Friday links: weak inference in ecology, the Ambiguous Pazuma, you vs. lunch, and more (UPDATED)

Also this week: Mammal March Madness, replicating a hoax, in praise of tough questions, good writing in action (literally), Deborah Mayo on banning statistical inference, Meg’s shoes, and more. Even Brian read the internet this week!

From Brian (!):

Anybody who is not reading the blog Ecological Rants should be. I found this post particularly compelling. Although every graduate student I’ve ever talked to who reads Platt’s paper on strong inference (multiple competing hypotheses with decisive tests of which is right) says that is how ecology is done, its not how we’re doing ecology. And it may be even worse than Charley’s data suggests – he briefly notes that most of the “multiple competing hypothesis papers” are doing model selection using AIC which I would say is not at all (or only extremely weakly) Plattian. (Jeremy adds: jeez, if it’s not Meg stealing my links, it’s Brian!)

I’ve written several posts on the past on the process of good writing (here and here) because it is an interest of mine. This is a truly fascinating piece – somebody invented an app that lets you watch the writing of a google doc speeded-up (i.e. in time lapse). Including all the crossouts, rewrites, fluctuating pace, and the long stares at a screen without typing etc. I haven’t applied it to my own writing but I can’t wait to do so. It is amazing and very educational to literally watch somebody go through the process of writing.

From Meg:

Nature had a follow up to the Clancy et al. SAFE13 study that we’ve linked to before. The Nature piece talks about ecology specifically, including mentioning a panel that Josh Drew and Jacquelyn Gill will host at ESA this summer. As Jacquelyn says in the piece, “We need to create a culture where incidents are rare and reporting is easy.” The box in the piece has a depressing story about a case of harassment at a marine field station.

NPR had a piece on how we’re not taking enough lunch breaks. As a grad student, my favorite part of the day was going to the lunch room at KBS and having lunch with everyone there. More recently, my lab used to get together to all eat lunch together once a week, but we got out of that habit for reasons I no longer recall. Perhaps we need to start that practice up again!

How’s your Mammal March Madness bracket looking? I was only 4/8 in my picks for the Mighty Mini Mammal bracket, but 8/8 for the Critically Endangered one. Good news: the fox advanced to the next round! (Jeremy adds: The fox knows many things. Like how to eat food.)

A degree from an “elite” institution gives a boost on the job market . . . but being white gives a much bigger boost. Or, as the study’s author put it, “Education apparently has its limits because even a Harvard degree cannot make DaQuan as enticing as Charlie to employers.”

A British girl was upset that dinosaur shoes are only sold for boys, not girls. (I totally get it. I’d have been upset, too!) She took to twitter, and twitter created the #inmyshoes hashtag for women scientists to show off their shoes. I shared mine!

(ht: Trowel Blazers)

From Jeremy:

Caroline Tucker of The EEB and Flow hasn’t been asked any tough questions lately, and she misses it. Good for her! Related: how to ask and answer tough questions.

Charley Krebs surveyed two recent issues of Journal of Animal Ecology to see how often ecologists do “strong inference” sensu Platt (1964) (UPDATE: link fixed). That is (roughly): how often do they set up alternative scientific hypotheses and then collect the data needed to distinguish between the alternatives? Answer: depressingly rarely. As Charley notes, following this up with a more systematic and careful survey would be a great exercise that would lead to a high-impact review paper. Grad students: rope in some friends who want a side project, and do it! Closely related: my old post on the power of “checking all the boxes” in scientific research. And if you haven’t read Platt 1964, do click through–it’s a short, readable classic. Here’s a 50th anniversary discussion of it.

Paige Jarreau responds to my post on whether blogs are dying by noting that, according to survey data, very few science blogs are aimed at other scientists. So perhaps rather than asking if that sort of blogging was dying, I should’ve asked if it was ever alive in the first place! Paige also comments on how blogs now fill a narrower niche than they used to thanks to the advent of easier-to-use tools for doing some of the things blogs used to do; I agree. She also provides demographic data on science bloggers; the majority are students. And she comments at length on other topics covered by her extensive survey data.

