can never be more than a starting point for more rigorous and precise thought. “Spandrels” fans, take note.
Writing in Nature, friend of Dynamic Ecology Carl Boettiger and his former supervisor Alan Hastings argue that generic warning signals of impending “regime shifts” (aka “critical transitions” or “tipping points”) are unlikely to exist. The implication is that the many ecology research groups currently searching for them should quit looking for something that isn’t there. Instead, they argue that if you want to predict impending regime shifts in some particular system, you need to study that particular system, in order to identify system-specific warning signals (and Carl and Alan have pioneered new statistical approaches for doing just that). A nice example of pushing back against a bandwagon, which the recent explosion of interest in “generic warning signals of regime shifts” certainly is. I’ll be interested to see if the bandwagon stops or changes direction in response to their article. Their piece lso relates to Brian and Peter Adler’s recent posts here on prediction–this is one area, at least, in which “basic” ecologists are indeed sincerely interested in making precise predictions.
Jabberwocky Ecology discusses the funding rate stats under the new proposal system at the NSF Division of Environmental Biology.
(Note from Jeremy: Brian himself comments over there, raising the sensible question of whether, given the ~5% overall success rate, NSF DEB should consider reducing the average grant size in order to raise the success rate. Brian drew some strongly worded but poorly argued pushback from someone with whom I once had the same argument. To his credit, Brian’s response is firm but reasoned. He’s a better person than me; I eventually got so frustrated trying to debate this individual on this issue that I just threw up my hands and started making silly jokes).
From the archives: