Friday links: origin of an evolutionary icon, Canada vs. basic research, and more (UPDATED)

Also this week: a sexist peer review, the history of popular science, comparative advantage vs. teaching assignments, vignettes of famous evolutionary biologists, there’s no such thing as Big Science, and more.

From Meg:

In case you think things are all just peachy for women in science, read about this review that two women evolutionary biologists received on their manuscript on gender differences in the transition from PhD student to postdoc. The reviewer suggested, among other things, that they should consider working with “one or two male biologists” on the research. This is definitely an argument in favor of double-blind peer review; given that, the timing on this correspondence to Nature (from this week’s issue) arguing against double-blind review is interesting.

From Jeremy:

UPDATE: a late Friday afternoon addition: congratulations to Alan Hastings for election to the National Academy of Sciences!

Ever wonder how a drawing of apes and ape-like ancestors walking in line behind a modern human became an iconic image of evolution? Here’s the answer.

Robert Trivers’ personal recollections of famous evolutionary biologists. (ht Marginal Revolution) Very personal and frank–Robert Trivers always tells you exactly what he thinks. Plenty of amusing anecdotes too, like this one about Phil Darlington:

We also feared him because he was a tall, lanky, dour, elderly character who did not invite easy banter. But there was one reason we all loved him. He had a pronounced limp on one side and he gained this, we were told, is the service of evolutionary biology. As the story went, he was walking along a rope ladder above a river in Indonesia when a crocodile leapt up and grabbed his leg and hauled him into the river. As is their style, a croc likes to pull you under water, whip you around and drown you. On his way down Darlington was alleged to have said to himself in righteous anger, “Wait a second, you don’t collect us as specimens, we collect you!” In any case, he managed to free himself and reach safety, although for the rest of his life he walked with a pronounced limp.

Trivers has incisive things to say about science as well as scientists. For instance, here’s Trivers–himself a theoretician–on the value of hypothesis-free, curiosity-driven data collection:

He was a pure empiricist…I love these people—they work for the future and gather data whose logic later generations will reveal. Precisely because they have no axes to grind or hypotheses to prove, their data are apt to be more reliable than the first wave after a new theory.

The papers from the ASN debate on determinants of continental-scale species richness are out! Looking forward to digging into them.

Imagine you’re a department chair. You have to assign faculty to teach courses. You should assign each course to the best prof to teach that course, right? Wrong.

Congratulations to the 2015 ESA Fellows and Early Career Fellows!

On the different cultures of data analysis in different fields.

A brief history of popular science.

Speaking of popular science, I sure hope this is intentionally ironic. But then, as the previous piece notes, if you want people like Oliver Sacks and Carl Sagan, you’re going to have to live with Dr. Oz and bad TED talks.

The Canadian government thinks that its job is to subsidize industrial R&D rather than fund basic research. Sigh. Further discussion here.

NY Times magazine with a feature on the urban ecology of New York City, focusing on animal movement. My former labmate Timon McPhearson makes an appearance.

There’s no such thing as Big Science–only Big Engineering. And Big Engineering projects are only scientifically helpful in fields where we already know a lot and have a well-developed theoretical framework. Begin arguing over whether this is true, and its applicability to NEON…now! (ht Not Exactly Rocket Science)

18 thoughts on “Friday links: origin of an evolutionary icon, Canada vs. basic research, and more (UPDATED)

  1. I am not endorsing the peer review suggesting that these female researchers work with male biologists, but I am interested in hearing the articulation of a general principle about when — if ever — recommending gender diversity is acceptable.

    • Personally, I’d never recommend that authors collaborate with someone of a different gender in order to address some shortcoming in their scientific paper. I might recommend that they collaborate with someone with expertise on topic X or statistical technique Y or whatever.

      Andrew Gelman speculates that sometimes, having both male and female authors gives papers undeserved credibility:

      • I’d agree that it is unacceptable to recommend gender diversity on the assumption that members of one or the other sex have more expertise. But what is the benefit of gender diversity in and of itself?

      • Actually there are quite a few studies in the business management literature showing that decisions made by groups that are diverse are better than decisions made by homogeneous groups. That’s a purely practical argument. There are of course fairness arguments. (And just to be clear I am talking about the context of large group processes – I think the reviewers suggestion in the particular instance was offensive).

      • What is it that might make a group of men and women more heterogeneous than a group of only men or a group of only women? Heterogeneity and diversity imply differences, but what are these differences, and how would they produce better decisions?

    • Its a very different context than a paper but proposals for working groups at working groups (e.g. NCEAS, etc) have diversity (career stage, geography and gender are all explicitly mentioned) in their criteria and are definitely part of the evaluation criteria.

