Musings on the culture of ecology

For a while now Meg, Brian, and I have been toying with doing a series of posts on “the culture of ecology”. This was my idea originally, but it was a pretty vague idea, and so far we haven’t been able to firm it up. But the current emptiness of our queue of forthcoming posts has motivated me to just throw out the few underdeveloped ideas I have. Hopefully this will spark some comments that will then lead to good discussion, and perhaps better posts in future.

So I guess the first question to ask is, is there a “culture of ecology”, as distinct from, say, the broader culture of “biology” or “academia”?* Are there modes of thought or behavior that are common and distinctive enough among ecologists to be considered characteristic of ecologists? If so, what are they? How about dressing casually? (I’ve often joked that ecologists dress like they might have to go out into the field at any moment) Or drinking non-cheap beer? Or beards on men? Or more substantively, how about expecting our graduate students to develop their own projects (that’s very much not the expectation in, say, molecular biology)? How about expecting that people do field work? I’m sure y’all can think of many other candidates.

Of course, I’m sure you immediately thought of exceptions to the generalizations about “ecology culture” that I just suggested. Ecologists who dress sharp, who don’t drink beer, who don’t do field work, etc. Which is kind of why I wanted to post on this. Often, what’s most interesting about a dominant “culture” are the exceptions to it, and how the dominant culture develops and gets maintained in the face of those exceptions. So, insofar as there is a “culture of ecology”, is there some aspect of it that you don’t conform to? That you perhaps even dislike? Have you ever felt explicit or implicit pressure to conform to the prevailing ecological culture? Or perhaps you couldn’t conform, say because of your gender, appearance, or ethnic background?

I can think of times when I’ve tried to conform to, and even propagate, existing “cultural norms” in ecology. And I can think of times when I’ve ignored, or even tried to change, the prevailing culture. In no particular order:

  • I’ve talked in the past about how hard I’ve had to work justifying my choice of a lab-based study system. And while all the objections I’ve had to answer look like substantive objections, frankly I think they’re all ultimately just post hoc rationalizations for the feeling of many ecologists that, if it doesn’t involve going outdoors and getting muddy, it can’t possibly be real ecology.
  • There’s a lot of debate right now about whether scientists ought to publish everything in author pays open access journals. And all sides have good substantive reasons for their positions. My own contribution has been to argue for more or less the traditional way of doing things. But honestly, I think a lot of that debate isn’t driven by substantive considerations. Ultimately, I think a lot of it comes down a generational, “cultural” thing. People roughly my age and above are used to doing things the way they were done before online publishing existed, and would like to keep doing things that way whether or not it makes sense. Conversely, people more than a few years younger than me are used to everything being free on the internet and located via Google searches, and would like scientific publishing to work that way whether or not it makes sense.
  • Most of the advice posts I’ve done basically advise people to do things the way they’ve long been done in academic ecology. And while there often are substantive, “culture-independent” reasons for following my advice, those aren’t the only reasons for following my advice. Often, it’s also a good idea to follow my advice because doing otherwise would make you stick out like a sore thumb in the prevailing culture of academic ecology. Which of course tends to propagate the prevailing culture, for better or worse.
  • I drink non-cheap beer, although I didn’t used to drink beer at all, so that’s an aspect of ecology culture that I’ve come to conform to over time. On the other hand, I don’t have a beard, never have, and never will. ๐Ÿ˜‰
  • And of course, there’s not much of a culture of blogging in ecology the way there is in, say, economics. But I’m trying to change that. ๐Ÿ˜‰

Is the culture of ecology changing? A little while back, I poked fun at Lindenmayer and Likens’ suggestion that ecology is losing its “culture” of place-based natural history in favor of mathematics and meta-analysis (and see The EEB and Flow for less snarky pushback against L&L). But the culture of ecology could be changing in other ways. For instance, are we becoming more collaborative? (The average number of authors/paper certainly has gone up over the last several decades…) Is our culture changing as the proportion of female ecologists slowly increases?