If you’re a bemused but curious bystander to the ongoing kin selection/inclusive fitness battle, Birch and Okasha 2015 is a very clear, accessible paper by two philosophers, clarifying what the fight is about. It’s mostly a philosophical battle disguised as a scientific battle, so it’s very useful to have a couple of actual philosophers step in. Philosophers who both know the relevant scientific literature inside-out, and who can put it in a broader philosophical context.

As with Andrew Gelman, the entire internet apparently asked philosopher Deborah Mayo for her opinion on that social psychology journal that banned all inferential statistics. She obliges here, comparing the policy to “don’t ask, don’t tell”. My (brief) comments are here. It occurs to me that maybe the journal’s policy isn’t their real policy, but rather is a devious plan to goad top people like Andrew Gelman and Deborah Mayo into telling them what their policy should be. Sort of the statistical policy equivalent of Calvin and Hobbes shoveling snow. 🙂 Oh, and I love Clark Glymour’s comment over on Deborah Mayo’s blog: “Why don’t they go all the way and just ban data?” 🙂

Yet another zombie idea in psychology that is still shambling through the textbooks eating peoples’ brains when it should be long dead. I found it interesting because it’s what I now think of as a “paradigmatic” zombie idea: an idea that was high profile when it was proposed, gave rise to a major line of research–and that was subsequently discovered to be seriously flawed. But nobody but a few specialists realizes this because the original idea is now in the textbooks, which present the idea uncritically and without much detail. So the original idea is now something most people learn as undergrads or grad students and then never work on (or even think that much about) again. It’s just supposed to be part of their general background knowledge, not the subject of active research that might reject it as opposed to trying to build on it or modify it. (ht Andrew Gelman, who comments)

I doubt anyone cares about this, but I found it amusing. Remember the Sokal hoax? Well, it’s been replicated.

Emilio Bruna wonders if American ecologists are going to start moving abroad en masse in search of better career and funding opportunities. There certainly are a few well-funded institutes in Europe that have hired friends of mine in the past few years–ETH Zurich, iDiv in Germany. But I’m not sure if we’re talking about enough people overall to constitute some sort of trend. And the job market for top scientists has long been international. (UPDATE: Emilio comments to clarify his thoughts, which I didn’t summarize quite right.)

He’s not insane, he’s a taxonomist. 🙂

Finally, sad personal news for me: Terry Pratchett, my all-time favorite author, has died. In his honor, and in an attempt to justify sharing this news on an ecology blog, I give you an extended quote from his humorous fantasy novel Pyramids. It describes the natural history of the ambiguous pazuma, a mythical mammal that unaccountably didn’t make into the Mammal March Madness bracket:

[T]he fastest animal on the Disc is the extremely neurotic Ambiguous Pazuma, which moves so fast that it can actually achieve near-lightspeed in the Disc’s magical field. This means that if you can see a pazuma, it isn’t there. Most male pazumas die young of acute ankle failure caused by running very fast after females which aren’t there and, of course, achieving suicidal mass in accordance with relativistic theory. The rest of them die of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, since it is impossible for them to know who they are and where they are at the same time, and the see-sawing loss of concentration this engenders means that the pazuma only achieves a sense of identity when it is at rest–usually about fifty feet into the rubble of what remains of the mountain it just ran into at near light-speed. The pazuma is rumored to be about the size of a leopard with a rather unique black and white check coat, although those specimens discovered by the Disc’s sages and philosophers have inclined them to declare that in its natural state the pazuma is flat, very thin, and dead.


9 thoughts on “Friday links: weak inference in ecology, the Ambiguous Pazuma, you vs. lunch, and more (UPDATED)

  1. Hi Jeremy, thanks for the ping. I don’t think I was necessarily arguing there will be an huge migration, in fact as I say in the post the US continues to be the primary global destination for scientific talent. By “Brain Drain” I also meant the potential for star scientists who in the past would never have considered leaving – even a few of these more per year could be a big deal in terms of where the global academic hotspots are (see, e.g.,

    The TLDR summary is that I think we might see in ecology what has become an emerging trend in biotech fields — a willingness on the part of people, including major stars, to consider places previously off the radar. Sure, there have always been people who would consider leaving a position in the US for one at ETH Zurich. But what about for one in Singapore or the XTBG? 15 years ago I think not. Today, the financial resources available at those institutions (along with the increasingly global community of scholars and quality of life there) means many would consider it seriously, at least IMO.

