Friday links: falsificationist vs. confirmationist science, transgendered scientists, lizard vs. iPhone, and more

Here’s what Meg and I did this week:

Also this week: when flunking tests is good for you, don’t fight sexism by pretending nobody has kids, bad advice for graduate students, active learning the easy way, the two cultures of mathematics, a picture (of your methods) is worth a thousand words, the calculator that will never die (apparently), a devious trick to stop students from complaining about their marks, and MOAR. You really ought to take a long lunch today so you can click through on all this stuff. Our links 1, your productivity 0. 🙂

From Meg:

This is a very cool map of the distribution of woody biomass in the US.

I like the main point of this post from Athene Donald: yes, it is sexist when headlines and articles point out the number of children a woman has, but the solution to this problem is not to omit the children of successful women, but to include those of successful men. As she writes:

If we sanitise all articles about people of both sexes so that parenthood is taboo, we deny our young the chance to work out how they might want to balance their own lives. Young girls want to know whether it is possible for them to aspire to be senior professionals in whatever field and have children. Young men should be thinking about this too. Maybe we should push the media to have more stories about high-powered men who are dab hands at nappy-changing and the school run rather than berate them for mentioning the fact that a senior woman has given birth at some point.

I enjoyed this post from PsychGrrrl on mentoring. It raises lots of good points. And here’s a Chronicle Vitae post on bad advice that grad students get, which includes (as an example of bad advice) “Depression is normal among doctoral students, so you should just tough it out/exercise more/throw yourself into your work/do some yoga.”

This post from David Colquhoun is a reminder that academia has certainly made a lot of progress on gender equality since the 1960s (even if it still has work to do!) The post focuses on the integration of University College London’s common room in the late 1960s, and was inspired, in part, by a tweet about Kathrine Switzer’s ground-breaking Boston Marathon run in 1967. It also includes anecdotes about women who ignored the rules and used the room anyway, which I enjoyed reading.

Here’s some excellent spoken word poetry from Emily Graslie on the need for more voices in science, and the cues that send girls away from science.

I also enjoyed this piece on the experiences of transgendered scientists, who have a unique perspective on gender bias. It includes an interview with Joan Roughgarden, who said “men are assumed to be competent until proven otherwise, whereas a woman is assumed to be incompetent until she proves otherwise”.

Finally, FemaleScienceProfessor had a piece on writing tenure letters. I know this is in my future, and found this interesting to read.

From Jeremy:

Ecologist Stephen Heard has a fun new open access paper on whimsy, jokes, and beauty in scientific writing. He addresses the various objections scientists have to writing in anything other than a bone-dry style, and argues that we could all make our papers more enjoyable to read without sacrificing (and indeed, sometimes even enhancing) clarity. Here’s a question, inspired by Stephen’s paper: how will blogs and Twitter affect the writing style scientists adopt in their papers? Blogs and tweets often are casual, whimsical, funny, and forceful. As we all become more comfortable with that sort of writing in our daily lives, will that sort of style start to creep into our papers? Maybe somewhat like how dry newspaper journalism is being replaced by alternative models written in a more entertaining style? Or alternatively, will blogs and Tweets function as an outlet for scientists’ jokey, entertaining urges, so that it becomes even less acceptable to write papers in anything other than a dry style? “Save the jokes for your tweets and the colorful analogies for your blog,” we might imagine a reviewer saying.

Andrew Gelman highlights a nice exchange he had with Deborah Mayo on falsificationist vs. confirmationist approaches to science. I think Gelman’s right that, in practice, a fair bit of null hypothesis testing in science is actually confirmationist rather than falsificationist. And that two big reasons for this are vague scientific hypotheses, and investigators “testing” those scientific hypotheses by checking predictions that are only loosely and indirectly derived from them. Gelman’s examples are from psychology and social science, but I think this is an issue in ecology as well. See for instance this guest post on the hypothesis that species interactions are stronger and more specialized in the tropics. A hypothesis that, judging from the comment thread, seems to be poorly defined (since otherwise why would be people be arguing about what exactly the hypothesis is and whether piles of empirical studies actually test it?)

Speaking of poorly defined hypotheses…Andrew Hendry with a post on how the currently-popular hypothesis that adaptive plasticity promotes adaptive evolution isn’t being tested properly. Because however the data come out, people seem to interpret it as favoring the hypothesis. I’m not qualified to judge it, but I found it provocative in a good way.

Terry McGlynn with a great post on how to do active learning the easy way. The main thing you have to give up on is teaching students a great breadth of material. Your goal instead is to have them really grasp and retain a few key concepts. And a side benefit is that you actually spend less time on teaching prep.

Semi-relatedly: when flunking a test is good for you (or your students). When it’s a pretest, of course. (ht Marginal Revolution)

Why students (probably including yours) still use TI-84 calculators. (ht Economist’s View)

Joan Strassmann on what kinds of evolutionary biology questions her undergraduate students struggle with, and why. I sometimes avoid problems with students assuming they know more about the organism than they do by asking questions about silly, made-up organisms like jackalopes.

