More fun with Google Ngrams: the ups and downs of ecological ideas, societies, and journals

More fun with Google n-grams!

As requested by Jacquelyn Gill and Jeff Ollerton, here are the data for paleoecology and biogeography, with population ecology included for comparison.

biogeog and paleoecol ngram

Apparently your field has been slowly dying since the late 1970s, Jacquelyn! Perhaps because it’s being crushed by the biogeography juggernaut!

As shown below, some zombie ideas are dying. Others, not so much.

zombie ideas ngram

Ecology has a long way to go to penetrate the general consciousness the way evolution has:

ecology vs evolution ngram

Who says ecologists focus too much on competition to the exclusion of other processes?:

predation vs competition ngram

Apparently, Ecology Letters has a long way to go before it becomes the leading journal in ecology:

journals ngram

By the way, Google n-grams are case sensitive. So no, the line for “American Naturalist” isn’t affected by mentions of the phrase “American naturalist”. Also by the way, I didn’t include Ecology because that would’ve picked up too many mentions having nothing to do with the journal. Which I’m sure is totally not an issue with Oikos. Nope, no way. 😉

The Ecological Society of America is indeed the world’s leading ecological scientific society. And the British Ecological Society looks like it’ll go extinct in the next decade or so:

societies ngram

Just kidding, British Ecological Society!

Good to know that good ecology overtook bad ecology around 1970 and hasn’t looked back. Probably due to Robert MacArthur’s influence. But apparently, good ecology is produced in cycles with a 17 year period, much like outbreaks of periodic cicadas. Presumably that’s the timescale of Kuhnian cycles of normal science-accumulating anomalies-scientific revolution. Or something. 🙂

good vs bad ecology ngram

And finally, Google Ngrams only covers books published before 2009, so can’t detect this blog’s massive but recent influence:

zombie ideas and stat machismo ngram

17 thoughts on “More fun with Google Ngrams: the ups and downs of ecological ideas, societies, and journals

  1. Ha! Thanks for this. I’m not sure I buy it– that graph only goes to 2000, which is when the big global change revolution really started hitting and the demand for paleoecology ramped up. I see that you have data through 2009 for other topics, though. Also, this is the one subfield of paleo that has a different British spelling (“palaeoecology”), so I wonder how that affects the results? I do agree that a lot of paleo is showing up in biogeography spheres now!

    • Google Ngram’s search bar defaults to end searches at the year 2000. I forgot to change it to 2008 for that search, and couldn’t be arsed to redo it. You get the background research you pay for on this blog. 😉

      FWIW, I just checked now, and the decline of “paleoecology” continues up through 2008. Sorry! And yeah, I saw your tweet about the British spelling of “palaeoecology” and decided I couldn’t be arsed to do anything about it. But since you’ve been kind enough to comment, I went ahead and searched it. You get a line below, but parallel to, “paleoecology”. So sorry, but your field is dying on both sides of the Atlantic. 😉

      In my joke about biogeography crushing paleoecology, I actually wasn’t thinking of biogeography assimilating paleoecology, like the Borg or something. But now that you’ve pointed it out, yeah, I’m totally sure that’s what’s going on. 😉 Prepare for assimilation! Resistance is futile! 😉

      • Thanks! It would be really interesting to see this in journals, instead of books, though I do wonder for the decline! I really don’t agree that paleoecology has been in decline as a field, and not just because I’m a paleoecologist. 🙂

  2. That curve for biogeography is darn peculiar. It shot up immediately, for a decade, and then receded to background levels, only to build again. (The slow climb started right around when MacArthur and Wilson, so it wasn’t that.) I have no idea what was going on in the 1950s heyday of biogeography.

    You’re right, this could suck up all day with trying to figure out patterns.

  3. Comparing theories is interesting. Building on yours gives gives this. Have to be careful about other usages though (e.g. neutral theory in evolution, competitive coexistence in economics).

    At last – I found a scale that makes macroecology look good although sadly it peaked with the BES special conference and Gaston and Blackburn book ~2002 and has been declining ever since!

