Why this blog seems so critical (or, “No, I don’t think all of ecology is wrong”)

Via Twitter, Andrew MacDonald asks a good question:

Do you ever read @DynamicEcology and feel like you’ve never done ecology correctly, and neither do most other people?

I can totally appreciate where this question comes from, and it’s one readers have had before. So I made a rare foray onto Twitter and replied via tweetstorm. But I don’t know how to storify tweets, plus nobody would read the storify unless I blogged about it, so I figured I’d just blog my response.

tl;dr: I don’t think that most ecologists are doing it wrong! Indeed, I think that, collectively, we’re better at ecology than we’ve ever been. But I can totally see why my blogging might give some people a different impression. So click through if you want a navel-gazing post on what I actually think about ecology and why I blog as I do.

Ok, here’s the deal: I have no idea how to quantify the overall “state” of ecology, much less judge how good of a state it’s in either in some absolute sense or relative to however good it could possibly be (how would you ever do any of that?). But that doesn’t matter. I think that there’s lots of excellent ecology being published all the time. I think that, overall, ecologists are better at ecology than they’ve ever been, but that it’s hard to compare across eras. I think that most every ecologist is a good scientist, and that most every graduate student in ecology is training to be a good scientist. I think that, when mistakes happen (and I make them as often as anyone), it’s almost invariably because ecology is hard, not because ecologists are incompetent or ignorant. I have no idea how common it is for ecologists to make mistakes (how would you ever quantify that, except for certain sorts of purely technical mistakes?) I have no idea how serious a typical mistake in ecology is (again, how would ever quantify that?) And I think that by far the most important sorts of mistakes are common mistakes and collective mistakes, not one-off mistakes by individuals. Finally, and most importantly, no matter how well ecology is doing, I think it’s vital to talk about how it can be done better.

So having said all that, how come I write so much critical stuff like yesterday’s post? Several reasons:

  • I blog about whatever I happen to feel inspired to blog about, and my muse is fickle. Which means I only blog about a very small and non-random fraction of my views. There are many topics I don’t blog about, for various reasons. I can totally see why readers would assume that my choices of what to blog about reflect my overall views on the state of the field–but they don’t. Economist Nick Rowe has a good post that also describes my own approach to blogging.
  • I try to add value with my blog posts. Certain sorts of positive posts add little value. In particular, I don’t think it adds value for me to link to or summarize the many new ecology papers I like, which is why I rarely do it. People already have their own ways of filtering the literature, and anyone who wants summaries of the sorts of papers I read can just read their abstracts. As evidenced by the fact that, when I used to write such posts for Oikos Blog, they drew far less traffic than any other sort of post except joke posts. Not that I want traffic for traffic’s sake (I don’t). But drawing traffic is one (imperfect) sign that you’re adding value.
  • In general, I do think that a healthy science, especially a young science like ecology, needs to include serious criticism of ideas, and serious back-and-forth discussion and debate. My sense is that serious criticism of ideas and back-and-forth debate is rarer than it should be ecology (e.g., this, this, this). But that’s a vague sense. I have no idea how to quantify how much criticism and debate we have or should ideally have.
  • I hope that even critical posts help make the field better in some small way. The goal is never to destroy the field or encourage ecologists to all just give up and go home!

Also, I think that I (and Brian and Meg) publish a wide range of posts, including posts offering positive advice and praising other ecologists and the work they do. But I suspect that it’s the critical ones that tend to stick in some readers’ minds.* So here’s a very incomplete list of positive posts just off the top of my head. Mostly mine, but I threw in a few from Brian and Meg. I offer it not to try to prove that we’re “really” super-positive, but just to show (in case it needed showing) that we’re not totally negative, and to point readers who’d prefer to read our more positive material in the right direction.

Tony Ives rocks

In praise of a novel, risky prediction: Biosphere II

The power of combining diverse research approaches in ecology

Thoughts on NutNet

In praise of system-based research

Good reasons for choosing a research project

Ecological success stories

What’s your best paper?

Recent ecology and evolution papers I thought were really good

Statisticians, meet ecologists

What sort of papers win the Mercer Award

Big concepts and ideas from the last 100 years of ecology

What’s the best ecology paper by a young author in 2014-15?

In praise of exploratory statistics

The unlimited potential of microcosms in ecology

In praise of shopkeeper science

Finally, having said all that, do I sometimes make the mistake of setting the bar too high in my posts and making the perfect the enemy of the good? Yes, probably. Could I do a better job of saying what to do as well as what not to do? Yes, definitely. In particular, Brian is much better at this than me. Would this be a better blog if I sometimes decided not to blog about critical stuff I felt like blogging about? Maybe, I dunno. It’s hard to please everyone.

In conclusion, I’m sorry if you find my stuff intimidating or depressing. I hope it’s obvious that’s not my intent!** All I wanted to do in this post is make sure nobody misunderstands my own views about the state of the field, or misunderstands why I blog as I do. And if this blog makes you feel like an imposter sometimes, well, we have some posts for that (here and here). 🙂

Consider this an invitation to comment on my tone and content. Criticism welcome, obviously. 🙂

*Maybe because they have better catchphrases (“zombie ideas”, “statistical machismo”). 🙂

**Keep in mind as well that Meg, Brian, and I are a tiny and non-random sample of all the ecologists in the world, the majority of whom don’t read this blog, and none of whom would agree with us on everything. Both our representativeness and influence are more limited than you might think. So just because we publish a post criticizing X should not cause you to panic over having done X.

9 thoughts on “Why this blog seems so critical (or, “No, I don’t think all of ecology is wrong”)

  1. Hi Jeremy, I’m sure that how people would respond to Andrew’s question varies with a bunch of things including career stage but I have to say the simple answer to Andrew’s question for me was No. This isn’t meant to imply that there’s anything wrong with the question – it would just be interesting to know how many people would answer Yes. Best, Jeff.

    • FWIW, at least 10 people have “liked” his tweet, so I’m guessing that means at least 10 people would answer Yes. At a casual glance, many of them appear to be grad students.

      Am now kicking myself for not including a poll on this.

  2. Heh, it’s so much easier to see how to do science (and many other things) wrong than to figure out how to do it right. But I think your posts are super for (A) reminding people to avoid common and not-so-common pitfalls; and (2) helping the earlier career of us be efficient by avoiding mistakes we might not have come across yet.

    • Re: common and not-so-common pitfalls, as Andrew McDonald asked on Twitter, it would be interesting to know how often our advice or opinions contradict what people have heard from other sources. But for many sorts of advice or opinions I think it’d be hard to poll on this.

      • In my opinion, it’s not so much contradictory advice as pointing out something that was off-the-radar. “Oh! I hadn’t even thought about that assumption that underlies the method I was using…”

      • Since that’s exactly the reaction I’m hoping for with many of my critical posts, I’m declaring you the Thread Winner and giving you +1000 Internet Points. 🙂 #reinforcingmyfilterbubble

  3. I find your critical posts so helpful in navigating my chosen discipline. I have certainly identified a few mistakes I have made or was in danger of making through your blog. There is room for improvement within the field of ecology and every other field via a critical dialogue such as those promoted here. Thanks.

  4. Since I’m catching up on my Dynamic Ecology today, I’ll chime in as well and say that this blog is a great service to ecology (and you can quote me in your annual review ;)). My interpretation is that the content was always meant to incite (civil) conversation and thoughtful reflection. Sure, I may not always agree with a post, but I can say they have all given me a bit of pause and made me work harder, internally and elsewhere, to justify the direction of my work. Keep it up!

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