Are some of the apparently trivial aspects of the “culture of ecology” actually more important than we realize? For instance, if most ecologists like drinking beer, people who don’t drink alcohol are maybe going to miss out on some interactions they otherwise might have had, interactions that might have, say, led to collaborations. (although I’ll note that, before I started drinking beer, I used to just go to bars with people and order sodas; it was fine)ย  At some level, I think this sort of thing is just inevitable, and so I’m not sure it’s even a problem. Statistically, any group of people is going to include a majority who like certain things and a minority who don’t (probably different majorities for different things). On the other hand, it’s probably easy for me to say that, since in a lot of ways, I’m either part of the majority “culture” of ecology, or secure enough in my position not to need to worry about whether I’m in the majority culture or not.

I also think there are subcultures of ecology, and that they shape the direction of the field. For instance, certain types of people really like being out in wild nature, while other types of people really like doing math, while others like writing code, etc. I think that’s ultimately why most people choose the questions they do, and the research approach they use to address those questions. For instance, I suspect that the sort of person who’s keen to document and understand large scale patterns in ecology probably tends not to be the kind of person who also wants to run, or even cares that much about, small scale field experiments (There are obvious exceptions, of course, like Jim Brown and many of his descendants.) And conversely, someone like me, who just likes asking precise questions and getting precise answers, and who is not a great programmer, is not going to be inclined to do many comparative analyses that would require efficient manipulation of massive datasets, efficient coding of hierarchical Bayesian models, and puzzling over the interpretation of patterns that might have several non-mutually-exclusive explanations. (Again, there are obvious exceptions) All that is mostly fine, but it can lead to problems when people go beyond just doing what they like and not doing what they don’t like, and cross over into ignoring or devaluing what they don’t like. For instance, I’ve talked in the past about how too many macroecologists working on local-regional richness relationships have ignored directly-relevant results of small scale field experiments on whether local communities are open to colonization. And I’ve written a lot on this blog about how theoreticians and empiricists often talk past or fail to appreciate each other (see here, here, and here). And I’ve speculated on whether our increasingly collaborative culture devalues introverts or selects for people who are too nice and too reluctant to criticize each other.

Like I said, some fairly undeveloped remarks here. Hopefully commenters can suggest more concrete lines of thought. I’m especially curious to hear from people who came to ecology late, from a different “culture” (hi, Brian), or who for whatever reason dislike or feel marginalized by some aspect of what they see as the prevailing “culture” in ecology.

*Not that “culture of academia” wouldn’t be worth posting on. Indeed, The EEB and Flow just put up a good post on this.

39 thoughts on “Musings on the culture of ecology

  1. “So, insofar as there is a โ€œculture of ecologyโ€, is there some aspect of it that you donโ€™t conform to? That you perhaps even dislike? Have you ever felt explicit or implicit pressure to conform to the prevailing ecological culture?”

    I dislike, intensely, any sense that I have to conform to anything whatsoever. The more I feel that way, the more I will rebel. The biggest mistakes made in my life are when I wandered from following that dictum. I don’t necessarily feel there’s a culture in ecology though, no, nor any particular pressure to conform to anything.

    On the subject of cheap beer I can only say relatedly, that you should never expect much from a large jar of instant coffee that you paid $1 for at Walmart. There will be complications arising from that.

  2. I’m interested in hearing some responses to this thread by practicing ecologists outside of the United States and Canada. I have gotten the impression that there are vastly different ‘ecological cultures’ distributed across the globe and it’s very hard to generalize (despite perhaps the casual dress thing…).