    Couldn’t get a phrase that captured phylogenetic community ecology, but it would appear the safest bet for long term health is to be a zombie.

  4. Curse you Jeremy – you have destroyed hours of productivity! 🙂

    Comparing my statistical machismo targets in this graph is also interesting. Bayesian, multiple comparisons and in particular detection probabilities all dwarf topics that are mostly ecologically specific like spatial regression and phylogenetic regression. The stats make me happier than ever that I called out detection probabilities. Interestingly, phylogenetic regression peaked in the 90s and has gone down – not sure i believe that but I can’t find the right search phrase it goes under in the 2010s.

    Techniques that I consider “good” statistics like path analysis and regression trees are trending up no faster and no slower than things I challenged like spatial regression. Clearly I am not a good indicator of aggregate behavior!

    • Interesting that you did a stats one. My posts on this were inspired by reading about a stats blogger who compared the n-grams for Bayesian vs. frequentist, and another stats blogger who responded by comparing Bayesian vs. bootstrapping. Judging from the n-grams, bootstrapping is replacing Bayesian stats! (which isn’t actually true; the bootstrap n-gram has taken off recently because it’s the name of some popular software development package…)

      • Yeah – unintended multiple usages of one phrase are definitely a challenge with this blunt tool. When I looked closer detection probabilities applies to quantum mechanics and signal communication as well as wildlife ecology.

  5. Interesting! If I may, I would like to share your post. I have looked at the graphs about “spatial ecology” and “macroecology”. I thought that the term “macroecology” was coined by Brown & Maurer in 1989. At least, that is what is stated by Brown (1999) in his Oikos paper. There might be something wrong in some site?

    Brown, J.H. (1999) Macroecology: progress and prospect. Oikos, 87, 3-14.
    Brown, J.H. y Maurer, B.A. (1989) Macroecology: The division of food and space among species on continents. Science, 243, 1145-1150.

    • Dolores- you are right – even the most careful scholar would say that the 1989 paper is the origin of the phrase macrecology. Google does show some usages earlier. Some are mistakes (e.g. the preface to the re-release of Elton’s 1927 book on Animal Ecology was written only a few years ago and cites the Brown paper and book, but is shown in Google as 1927). And the social scientists have apparently been using macroecology for longer than the ecologists have! But I did find at least one 1966 reference to macroecology of parasites saying “By macroecology I mean mainly the immediate climatic effect on the parasite”

      This is a fascinating but high amount of error tool.

      And this blog is open to the public – please share as much as you like!

      • Many thanks for answer, Brian. Yes, totally agree that this a fascinating tool. No doubt that one has to take the results by Google Ngrams with a lot of care, as any other results from any other source. However, as you have shown, even if there are mistakes, these “mistakes” might be interesting too! What we actually mean about “macroecology” looks different from the meaning in the reference you mention about macroecology of parasites, but that might just be a question of scale since the world around (micro)parasites, or microorganisms in general, is also a “big” world!
        Ok, thanks again. I will share 🙂

  6. Biogeography certainly has a weird trajectory and I’m sure some digging around in Google Books would turn up some influential volumes that sustained the early peak. Though understanding its decline might be more difficult. “Darwinism” is an interesting word to track too – post-Origin there’s a lag of about half a decade before it has a very rapid expansion into the literature. There’s a bit of a decline in the 30s/40s actually as the New Synthesis was taking place. Intriguing. Check out Alfred Russel Wallace too – peaks in 1915.

    • Sorry for the Spanish. What I say in my comment following your post: “This evening I have seen the post by Jeremy Fox about the Google books Ngram Viewer, and the first thing I have done has been to try with the terms “spatial ecology” and “macroecology”. The result has been interesting (look at the comments following the post)”

  7. Damn you for introducing me to Ngram, Jeremy! 🙂 I can’t stop playing with it….. The thing is very case sensitive though and that could have a big impact on how we perceive the trajectories of words and phrases. For example, compare “pollination ecology” in the middle of a sentence with “Pollination ecology” at the start of a sentence. Totally different.

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