Ecology is f*cked. Or awesome. Whichever.

You’ve probably already seen this because it went viral on social media: the syllabus for PSY 607: Everything is F*cked (ht @dandrezner).

Ok, the title is trolling, but in a good way–it actually looks like a really good psychology course to me. It’s good mental exercise to consider the possibility that your entire field might have gone off the rails, even if you don’t really believe it has.

Unlike social psychologists, ecologists don’t have a widespread collective sense that their entire field is f*cked, and I don’t think they should. In case it needs saying, ecology is not f*cked! But it’s still amusing and interesting to imagine what the syllabus for an advanced ecology course would look like if ecology were f*cked. So here’s an opening bid for the syllabus of ECO 607: Everything is F*cked. Suggest edits/additions in the comments!

Week 1: Ecology has long been f*cked. Excerpts from Peters’ A Critique For Ecology.

Week 2: Classic ideas are f*cked. My posts on zombie ideas in ecology, of course.

Week 3: Field studies are f*cked. Hurlbert 1984, plus Hurlbert’s later follow-up showing that pseudoreplication remains common.

Week 4: Lab studies are f*cked. Carpenter 1996.

Week 5: Hypothesis testing is f*cked. Scheiner 2013. Quinn & Dunham 1983.

Week 6: Statistics are f*cked. Brian’s posts on statistical machismo, the cult of AIC, and the insidious evils of ANOVA. Also Low-Decarie et al., showing that ecology papers are reporting lower and lower R^2 values.

Week 7: Data sharing and meta-analysis are f*cked. Lindenmayer & Likens 2013. (need a better critique of meta-analysis here…)

Week 8: Community ecology is f*cked. Lawton 1999 arguing that there are no general laws in community ecology, so we should quit doing it. (need critiques of other subfields here…)

Week 9: Natural history is f*cked. Dayton & Sala 2001. Lindenmayer & Likens 2011.

Week 10: Conservation is f*cked. Excerpts from John Terborgh’s Requiem For Nature. Also, this series arguing big conservation has gone off the rails. And maybe an excerpt from The Sixth Extinction.

Week 11: Big ecology is f*cked. News pieces on the struggles of NEON to get off the ground, plus a historical piece on the failure of the IBP.

Week 12: The global climate is f*cked. Take your pick from the universe of pessimistic pieces on how warm the planet will get by 2100 and the consequences for people and other species. For instance.

Weeks 13-14: Maybe the course should conclude by spending a couple of weeks on reasons ecology is f*cked that apply to other fields as well? Scientific publication is f*cked? Peer review is f*cked? Government funding for basic research is f*cked? The academic job market is f*cked?

It’s also interesting to imagine the syllabus for the opposing course, about how ecology is in a hugely exciting time and poised for rapid advance. They’d make a good pair: ECO 607: Everything is F*cked, and ECO 608: Everything is Awesome. Ideally, both courses should cover exactly the same topics. So in the comments, tell us what should be in ECOL 608: Everything is Awesome, retaining the topic list above. Here and here are some freebies for “Week 4: Lab studies are awesome” to get you started.

Interestingly (depressingly?), I find it much harder to think of readings for ECO 608: Everything is Awesome. It’s very easy to think of specific examples of awesome ecology–awesome field studies, awesome lab studies, awesome applications of statistics, etc. But it’s much harder to think of pieces showing that in general this or that bit of ecology is awesome.

And finally, just for fun:

27 thoughts on “Ecology is f*cked. Or awesome. Whichever.

  1. Just discovered the Lindenmayer & Likens 2013 article through this post. What an appalling paper – I cite:

    “There is also the emerging issue of a generation of what we term here as “parasitic” scientists who will never be motivated to go and gather data because it takes real effort and time and it is simply easier to use data gathered by others. The pressure to publish and extraordinary levels of competition at universities and other institutions (Lindenmayer and Likens 2011) will continue to positively select for such parasitic scientists. This approach to science again has the potential to lead to context-free, junk science.”

    Both inappropriate and pointless as a critique of meta-analysis.

  2. I’d include metabarcoding in week 9 of the ‘everything is awesome’ course – natural history is broader than species ID’s, but we are finding out tonnes of cool things with genetic ID techniques.