Here’s a great essay on the two cultures of mathematics: theory builders vs. problem solvers. Worth reading both from an anthropological, how-do-other-fields-work perspective, and because it applies to theoretical ecologists as well (more on that in a forthcoming post). Includes wonderful discussions of what makes a mathematical problem “interesting”, what makes for work of lasting value to future generations of mathematicians, the various ways a field can be more than just a stamp collection of special cases, and more. (ht Mike, via the comments)

I don’t usually highlight ecology papers, figuring y’all can filter those without any help from me, but this was particularly provocative: DNA barcoding as a method of species identification may be on the brink of irrelevance even before it fully emerges, thanks to advances in sequencing technology and the resistance of barcoding’s advocates to those advances. I know nothing of barcoding, so don’t have any useful comments–anyone care to chime in? (ht The Molecular Ecologist)

Acclimatrix of Tenure, She Wrote with some good advice on surviving year 1 on the tenure track. I’d add that it helped me to keep in mind that lots of other people were going through, or had gone through, the same stuff. Keeping that in mind helped me to deal with those times when I felt overwhelmed. Everybody feels overwhelmed sometimes. It doesn’t mean you’re in over your head. It just means you’re in your first year in a new job in a new place.

A commenter on Joan Strassmann’s blog has a devious trick to keep students from complaining about their marks.

The EEB and Flow passes on some good advice for how to do peer review. My own advice is here.

Theoretical ecologist John Harte is everywhere these days. Well, two places, anyway: here’s another interview with him, focusing on his MaxEnt work. (ht Not Exactly Rocket Science)

Your methods section will be much easier for readers to understand if you include a figure or two illustrating what you did.

Should universities change how they calculate grades in order to eliminate dramatic variability among professors? (ht Mathbabe)

Camera trap images of a hitchhiking genet. (ht Chris Klausmeier)

And finally, here’s a video of a lizard using an iPhone. Which will have Terry McGlynn screaming “Oh god, the carnage!” 🙂

12 thoughts on “Friday links: falsificationist vs. confirmationist science, transgendered scientists, lizard vs. iPhone, and more

  1. Barcoding vs Next-gen sequencing:
    Barcoding produces potentially very low information content relative to next-gen sequencing; but then again, next-gen typically requires better quality material in order to yield sequences – if nothing else, because there are more mitochondrial genome copies in a cell than there are nuclear genome copies. Moving on from mtDNA-based barcodes to nuDNA ones could be useful in many cases, but mtDNA-based barcodes have an advantage in that mtDNA libraries will be more complete.
    Also, DNA barcoding is not only about DNA barcoding. The endeavour has produced a huge research boost in revisionary taxonomy, species descriptions, faunal inventories and other natural history disciplines that have gone through rough times for decades.
    About DNA barcoding as a tool for ecology, see DOI: 10.1111/1755-0998.12173

  2. For those reading comments, I just wanted to say that the link about the TI-84 calculator is *really* interesting (to me at least), brief, and addresses big questions in university assessments, textbook prices, and the danger of stasis in higher education.

    And, that’s a skilled lizard. My back-of-the envelope calculation its that I’ve killed well more than a quarter million ants, many of which were baby ants (larvae and pupae). Maybe that lizard will catch up with me, she looks persistent.

  3. Just for the record, I think that devious trick to keep students from complaining about their marks probably isn’t a good idea on balance. Like all teachers, I find it incredibly depressing and frustrating to have students coming to me grade-grubbing. And I haven’t found any way to prevent grade-grubbing (either by preventing the behavior itself, or by removing its underlying causes). So I’d love to have a simple trick that would stop this behavior. And when I read that trick, I got a visceral thrill at the delicious deviousness of it. But actively deceiving students, even in a small way, seems like a bridge too far to me. You can also think of it as bribing students to not complain about their marks, which doesn’t seem like a good idea when put that way. So I thought it was a fun thing to share, but it’s not something I’d actually do.

    • Agreed, mostly. If only because the trick itself would *not* work for me. Once in a while I have accidentally given students extra points. And they tell me about it and want me to correct their grade. (It’s happened at CSU Dominguez Hills without four different students.) I don’t think I make this mistake too often, leading me to suspect that at a lot of my students are scrupulously honest, against their own self interest in this case.

  4. Agree with gunnarmk on the barcoding paper. The paper is trying to be more provocative than things warrant. That is, I read it as a “hey, this other newer better technology is coming down the line; why isn’t everyone super excited like me?” It didn’t, in my mind, make the case that DNA barcoding is going to be obsolete; it just lists known issues. It’s like saying, “hey everyone, your hand-pushed lawn mowers are smaller and slower than the new-fangled ride-on ones coming on the market. You should build new sheds right now to accommodate ride-ones.” Yes, the field will change and grow. Maybe not at the pace the authors want. Old methods and new methods will both have issues. (Plus the ever present issue of species concepts, which is technology independent.) I found the paper to be meh.

    • Agreed. I fail to see the issue with marrying NGS and barcoding studies. It’s been a very smooth transition onto Illumina platforms in microbial ecology and there is still wide use of Sanger sequencing-based techniques in species-level ID.

      • Thank you to all the commenters for chiming in on the barcoding vs. NGS thing, I appreciate it. My plan in future is that whenever I want to know something and am too lazy to figure it out myself, I’m just going to ask y’all. 🙂

  5. Pingback: Stephen, Be Heard! | My Track Record

    • You’re welcome!

      I have a relevant example from my own experience as well. Fox (2006) originally had a joke title. I wanted to call it “The Price (Equation) of biodiversity loss”. The editor nixed it, not on the grounds that it was a joke per se, but on the grounds that it was an unoriginal joke. A vaguely-similar joke was used as the title of a Nature News & Views piece a few years previously, about Loreau & Hector 2001. I had forgotten that previous piece when choosing my own title (though maybe I remembered it subconsciously?)

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