    Anyway, thanks as always for the link…curious to hear what your readers think.

  2. Following Emilio’s lead- I have long wondered why a migration has not occurred heretofore. And more specifically, why a significant migration has not occurred to what we now describe as the “developing world”- i.e., those nations experiencing significant turmoil on an economic, social & political scale. I put this query out there on both practical & philosophical grounds.

    In terms of practicality, the degree of potential competition from other scientists for working in unstable regions of the world is obviously far less than in places like the US or western Europe. Philosophically, those places in greatest need of ecological/ environmental research, remediation & restoration are those places many academics apparently would dare not enter. Obviously organizations like the WWF buck the trend- and they are by no means alone in their efforts. But I do believe there exists a significant philosophical quandary within the ecological community when it comes to innate preferences for where they work and what they do.

    I have been guilty of this most of my career. I specifically sought out work in the most spectacular & pristine landscapes of North America. And I must confess, previously, I passed on opportunities in places not unlike the Congo, Ethiopia and Nicaragua. My attitude, quite simply, was elitist. When I established the Edwin James Society in 2009 (this is not a shameless plug- & I am not asking anyone to check us out… I have more than enuf to worry about, believe u me)- I really dug down deep to ask myself what was really important within the context of my career. My personal answer was as follows: I had not come even close to approaching what really mattered.

    I have since discovered the “developing world” is starving for development of sound and long-term ecological/ environmental programs- both scholarly & applied. The opportunities we have unearthed are, quite simply, infinite and much more than our little organization will ever “bite off & chew”. So, even though I am a newbie to this blog- I encourage the bloggers to consider a forum that digs into the depths of what I perceive to be a really challenging philosophical issue.

    In a nutshell, is our field dominated by stuffy ole elitist peacocks twirling pretty little butterfly nets on balmy Sundays, in between servings of caviar and Napa Valley Zinfandel, or, are we just more comfortable with a round of croquette than, say, a game of Survivor on the Ivory Coast? In assembling my own academic organization, I realized I had been one of those stereotypical elitist doctors playing golf every Tuesday at the Country Club- and only performing surgery when a patient walked through the O.R. door with a Platinum card. Nowadays, I am working in some of the most unstable, over-populated and polluted places on Earth… and I would not have it any other way.

    Migrate??? U Betcha!!!

    • “is our field dominated by stuffy ole elitist peacocks twirling pretty little butterfly nets on balmy Sundays, in between servings of caviar and Napa Valley Zinfandel, or, are we just more comfortable with a round of croquette than, say, a game of Survivor on the Ivory Coast?”

      I think that’s hugely overstating it, unless you see “stuffy ole elitist peacocks” as synonymous with “middle-class and upper-middle class Westerners”.

      As Emilio’s post notes, some ecologists are moving abroad not to dangerous places with few resources, but to safe places with many resources. Which I think is not only understandable but hardly blameworthy. You can admire people who work in places like the Ivory Coast when they could work someplace safer (and better resourced, closer to family and friends, without language barriers…) without implying that people who don’t work in the Ivory Coast are selfish elitist dilettantes.

      • I agree my verbiage was likely over-stated, but that was intentional for effect. What I was trying to get at is what seems to be a significant bias, which I confessed to have harbored for a very long time. My view of the issue is drawn from my experiences in medicine, and I think the analogy is a good one.

        We have witnessed a significant migration of European and Indian MDs to the USA… not because of any real need to have foreign MDs practice medicine here. They come here because they are not allowed to earn the kinds of seven or eight figure incomes from where they came. I am not alleging ecologists draw salaries of that magnitude. The point I was trying to make is, if we view the Earth as a patient, then as practitioners of ecology we should ask what the patient requires for long term survival. It is analogous to a human patient arriving to the ER with a ruptured aorta and hangnail. Obviously, the MD will treat the ruptured Aorta and leave the hangnail alone for quite some time.

        The philosophical debate I believe to hinge upon the choices we have as professionals. As I said, I once passed on opportunities to go to the “untouchable” places- instead opting for the pristine vistas. I know from my own experience that the bias was really very significant. So the parallel I was trying to put out there with my overt prose was that, even though as an ecologist I am not making 7 or 8 figures per year- I was really no different than the Country Club Doc when it came to doing my job. In pointing the finger- I was careful to point it at myself before anyone else.