  3. Noting for the record that, with an admittedly-small sample size of 96 voters, votes for “f*cked” are outrunning votes for “awesome” almost 2:1. With “yes” far outrunning both.

  4. It’s interesting (don’t you think?) that most of the reasons being given why ecology may be f*cked are technical or statistical.

    Find it hard to believe, myself, that stats are really misleading us that badly. More interesting to look at the questions being studied. Maybe a lot of them have gotten too arcane for a clear answer to be expected — they’re not about topics where it’s reasonable to expect a lot of predictability.

    • Hmm…looking at my mock syllabus again, it doesn’t look mostly technical or statistical to me. Does it to you?

      The only weeks clearly concerned with technical/statistical issues are weeks 3 and 6. Possibly week 5, depending on whether you’d classify the suggested readings as technical/statistical (I’d say Quinn & Dunham is too philosophical to be considered technical/statistical). Possibly week 4, I guess, though personally I don’t think Carpenter’s piece is primarily concerned with technical issues. Though it is concerned with methodology–how we answer the questions we’ve chosen to ask, rather than with choice of question. So I guess if you define “technical” as “anything to do with how we answer questions, rather than what questions to ask”, then weeks 3-7 are all “technical”, and weeks 2 and 11 sort of are. But that’s still only half the weeks, because several of the weeks aren’t really about either choice of question or how to answer them.

      Having said all that, I agree that one could do a week on “ecologists’ ability to ask big questions is f*cked”. Here’s a possible reading: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2013/06/10/and-the-most-cited-ecology-papers-from-the-70s-80s-and-90s-are/

      I also agree with you that, if you were to rank the importance of different problems in ecology, I don’t think technical statistical mistakes are #1. In general, I think the importance of technical mistakes is overrated because they’re relatively easy to diagnose and talk about–in bemoaning them, we’re looking under the streetlamp a bit. I also think the most common and serious technical statistical mistakes often are just symptoms of deeper problems that wouldn’t be cured by, say, banning null hypothesis testing or whatever.

  5. Some small points:

    1. Not sure what “yes” actually signifies in the post and I doubt if those who voted for it do either.

    2. I don’t like the * – just say it as it is – fucked. We’re all adults here (probably).

    3. That said, all of these “X is fucked” memes irritate the hell out of me. It’s just lazy, bumper-sticker cynicism. NOTHING is fucked – EVERYTHING has its strengths and weaknesses, that can be discussed and debated. I know you’re got your tongue firmly in your cheek, Jeremy, but I don’t think there’s any need to perpetuate this meme for ecology.

    4. I can suggest some wider reading for week 2 😉

    • “1. Not sure what “yes” actually signifies in the post and I doubt if those who voted for it do either.”

      Under “Options” in Firefox, select “Highlight jokes”.:-)

      “2. I don’t like the * – just say it as it is – fucked. We’re all adults here (probably).”

      Yes, good question whether the * actually serves any purpose. It’s a widespread convention, which I chose to follow.

      “3. That said, all of these “X is fucked” memes irritate the hell out of me. It’s just lazy, bumper-sticker cynicism. NOTHING is fucked – EVERYTHING has its strengths and weaknesses, that can be discussed and debated. I know you’re got your tongue firmly in your cheek, Jeremy, but I don’t think there’s any need to perpetuate this meme for ecology.”

      Said the guy who wrote a guest post for us with the words “zombie idea” in the title.:-) Seriously, the appropriateness of rhetoric, devil’s advocacy, and other deliberate provocation are *very* much in the eye of the beholder. You don’t think there weren’t a few readers–probably more than a few!–who saw the title of your guest post with Angela Moles, rolled their eyes, and said “Come on, this is just clickbait, NOTHING is a zombie idea, EVERYTHING has its strengths and weaknesses”?

      As I said in the post, I agree with you that ecology’s not fucked. I just think it’s fun, and useful mental exercise, to consider the hypothetical possibility that it is. If you think it’s not fun and not useful, sorry, we’ll have to agree to disagree.

      • All fair points, Jeremy, though I do think there’s a big gap between the rhetoric of “it’s a zombie idea” and the rhetoric of “everything is fucked”.