      I wonder if size of group is not a relevant factor. WIth 2 or 4 authors it could be by chance. But with 10 or 15 attendees 95% one gender is happening through carelessness (presumably not intention) with a p-value that is vanishingly small.

      Also I do think direction matters. A group that is all male just is in this day and age more problematic than a group that is all female.

    • Hey, look! This comment thread just increased its gender diversity!

      To add to Brian’s point, some of the research I’ve read have suggested that socialized differences in the way men and women act in groups affects the productivity and creativity of group projects. But it’s all statistical. Men are more likely to act a certain way and women are more likely to act another way. But any given set of individuals may fall anywhere along the statistical curve. So you need a decent sized sample (2 is too small, 15 is reasonable, as Brian points out; I’m not sure where/if there’s a discrete dividing line) to ensure some diversity of ways-of-interacting in a group.

      L.J., your original question is interesting, though. Just last week, a friend/colleague had a high-profile paper published and was advertising it on social media. I read the abstract and author list and got excited; good scientists and a neat topic. Then I realized all 10 authors were men. So I gently prodded my friend: “are there really no excellent women working on this topic?!” His response was that the paper came out of a working group that *did* have women in it. But they didn’t happen to be on this paper. I went and checked out the working group, which has 15 men and 5 women in it. And there are papers from this working group with women on it (and as lead authors). Just this one happened to have 10 men.

      I think the important thing is to keep up awareness of implicit bias, which is something everyone has. When thinking about who to work with / invite / write papers with, it’s very common in science that male names leap to mind first. So if you’re working with a group of 15 people and they’re all a single gender. It should be a signal to stop and think, “did we miss inviting other equally qualified people of the other gender because of implicit bias?” But if you’re working with just one or two other people, your sample size is too small to raise that alarm.

      • Hi Margaret,

        That’s an interesting example: a paper with 10 male authors and 0 female authors, from a group with 15 men and 5 women. It would be interesting to see whether the sex permutations in authorship matter. Research on courts has uncovered evidence of panel effects in which judges vote differently when a female or African American judge is on the panel; these effects typically are detected in studies where the sample is restricted to specific types of cases, such as sex discrimination cases or affirmative action cases (e.g., Kastellec 2012 AJPS).

        These types of panel effects are one of the reasons why I find the peer review in this case so interesting. If the peer reviewer had suggested that a male reviewer or male coauthor might help improve interpretation of data on, say, a chemical reaction, then I’d have no trouble characterizing the peer review as sexist. But, in this case, the manuscript was about gender bias in academic biology, so that’s a topic on which it is much more reasonable to expect men and women to have different perspectives on how to interpret data.

        Having said that, I’d agree with Jeremy’s sentiments earlier, that the peer reviewer should have instead encouraged the authors to find someone to review the manuscript who disagreed with or might be expected to disagree with the interpretation that the authors proposed; there’s no guarantee that a man would provide this alternate interpretation of the data.

        But, for whatever reason, the peer reviewer instead suggested that the researchers consult with a male biologist. My problem is that I have not yet been able to figure out how to condemn the peer reviewer’s suggestion that female researchers consult a male researcher on a manuscript about gender bias *and at the same time* believe that gender diversity is beneficial for fostering different perspectives.

  2. Wow – those personal recollections of Triver’s are amazing (long but worth it). I’m only part way through but finding his descriptions of Gould on target and humorous.

    • Perhaps worth noting that Gould et al.’s own impressions of Trivers likely would be equally frank and striking. In particular, I doubt there’s any love lost between Bob Trivers and the folks about whom he expresses negative views in that piece. Which isn’t to say Trivers’ impressions are wrong, necessarily–Dick Lewontin himself seems to share Trivers’ impression of Gould, albeit in milder form. But as an outsider, it’s always a little difficult to infer from pieces like this what someone who’s not the writer would think about the people being written about.

  3. Would anyone really think to themselves “Wait a second, you don’t collect us as specimens, we collect you!” as they were being dragged into the water by a crocodile?! I’m fairly sure my response would be “OOOOOHHHHHHHHHHSHHHHIIIIIIIIIITTTTTTTTTTT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

  4. Broken link for:
    Imagine you’re a department chair. You have to assign faculty to teach courses. You should assign each course to the best prof to teach that course, right? Wrong.

  5. Rather than that case of sexist peer review being an argument for double-blind peer review, Plos One seems to have decided it’s an argument for getting rid of reviewer anonymity. See the end of this:

    They’ve also publicly apologized to the authors, condemned the sentiments expressed in the review, fired the editor who handled the ms, dropped the reviewer in question from their database, formally eliminated the review from the record, and sent the ms to a new editor for re-review.

  6. Pingback: L.J Zigerell | Recap of my madcap #addmaleauthorgate adventure

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