Help Jeremy decide what posts to write next! (plus a preview of coming attractions) (UPDATED)

The other day Meg tweeted this:

I know how she feels! And I say that even though I actually have a whole bunch of posts in the queue at the moment. Earlier this summer I rewarded myself for getting some papers off my desk by taking a couple of days to write a bunch of posts. It was great fun.

But there’s still so much stuff I want to write about! So I’ve decided to ask y’all to help me prioritize. Here are short previews of some posts I’m thinking of writing. Read them, and then vote on the one you’d like to see me write first.

  • Zombie ideas in ecology: competition is too weak to matter in “harsh” environments. I’ve actually already slain this zombie idea in my IDH posts. But it seems like there may be folks out there who don’t recognize that it’s the same zombie idea, so it seems like it might need re-slaying.
  • How “limiting similarity” leads to “habitat filtering”: a simple example. This post would be a follow-up to my post on Mayfield & Levine and their attack on the phylogenetic community ecology bandwagon. The post will use simple “limiting similarity”-type competition models and show that they actually predict “habitat filtering”–i.e. coexistence of species that are sufficiently similar phenotypically, not sufficiently different. It’s possible that this post could lead to a paper if people find the idea sufficiently novel and interesting.
  • The value of simple limiting cases: Lotka-Volterra models and trolley problems. In which I would discuss why it’s useful–even for empiricists concerned with understanding the real world in all its glorious complexity–to consider deliberately simplified, unrealistic models. I would include discussion of both a familiar ecological example–Lotka-Volterra models–and a less-familiar example from moral philosophy: “trolley problems”, which are deliberately simplified moral dilemmas created by runaway trolleys (yes, really).
  • One or more posts on what metacommunity ecology can learn from population genetics. This would be a preview of some ideas I’ve been working on with evolutionary biologist Rees Kassen, on which we plan to write a perspectives-type paper. Lots of interesting stuff here–at least, Rees and I think so! How population geneticists have actually discovered whole classes of “metacommunity” dynamics that ecologists haven’t yet recognized. The relative strengths and weaknesses different “styles” of theoretical models used in ecology vs. population genetics, with population genetic models being framed at a “higher” or more “abstract” level. How “stochasticity” and “determinism” aren’t alternatives, or even ends of a continuum. How Hubbell-type “neutral models”, contrary to popular belief in metacommunity ecology, are actually not the limiting cases of non-neutral metacommunity models. And more.
  • Bandwagons in ecology: variance partitioning as a way of inferring the processes driving metacommunity dynamics. Two important 2010 papers (Gilbert & Bennett, and Smith & Lundholm) seriously questioned whether statistical methods of variance partitioning can be used to reliably infer the processes driving metacommunity dynamics. This post would look at whether and how those papers have been cited to see if the variance partitioning bandwagon is being steered or derailed.
  • “Stats” vs. “scouts” in baseball, and in ecology. If you saw the movie Moneyball or read the book, you could probably write this post yourself. I’d talk about parallels between the culture clashes in that book, and analogous culture clashes in ecology. And muse on whether the resolution of that culture clash in baseball holds any lessons for ecology.
  • A post on what it means for something to be “necessarily true” as a matter of mathematics, and how empiricists should think about such truths. A follow-up to an old post about the fact that, as a matter of mathematical necessity, the more species there are in a community, the less negatively-correlated their fluctuations can be. For instance, it’s possible for all species to fluctuate in perfectly positively correlated fashion–but it’s mathematically impossible for them all to be perfectly negatively correlated with each other. In the comments, Jeff Houlahan argued that this is a trivial mathematical artifact which ought somehow to be defined out of existence, whereas I argued that it’s a real and important fact about the world, and that we cannot define it out of existence and shouldn’t try. There are other examples of this sort of thing. For instance, Steven Frank and Allen Orr have both noted recently that evolution by natural selection is (to an extent) inherently frequency-dependent as a matter of mathematical necessity. And ecologists have been debating for a while whether “mean-variance scaling” is a “real” ecological phenomenon or an uninteresting mathematical “artifact” that ought to be routinely factored out of our data analyses.
  • A post on “partitionings” and their value. A follow up to one of my first ever blog posts. Many important theoretical ideas in ecology and evolution, such as the Price equation and Chessonian coexistence theory, take the form of partitionings of some quantity into interpretable components. ANOVA is a familiar example from statistics. I think partitionings often are misunderstood. For instance, I’ve found people often have trouble appreciating that partitionings like the Price equation and Chessonian coexistence theory are not theoretical “models” in the usual sense. I’d probably also talk about debates over alternative partitionings of the same quantity, and when those debates are or aren’t resolvable. This has relevance to things like the debate over alternative ways to partition gamma diversity into alpha and beta diversity, alternative ways to separate “selection effects” from “complementarity effects” in biodiversity-ecosystem function research, and alternative partitionings of the effects of diversity on stability. And I’d probably work in a half-baked analogy to what are known as “accounting identities” in economics.
  • A post on when we should try to build models of what empiricists already can measure, and when we empiricists should try to measure what theoreticians already can model.
  • My very own zombie idea. A post on how the standard interpretation of “selection effects” and “complementarity effects” in biodiversity-ecosystem function research actually is wrong. Since I’ve done some work on selection and complementarity effects, this means that I’ve helped propagate what turns out to be a zombie idea. Of course, the whole notion of selection and complementarity effects hasn’t actually been around that long, and the standard interpretation of these effects was only undermined quite recently. So it’s a stretch to call the standard interpretation a zombie idea. But I find the title “My very own zombie idea” too good to resist. 🙂 And it’s probably past time that I did another post exposing my own work to scrutiny.
  • Populations mostly don’t evolve along genetic “lines of least resistance”–but science does. A post about how new technologies create new “low-hanging fruit” (or the appearance of low-hanging fruit) and so shape the direction of science. With an analogy to how genetic variance-covariance matrices shape evolutionary responses to natural selection.
  • A review of Arditi & Ginzburg’s new(ish) book on ratio dependence.
  • A review of The Science of the Struggle for Existence, an old(ish) book in which philosopher Gregory Cooper looks at ecology.
  • A post on whether ecologists ought to learn more philosophy of science.
  • A post on why you should think in terms of rates, not amounts. An attempt to clarify this old, badly-written post.

