In the comments on Carl Boettiger’s recent guest post on “Data Science” culture, Ben Bolker notes a 2005 essay of his in BioScience on “other people’s data” (username “bbpapers”, password “research”). It’s about how the sort of work pursued by computationally- and mathematically-sophisticated ecologists seems to have shifted over the decades, from developing new theories to testing existing ones. That testing often involves making use of other people’s data, hence the title of the piece. Ben muses on the drivers and consequences of this cultural shift (if that’s the right term).
It’s a lovely piece. I wish I’d known about it earlier, so I could’ve included it in our old compilation of theoreticians eloquently explaining themselves to empiricists. To whet your appetite and encourage you to click through and read the whole thing, here’s an extended quote from the beginning:
Several years ago, at an Ecological Society of America (ESA) meeting, I overheard a colleague explain his work to a stranger as “help[ing] other people find more in their data than they knew was there.” Over the course of the meeting, I talked to several friends and colleagues who were in the same position, working on other people’s data, helping other people answer other people’s questions. Like me, these quantitative ecologists come out of good labs, have good jobs, and are not lacking for resources. Are we quantitative ecologists really spending our time answering other people’s questions, and not answering—or even asking—our own? If so, why?
Quantitative ecologists are only loosely anchored by the natural history of particular systems. Even the word “systems” is a giveaway; we see organisms as realizations of ideas, not as furry, feathery, or green individuals. Many of us came to ecology from physics, or mathematics, or statistics, because we loved its ideas. If we didn’t care about the organisms, we would have been content as mathematicians or physicists, but our true love was for the way that real ecological communities could embody general mathematical concepts of dynamics and variation. Our attachment to ideas gives us great flexibility, even more than other ecologists. Some of us are drawn to model systems, such as microcosms of flour beetles or plankton, where we can put ideas to searching experimental tests; others are drawn to the opposite extreme, that is, to long-term observational data from systems such as lynx populations or measles epidemics that challenge our ability to infer ecological processes from patterns. In either case, we are primarily interested in how we can use organisms to understand general principles rather than in the particular organisms themselves. This flexibility lets us pursue interesting questions wherever they lead.
Read on for telling remarks about everything from physics envy (we should envy physicists, but not for the reason you might think), to the trade-offs between asking one’s own questions and answering someone else’s.
In an old post I jokingly posed the question “What would Ben Bolker do?” Well, one thing Ben does is write wonderfully. Click through already!