        On reflection I think that my reaction may be because, as a Brit, I’m very conscious that things like “x is fucked” (or more usually “x is broken”) are used almost daily by elements within the media to describe aspects of society that they are fundamentally opposed to, the most prominent examples being “the NHS is broken” or “the EU is broken”. It’s an insidious chipping away at aspects of our lives that many of us value enormously and it’s very dispiriting.

      • “It’s an insidious chipping away at aspects of our lives that many of us value enormously and it’s very dispiriting. ”

        Yes, I hear you, I feel the same. I still follow the British news, having lived there for four years and gotten very attached. I can totally see how “X is fucked/broken” rhetoric would go down badly with many Brits.

    • p.s. FWIW, this post is proving unusually popular for us–lots of traffic, *lots* of positive response on Twitter. Georgina Mace for one just favorited it on Twitter! Several people saying that they’d like to take or teach this hypothetical course.

      Small and non-random sample obviously. And I suppose this might just show that others besides me are perpetuating a cynical, destructive meme. I certainly wouldn’t argue that just because a lot of people like the post, it must be great. There are bad things lots of people like. The contrast between your reaction and other people’s reaction is just a small illustration of how it’s impossible to please all the people all the time as a blogger. 🙂

  6. So what is the difference between a self-reflective correction and resteering vs a claim that we are hopelessly messed up? Almost all of the pieces you cite were more likely attempts to resteer and correct rather than throw up ones hands and give up.

    Would one want to be part of a field that never took stock and identified problems?

    • “So what is the difference between a self-reflective correction and resteering vs a claim that we are hopelessly messed up? ”

      Good question. The linked psychology syllabus has what I think is a good answer: a field is fucked when it has serious *unfixable* problems.

      Yes, probably the majority of readings I suggested diagnose serious fixable problems, rather than unfixable ones. Though I guess that’d be part of what you’d want a course like this to debate: which problems, if any, really are unfixable? For instance, I could imagine pairing excerpts from Peters’ Critique with more recent work (like yours!) making the same point–ecologists are bad at making predictions. And then saying “Hey, people have been pointing this problem out for decades, that strongly suggests it’s unfixable”. Again, not saying I buy that argument–but I think it’s an argument worth considering. That’s what I mean by it being good mental exercise to consider the possibility that something is completely fucked. It’s a form of mental discipline–it forces you to take attempts to resteer and correct *very* seriously (because we are *fucked* if those attempts fail!)

  7. What a fun post, but also one that is really engaging: in essence the post is asking “what is true?”

    The post/poll/responses have made me laugh and also really concerned to learn that many (but hopefully not most) people think that our field/conservation/the future is hopeless. I’ve had those thoughts, too.

    My truth is this: I know that I still get a thrill whenever I learn or uncover something new to me, an insight into the workings of the natural world, no matter how small. And I believe that most other ecologists do, too. This is why we will continue, this is why we will not give in to hopelessness. The natural world will go on regardless, and we want to learn everything about it that we can. If that is true for most ecologists, then that is enough to keep the candle burning isn’t it?

    • “really concerned to learn that many (but hopefully not most) people think that our field/conservation/the future is hopeless.”

      Don’t be too glum about the poll. By far the most common response is “Yes”. Which I suspect was mostly taken as a way of saying “there are some things about ecology that are great, and others that need fixing”. Which seems reasonable. Respondents saying “we’re fucked” outnumber those saying “we’re awesome”, but both are outnumbered by “Yes”.

  8. Hi Jeremy; come on… its easy to come up with some readings for 608. Begin with Behavioral Ecology, and use GA Parker’s historical overview as a template: https://books.google.com/books?id=guDKFQZZIQAC&pg=PA23&lpg=PA23&dq=geoff+parker+behavioral+ecology+natural+history&source=bl&ots=mKrh0xw-aN&sig=Wn6IIWS1joO_9U4SUyjxvJnPkhc&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi40-bcmM7OAhVM82MKHa-fA70Q6AEIODAD#v=onepage&q=geoff%20parker%20behavioral%20ecology%20natural%20history&f=false.
    I have lost my copy, but I did send it to you a few yrs ago.

    I suggest commentators contribute reading lists.
    Eric

    • Part of the issue here is “same topic list”. If you relax that constraint, I agree it’s much easier to think of readings making the case that broad areas of ecology are awesome. As you say, for “behavioral ecology is awesome”, one could read Parker’s work. For “macroecology is awesome” one could read excerpts from Jim Brown’s book. Etc. It’s just that sort of thing doesn’t line up with the topic list I suggested.

