Also this week: the three body problem, data vs. people who choose to work long hours, the world’s oceans may be better off than you think, a taxonomy of unconventional scientists, statistical significance vs. scientific significance (but not in the usual way), and more. And here’s something you don’t see every day–links from Brian!🙂
From Brian (!):
I don’t even want to speculate what this news means for future funding of NASA and NSF grants and for climate change. Sigh!
A paper published this fall in economics by John Pecavel shows pretty clearly that there is a sharp threshold in output vs hours worked, confirming the discussions in the comments in Meg’s post on working 80 hours per week. Pecavel used an old dataset from women working in munitions factories in World War I. Somebody working 50 hours/week produced 25% more than somebody working 40 hours/week and 100% more than somebody working 25 hours/week (i.e. a linear increase in productivity with time), but at 49 hours/week the curve bent over to almost flat. Total output increased for hours over 49, but just barely. Somebody working 72 hours/week produced only a few % more than somebody working 49. So all the speculation in the comments that working many more hours may very likely not lead to much more productivity is well grounded. And that is in a repetitive manual task. One can only speculate but it seems likely the threshold point of rapidly diminishing returns would be even lower than 49 hours for somebody doing work involving highly creative mental work (e.g. academics).
This Slate piece on Wikipedia does a great job, in my opinion, of summarizing the problems with Wikipedia’s editing culture while also pointing out what an amazing resource it is. This was my cautionary tale on using Wikipedia as a classroom assignment. (ht: Alex Bond)
I agree with this piece by Auriel Fournier speaking out against unpaid internships. As she said:
When we create unpaid full-time positions, we exclude people. These people are great young scientists who can’t afford to not be paid, who don’t have large savings accounts or generous friends and family. I don’t have data to back up this statement, but I’m willing to say that we exclude more minorities then we include when we don’t pay our technicians and interns.
Here’s a great post on Tenure, She Wrote about the Three Body Problem. In this case, the author has a baby with special needs, and is considering how much to restrict a job hunt based on those needs.
Is the widespread view that the oceans are in an ecological crisis a zombie idea? Or at least way oversold by scientists, and thus by the media? Writing in BioScience, Duarte et al. say yes. Against them, other marine biologists say they’re overhyping their own contrarianism. I’ll have more to say about this sort of argument in a forthcoming book review…
The EEB and Flow recaps the 2015 International Biogeography Society meeting. I was particularly interested to read about David Currie‘s damning critique of macroecology as making no progress (e.g., on explaining the latitudinal richness gradient). According to Currie (who is himself a macroecologist), instead of trying to reject hypotheses macroecologists are looking for support for them, which is a problem because supporting evidence is always easy to find. They’re confusing correlation and causation. They’re mistaking model fitting for model testing. And they’re mistaking fancy stats for scientific rigor. I’m very curious to hear what Brian thinks of this, because it sounds to me like a mix of critiques he would heartily endorse, and critiques he would reject. For instance, I seem to recall Brian complaining that ecologists never give up on hypotheses or rule anything out–while also arguing that “strong inference” of the sort Currie calls for isn’t feasible in macroecology.
The Royal Society has issued new guidelines to encourage better management of the career expectations of graduate students. The British Ecological Society has a summary and some comments here. tl;dr: You’re probably not going to be an academic, so you and your supervisors should prepare you to do something else. Related posts from me and Meg, which have very useful comment threads. And see our series of posts on non-academic jobs for ecologists.
Zombie quotes in disease biology. (ht Retraction Watch)
A taxonomy of scientific con men, crackpots, and contrarians, by a National Academy physicist who got his PhD with a cell biologist who thought cell membranes didn’t exist. Notes that heroic contrarians like Barbara McClintock actually have a lot in common with crackpots, but suggests that the former aren’t emotionally attached to their pet ideas and will give them up if the data demand it. Which made me think that’s what’s missing from this taxonomy are ex-contrarians and ex-crackpots. People who were once convinced of some crazy-sounding hypothesis. And who after a lot of work eventually decided the hypothesis really was crazy. Anyone know of any examples? Semi-related: my old post on experiments so crazy they just might work, and this one asking “What’s the biggest scientific idea you ever changed your mind about?” (ht Retraction Watch)
Teachers of statistics often drum into their students that a statistically-significant but small effect may well not be scientifically interesting or important. But Andrew Gelman argues that such cases are rare, and that we should instead teach students to be suspicious of statistically-significant large effects. The argument is that, collectively, statistically-significant effect size estimates are upwardly-biased estimates of the true effect size.
Philosophers on why they got into philosophy. I’m struck by the variety and accidental character of many of the routes into philosophy. I bet the same would be true of ecology, or any field. (ht Marginal Revolution)
Prediction fail: Spotify’s algorithms think that people only like songs released in the first half of the year. Could be good fodder for an undergrad stats course.
And finally, xkcd on your gut macrobiota.🙂
Hoisted from the comments:
A long time ago I did a fun post asking readers what they were, or what they thought they were going to be, before they became ecologists. I never expected to get comments like the ones we just got this week. Ken Locey, currently a postdoc in microbial macroecology at Indiana, spent four years in the Marines. Below are a couple of quotes to encourage you to click through. Which you really should do; a brief quote can’t do justice to Ken’s very thoughtful comments about what it was like to be an “introspective intellectual” in the Marines, and how it changed him.
I dislike typing ‘kill’ when terminating a process in the linux terminal window because whoever came up with it didn’t really appreciate the gravity of the word.
Being a Marine was my first taste of completely defining myself in terms of something honorable. I lived to be proficient, to be an exemplar, to protect and mentor the people I was responsible for, and to figure out how to advance. Sometimes, I felt like a phony. Becoming a scientist, ecologist, and academic was my second taste of defining myself in terms of something honorable and, of course, all those other things still apply.