    • I’ll be interested too. But since something like 60% of our readers, and almost all of our most active commenters, are from North America, I’m not sure how much feedback we’ll get on this. “Reading Dynamic Ecology” is a much bigger part of “ecology culture” in North America than it is elsewhere. ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. I rather dislike the alcohol culture. (Although I think it’s worse in, say, geology.) While I don’t abstain from alcohol, I don’t like drinking it (i.e. dulling my senses) when I’m in an unfamiliar place with strangers — so that’s just about every conference, workshop, etc. I really bristled over paying a $50 “alcohol fee” to attend one particular conference (when I was pregnant, no less), and I’ve been actively demeaned for drinking something non-alcoholic when socializing with alcohol-drinking ecologists on at least two occasions (different groups of people) in my six years in ecology.

    • All I can say is that your experiences as someone who doesn’t like alcohol very much contrast with mine from the days when I didn’t either. I can’t recall anyone even making a friendly joke at my expense about not drinking beer. Not sure if that means I was especially lucky in my friends as a grad student, you were especially unlucky, both, or neither.

      Which isn’t at all to deny that there’s a culture of drinking beer (especially posh beer) in ecology. There’s a reason Portland, famous for its microbreweries, was by far the biggest ESA meeting ever.

      You attended a conference that charged a mandatory $50 alcohol fee? I’ve never heard of such a thing! Which perhaps just reflects the fact that I’ve only ever been to big society conferences (ESA, Evolution, BES, LNO), and to a small EU-funded conference at which a free open bar every evening was included in the registration fee! (I admit that that EU conference was one I could see making a non-drinker quite uncomfortable).

      • I should be clear: the unwelcome comments were from strangers, not from friends. I happily drink with friends and have handed out beers to grad student friends who’ve helped me out on one way or another. Both negative experiences happened outside the U.S. (perhaps coincidentally?), although in one case the strangers making comments were American.

        And the $50 alcohol fee — absurd, right? It was the 2009 LTER All Scientists Meeting in Colorado, so not a tiny conference. The LTER network provides funds for a certain number of people from each LTER site to go, and so they paid for my travel and lodging. Hard to complain. But they said that since the funds used to pay for the conference was NSF money, they couldn’t spend it on alcohol — NSF rules. So they required a mandatory “entertainment fee” of around $50, which was explicitly used to purchase alcohol for the four evenings of festivities. (And because the purchase of alcohol was made explicit, I was unable to find any grants to apply for to help cover the $50 fee. Which is why I’m so bitter about it. If they had just made it a “registration fee”, I could have gotten it covered…)

      • Re: granting body rules on alcohol, EU science funding comes from contributions from national funding agencies. Many of those national funding agencies, like NSF, won’t pay for alcohol. But the EU will, or at least it did at the time I attended that EU-funded conference with the free open bar. So we concluded that the EU science fund existed not so much to fund pan-European collaborations that national agencies weren’t in a position to fund, as to launder national agencies’ budgets into alcohol! ๐Ÿ™‚

    • That’s outrageous Margaret. You should have told them they would sure look nice wearing whatever it was they were drinking. And also what the conference could do with your $50. I ain’t particularly interested in sitting around drinking with people either, whether I know them or not.

      • I agree that whoever made those comments to Margaret was being quite rude. But even if someone’s being quite rude, it’s not easy to smack them down in the way you suggest. That takes a lot of guts, at a minimum. And as satisfying as it might feel to tell someone off, it might have undesirable side effects. As this blog amply illustrates, I’m no shrinking violet myself–but I’m not sure what I’d have done in Margaret’s shoes. Probably just ignored the comment and changed the subject, or else said something to explain/make a joke of my choice of non-alocoholic drink (e.g, “No beer for me tonight, I have to get up early tomorrow”).

    • Your stories are really disappointing.

      I hate beer and coffee and am allergic to white wine. All of which pretty much predisposes me to be perceived as anti-social from the get go. But like Jeremy I’ve never received a comment or perceived a judgement when I order a ginger ale.

      On the whole in the US anyway, my sense is that the NSF funding restrictions and the whole liability issues driving universities to ban alcohol even from non-NSF funds are going to leave most events in the US as cash-bar you-pay which is probably a good balance.