So here’s a poll. Of all of the above posts, which one would you like me to prioritize?

UPDATE: Only 80 poll respondents, a small number for us. And the vote is pretty widely split. But so far the leading options are “should ecologists learn more philosophy?” with 11 votes, and “metacommunities and population genetics” with 10. I expected the metacommunities post to do well, and I’m glad it did, because it’s one I want and need to write in order to help develop my ideas into a paper. Kind of surprised the “should ecologists learn more philosophy” post did well. And I’m not thrilled that it did, because my ideas on what to put into that post are kind of vague. So probably what I’ll do is prioritize the metacommunities post. On the other end of the scale, not surprised to see the two book review posts get very few votes. Same for post about science evolving along “lines of least resistance”, as I actually don’t think that’s a hugely interesting post. But I am surprised that the one on zombie ideas about harsh environments didn’t attract more votes. Too bad, as that would be an easy one to write! But the people have spoken, so the unpopular topics will go to the bottom of my post-writing pile.

p.s. Just to whet your appetite, here’s a preview of some of the stuff I already have in the queue; these posts will appear over the next several weeks:

  • John Stuart Mill on the value of blogs like this one. Ok, I admit he doesn’t actually use the word “blog”. But clearly he would have, had the word existed at the time. 🙂
  • Ecology needs a new textbook. Somebody (not me) should write one.
  • The downside of data sharing: more false results. I’m sure this one will go over like a lead balloon. Weighted down with lead. 🙂
  • Do ecologists ever confuse absolute and relative fitness? Unfortunately, I think the answer is “yes”. Features one of my favorite writing techniques, “shamelessly stealing analogies from economist Nick Rowe.”
  • Do you still teach the zombie IDH? In which I try to gauge whether my quixotic crusade against the intermediate disturbance hypothesis is having any effect in undergraduate classrooms.
  • What other zombie ideas are there in ecology? I know that ace commenter Jeff Ollerton already has one in mind…
  • WIWACS vs. zombie ideas. In which I ponder why ecologists, who are often so reluctant to generalize (the “world is infinitely wonderful and complex school” of ecology, as Mick Crawley once put it), nevertheless accept empirical generalizations that aren’t actually general.
  • A guest post by Jeremy Yoder from the University of Minnesota, on where to eat and drink at the ESA meeting. I’m a beer man myself, but Jeremy makes some Minneapolis cocktail bars sound really tempting…
  • Do you spend your own money on your research?
  • A post in which I demystify how faculty searches work at North American research universities. I can’t promise this post will make you any less anxious about hunting for a faculty position. But hopefully it will at least help you be anxious for the right reasons.

p.p.s. You’ll notice I didn’t invite suggestions for post topics (either posts by me, or guest posts). I get an increasing number of unsolicited suggestions for post topics and guest posts. It’s very flattering to get unsolicited suggestions for post topics, I know the folks who send them really like Dynamic Ecology, and I feel bad about declining. But I do mostly decline, as most of the suggestions just don’t grab me. I don’t lack for ideas on what to write about, and I don’t want to be inundated with unsolicited suggestions that I’ll mostly decline. And I’m afraid that if I encouraged suggestions for post topics, some people might start seeing Dynamic Ecology as a journal or some other public forum, and it’s not. So while I’m sincerely flattered to get suggestions for post topics, I don’t encourage them. And please don’t take it personally if I don’t take up any suggestions you might make.

2 thoughts on “Help Jeremy decide what posts to write next! (plus a preview of coming attractions) (UPDATED)

  1. Jeremy, some great posts coming down the pipe. For the philosophy post, if you want someone to bounce ideas off to help shape some thoughts, you might want to stroll over to the philosophy department and talk to Mark Ereshevsky, if you don’t already know him (; I took a bunch of philosophy of science from him as an Ecology undergrad at U of C; fascinating guy, who’s PhD advisor was Elliot Sober. My first course in philosophy, skepticism (which I took because I didn’t want to do the latin course all the pre-meds were taking), totally blew my mind, and I was immediately hooked. When I found out there was a philosophy of science, I took all the courses I could while finishing my Ecology degree, and enjoyed them immensely. I feel like taking philosophy of science alongside my upper level ecology and evolution courses encouraged me to think critically about the topics we discussed in the ecology/evolution classes, as well as the social (?) and institutional framework that we were discussing those topics/theories in. I think it helped me as an undergrad to ask better questions in the eco-evo classes, and ultimately lead to some really good class discussions. Don’t really expect you to post this, but food for thought. Continue to enjoy the blog.

    • Thanks Mike. Yes, I know Marc, he and I have had many good interactions over the years. Like you, I found the philosophy classes I took as an undergrad helped my critical thinking skills and helped me ask better questions.

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