        My experience seems to reveal there are virtually unlimited opportunities for US- and European-trained ecologists to secure long time gigs in insecure places… so why are we not seeing the migration? I believe it is a very important question to address, because the ethical implications are really no different than an ER physician treating the hangnail and letting the aorta explode.

      • I don’t accept your analogy to ecologists as doctors. Applied ecology isn’t the only sort worth doing:

        “We have witnessed a significant migration of European and Indian MDs to the USA… not because of any real need to have foreign MDs practice medicine here.”

        Actually, there are legitimate arguments about whether US medical schools supply doctors at a socially-optimal rate.

        “why are we not seeing the migration?”

        Is that a serious question? Are you seriously mystified why more middle and upper middle class scientists from developed countries aren’t moving to dangerous developing countries, far from friends and family, where they don’t speak the language? And further, do you seriously think that it might be *unethical* for them not to have done so?

        “In pointing the finger- I was careful to point it at myself before anyone else.”

        Um, the Edwin James Foundation website says that you’re currently based in Denver, Colorado. There’s nothing there about you having moved to the developing world. So based on the information available to me, it looks to me like you’re urging others to do something you haven’t done yourself. So I’m afraid I’m unclear why you think you’re entitled to compare Western ecologists who haven’t moved to dangerous developing countries to physicians who are so unethical (really, stupid) as to treat hangnails while letting aortas rupture.

        You’re going *way* beyond advocating for the importance and value applied ecological work, ecological work in non-pristine locations, and Western ecologists moving to and working in developing countries. All of those things are or can be extremely valuable. If that was the only point you wanted to make, I wish you’d have just come out and said so. Because you’re going *much* further and saying that anybody who doesn’t move to dangerous developing countries to do ecology is totally selfish and completely unethical. And you’ve backed that inflammatory claim up with nothing but rhetoric, bad analogies, and claims about your own personal experience.

        This conversation is no longer productive in my view. We’re talking past each other. You’ve said your piece, I’ve said mine, we’ll have to agree to disagree on all counts.

  3. Some European Universities are also offering part-time positions to highly cited scientists in order to get better position in national rankings (UK for instance).
    Some highly respected North American academics may decide to take academic positions at institutions offering a lot of money, freedom and academic power, but more of a symptom of something not working in the NA system, it is evidence of more money (might be a bubble) invested in research by emerging countries or city-states (e.g. Singapore). Then, afaik highly respected scientists switching to part-time or adjunct positions in super-top Universities in order to get more money outside academia or face more applied challenges was not as frequent years ago, now it is quite common (think about Computer Science for example).
    I don’t envision any mass migration (not that Emilio’s post was pointing at that) from NA to Spain, France, Italy, many German Institutions. Not enough money for salaries or grants to convince academics to leave the still rich, highly prestigious NA academic system.

  4. Before departing the subject entirely, please let me apologize for my invectives. As I said, it was done for effect- to stimulate debate. I do honor your request to let it go, though, and shall not pursue it further here. I respect your station to moderate the blog and abide by it. I just feel that introspection of really fundamental philosophies is important.

    Many years ago, I taught a non-majors course in a hybrid ecology/ environmentalist format. Much of the material presented concerned alternative technologies aimed to reduce human footprints. After teaching this for several years, I kind of realized I was being hypocritical in terms of my own lifestyle- meaning, I was talking the talk, but not walking the walk.

    So I sold my comfy, upscale highrise condo and donated most of its contents to local charities. I built a 17 sq meter home and have lived in it now for 10 years. Other than LED lighting, there is no electricity. It requires no heating or AC, and alternative technologies reduced my water consumption by 95% It’s as bare-bones as it gets, with virtually none of the amenities considered standard for an educated Westerner.

    I’ve never suggested anyone adopt such radical changes, because I am here to tell ya, it was by no means an easy adjustment for me. But I embrace it now, and my life is simply tremendously improved, having so many of the stresses & worries of mortgages, insurances, maintenance & what not since removed. When I taught the course after making this transition, I never suggested my students do the same, but, I think I connected the curriculum much more effectively.

    So I was not suggesting everyone flee to the abyss… .

  5. Pingback: Why AIC appeals to ecologist’s lowest instincts | Dynamic Ecology

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