      Gordon Conferences are not particular non-alcohol-drinking friendly (at least the venue I go to). Every night there is socializing at the bar and you have to buy in for unlimited drinks for the whole week – no one-offs. If you’re only going to drink soda you end paying like $5/soda.

      I hope the people who commented to you grow up someday!

  4. As a field biologist who likes to dress sharp when not in the field (button-up shirts, decent-quality shoes [I loathe sandals and flip-flops in public], well-fitting jeans that aren’t like baggy nylon hiking pants), I get the impression that I’d be considered too “materialistic” by many conservation-minded folk in the field. I think there’s a pressure (admittedly perhaps imagined on my part) to not care about how you look in public when you work as a field biologist, which doesn’t make sense to me if scientists are expected to engage the public on broad-scale conservation issues. That being said, Peter Kareiva is one of my favorite “voices” in ecology right now and he basically dresses like a slob. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • I hear you, Matt. I wouldn’t say I dress sharp, but I’d say I worry about my appearance a touch more than the average ecologist. My clothes mostly fit me properly, I don’t wear sandals or flip flops except at the beach (and certainly not with socks!)…When packing for the ESA every year I actually make an effort to pick out decent-looking summer outfits (often including button-down shirts that require ironing) rather than, say, old t-shirts I’ve been gardening in. And if the mood strikes me, I’ve been known to go for a sort of “smart casual” look when I’m teaching–sport coat with t-shirt and corduroys, that sort of thing.

  5. Here is my empirical predictive test of an “ecological culture”. I lived in Montreal when ESA was held there. My wife had an out of town friend the same week as ESA and we went out to dinner at a suitably neutral distance about 1km from the conference center (and downtown – where everybody in the city would go to go out to dinner). We walked into the restaurant and I told my wife that 80% of the tables were ecologists and pointed out which ones. She laughed and told me it was impossible to tell. Halfway through the dinner she said – “I’ve been eavesdropping on conversations and you’re right”. There is a certain sloppy casualness. It probably stood out more in Montreal than it would have in Portland Oregon where everybody looks a bit like an ecologist, but still, there is an identifiable subculture.

    My very first graduate school interview (happened to be UC Davis), I had been in business for 9 years. I showed up at the interview in a jacket and dress shoes (but not even a tie or suit). I got severely laughed at and never repeated the mistake!

    As far as the science. I am totally with you Jeremy that diversity of scientific approaches and questions are essential to the advancement of the field and anything like cultural pressures that tends to channelize people into conforming is bad (within limits of course – calling out science that is plain bad instead of just different is also important).

    • At least on your interview you had the excuse of not having yet become an ecologist. For my first faculty job interview, I wore a jacket and tie–and was perceived as uptight. It wasn’t just because of how I was dressed, I’m sure the fact that I was nervous mattered a lot. But my outfit didn’t help. ๐Ÿ˜‰

      Your story about picking out all the ecologists in a restaurant just by appearance (which I can confirm is indeed pretty easy) unintentionally hits on another aspect of “ecology culture”: willingness to walk long distances that most people would not willingly walk. That’s an aspect of the culture I share, because I like to walk, especially in interesting cities.

      Re: diversity of approaches in science, Jim Grover once said something to me that I think is basically right. At the end of the day, people are going to do the sort of science they enjoy doing. Even if you have good substantive arguments as to why their work, and/or the field as a whole, would be better if they did some other sort of science. And further, that’s a good thing, not even so much because diversity of questions and approaches is a good thing (though it probably is, for multiple reasons), but because it’s better for ecology to have people doing some sort of ecology than doing something else entirely. Of course, one unfortunate but inevitable consequence of this (people ultimately just doing what they like) is that if what people like really is just a bad idea, it’s almost impossible to get them to quit doing it (see “ideas, zombie”, “machismo, statistical”, and “bandwagons, jumping on”).

  6. If you want to really make this interesting you should investigate the “subcultures” of ecology. Like myrmecologists, soil ecologists, or coral biologists. Weirdness abounds!