      Which perhaps says something interesting. What does it mean that our broad-based pessimistic critiques in ecology tend to have different foci than our optimistic pieces?

      • Yes, I relaxed that constraint and focused on any part of ecology that …well, worked, and had a more fundamental basis. I think one learns more by doing this. And asking for the take-home lesson.
        A story involving Rob Peters. In the early 90s I gave a seminar at U Toronto, and talked about ESS predictions of age of sex change in marine shrimp, an analysis using data from all over the N Hemisphere, gathered by many fishery biologists, and given to me to use on ‘this occasion'[ several pubs] . The theory made semi-quan predictions that worked out great, in time and space. Rob was in the audience, agreed with the good fit, but did not think that it was at all important because it did not get us any closer to ecology’s mission of saving the planet. In a one-on-one talk at the evening party he reinforced that view. Maybe our pessimistic views are partly due to asking ecology to do all sorts of extra-scientific jobs; its pretty naïve to judge ecology that political way. Social/political policy is not that straight foreword.
        eric

      • “I think one learns more by doing this. ”

        That’s an argument for ECO 608 as an alternative to ECO 607. I guess I’d say that they’d hopefully be complements. That you’d learn a lot from taking both, and that together they’d be greater than the sum of their parts.

        “Rob was in the audience, agreed with the good fit, but did not think that it was at all important because it did not get us any closer to ecology’s mission of saving the planet. ”

        Without wanting to put words into his mouth (and sincere apologies if I have), I have the sense that Charley Krebs feels the same. Anything that doesn’t have direct management implications for some *specific* species or some *specific* bit of land or water is unimportant at best and worse than useless at worst because it sucks attention and resources away from the only thing that matters–saving the planet.

      • Eric makes a good point, that ecology is being asked to do far more than just the basic science. But in the UK, at least, that’s true now of all academic disciplines. The Research Assessment Exercise/Research Excellence Framework’s focus on “Impact” has carried through to the funding agencies that now expect a “Pathways to Impact” statement on every application, not matter how blue-skies or theoretical the work.

        The danger for ecology, of course, is that speculative research which may be important (“impactful”) in the future gets sidelined in favour of research that promises immediate application or policy impact. It’s hard to argue that a discipline is both fucked and holds great promise for society in the future…..

    • Jeff Ollerton is correct . In the 2 ecology areas I know best for applied aspects, fisheries and parasitoids [ for biological control], there is an interesting balance between mission oriented research and more basic aspects that support the long(er) term development of the area: foraging theory and sex ratio theory are deeply embedded in current thinking about parasitoids and their effectiveness as biological control agents & life-history thinking from evolutionary ecology lies at the core of many fishery models. The influence goes both ways, and my own fishery background [ quantitative and comparative; I have 2 degrees in Fishery science] proved invaluable in looking for life history rules [ their comparative data was/is wonderful ].
      The lesson for me is that its hard to know what discoveries will prove useful in future applied questions. Today’s Blue sky is tomorrow’s applied tool. Or maybe the day after tomorrow.
      eric

  9. For Week 6 of ECO608 (Statistics are awesome), I propose Joel Cohen’s 2004 paper “Mathematics Is Biology’s Next Microscope, Only Better; Biology Is Mathematics’ Next Physics, Only Better” (http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=535574&tool=pmcentrez&rendertype=abstract)

    For Week 9 of ECO608 (Natural history is awesome), I propose Eric LoPresti et al. (2016)’s paper “The natural history supplement: Furthering natural history amongst ecologists and evolutionary biologists” (https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwjA5c_77drOAhUNHGMKHTR3AUUQFggeMAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fonlinelibrary.wiley.com%2Fdoi%2F10.1002%2Fbes2.1239%2Fpdf&usg=AFQjCNG8VB4GiFdlOGrnWC8OXQAXW0ZE1w&sig2=eF8neU8xtBz4AsBnqdV2lQ)

    • Good suggestions! The Cohen piece would mean we’d have to stretch the topic to “statistics and mathematics are awesome”, but that’s fine. You could easily find pieces on how theory/modeling is fucked for ECO 607 to go with the pieces suggested in the post.

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