  7. Ecologists in the US are overwhelmingly from white middle-class backgrounds. My suspicion is that it might be connected to relative frequency of access to natural areas. Kids who grow up in cities, as well as those who are low-income, and don’t take vacations to the woods, desert or whatnot, are less likely to become ecologists. This tendency is even greater than in other STEM fields.

    If you look at HBCUs, the many biology departments are mostly African-American. The exception will most likely be the ecologist.

    That’s the first thing that I notice when I’m at the ESA meeting, aside from seeing people dressed as shlubbily as myself.

    • For an excellent primer on this, see here (it’s marine, but generalizes) and here. Our socio-economic and racial backgrounds certainly do shape the culture of Ecology (and ideas that make their way into the mix) as well.

      • Yes, I’ve seen the former post, it’s excellent. Hadn’t seen the latter one, thanks.

        As to whether our socio-economic and racial backgrounds shape the content of our science, and not just the “culture” of scientists, I think that’s a big and difficult issue…

    • Being white and middle-class obviously is associated with all sorts of other advantages too, which start at birth and compound over time. As you say, access to natural areas while growing up might make ecology even more white than most other scientific fields–but even those other fields are majority white.

      My subjective impression is that the ESA meeting is slowly becoming more ethnically diverse, but I could well be wrong. Not sure if the ESA or other large ecological societies have membership data or membership surveys on the ethnic makeup of the membership.

    • I agree with this observation and find it particularly ironic for the scientific discipline that concerns itself with diversity.

      • It would be a problem if it was mostly white and middle class (which it definitely is) because others were actively being kept out somehow. But that’s not the case; the current situation is just the natural result of interests and opportunities for different classes of people. I think the remedy is getting predominantly urban kids out into the “wilds”, and there are programs that do exactly that. A lot of those kids are scared of natural settings and the imagined beasts that inhabit them. The SEEDS program is an excellent thing also.

  8. In my own limited experience I’ve come across a couple of differences that separate Ecologists from their brethren. The first is that Ecologists tend to be averse to urban experiences and urban culture. So many Ecologists end up in the discipline because of their love of the outdoors and sometimes this is at odds with appreciating what cities have to offer. Ecologists tend to live near the University, even if it’s not a culturally interesting neighbourhood and don’t really care where they eat. Sure they like partying and going out at night but their tastes tend to be based more on convenience than about exploring the fringes of culture. Sometimes, I felt odd for really loving exploring cities. This sense abated a bit when I switched from a more field-based school to a more theoretical department.

    Second, Ecologists tend to be very social and open. Where I did my PhD, molecular biologists and Ecologists were united in one Biology department. As Ecologists, we were always planning social events, ski trips, camping trips, parties, orientation events. We invited all grad students and post-docs from the entire department. The only people that ever came were from the Ecology/Evolution/Behavior side of the department. For my first three years, I never met a single molecular or cell biologist. Perhaps this was just my particular school.

    FWIW, I think the taste for non-cheap beer applies to academia, in general, not just Ecologists. Also, I don’t believe Ecologists drink that much compared to, say, Archaeologists (from what I’ve heard.) I imagine we’re somewhere in the middle of the pack, and, we’d gladly trade a night out of drinking with a day spent hiking or diving or rock climbing.

    • Couldn’t agree more with the observation that many ecologists (in my experience, wildlife biologists) are averse to and/or disinterested in urban culture. Back in my days as an intern field biologist I met several people who admitted that they hated cities, which baffled me. I’ve always had that dichotomy in my interests (love nature and the outdoors but also cities and their rich culture; the San Francisco Bay Area is perfect for both!) and have met surprisingly few other wildlife biologists who love the outdoors and cities equally.

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  14. I had the misfortune of collaborating with someone from another discipline, and realized that ecologists are much less likely to cook up data because we know the value of hard-earned data. You won’t devalue your own labor by cooking stuff up, which disciplines with less fieldwork may do (needless to say, I ended that collaboration)!

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