Friday links: quit saying all scientists should do X, climate change comic, and more

Also this week: new RSC Fellows, preregistration contest, “sorry for the slow reply”, how to run a class discussion, Andrew Hendry vs. Andrew Hendry, Dave Tilman vs. macroeconomics (apparently), and more. Also: highlights from our recent comment threads, which are much better than whatever you’re reading instead.

From Jeremy:

Congratulations to my Calgary colleague Lawrence Harder on his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada! Congratulations as well to the other ecologists and evolutionary biologists elected this year: Joe Rasmussen, Troy Day, Lenore Fahrig, and Marie-Josée Fortin.

I’m getting increasingly sick of people saying that all scientists should do X. Especially when accompanied by the (never plausible) claim that there’s some sort of moral imperative for all scientists to do X. And especially when not accompanied by any awareness of comparative advantage, the fallacy of composition, and opportunity costs. I’m not convinced it works even as deliberate provocation, because “why everybody should do X” has been a clickbait cliche for years. So the next time someone says that all scientists should do X, I’m going to point them to this:

I don’t think there’s anything that every scientist needs to do….Actually, I think we can state this more strongly. For almost any X that’s part of the broad portfolio of What Scientists Do, there are some scientists who shouldn’t do X…What each of us should do is develop a portfolio of activities that

  • moves science forward,
  • takes advantages of our own strengths,
  • complements the portfolios of those around us, and
  • is consistent with the job we’re in.

Tips for making a class discussion an actual discussion, as opposed to a Q&A with the prof. Somewhat specific to philosophy, but much of it generalizes.

Andrew Hendry pushes back against his own recent Science article, arguing that we should quit trying to justify basic research in ecology and evolution by saying it will improve our ability to predict the effects of climate change. Because it won’t. Andrew’s pieces gives me an excuse to re-up one our best guest posts ever: Peter Adler’s “Ecological forecasting: why I’m a hypocrite and you may be one too“. Andrew even goes a bit further, and suggests that “prediction” in general is an overrated goal for basic research. We now go live to Brian’s office:

Charles Sanders Pierce’s birthday was earlier this week. Celebrate belatedly by reading Deborah Mayo’s accessible precis of Pierce’s ideas on statistical inference as severe testing.

Interesting preregistration contest: political scientists can preregister studies of the 2016 US election, with the winning studies receiving $2000 and being pre-accepted to a leading journal based solely on the study hypothesis and design rather than the results. Although on the other hand, maybe all this does is turn journal publications into the equivalent of grant proposals: whoever proposes the most interesting/important question together with an effective method to address it gets a substantial reward. The only difference is the reward: funding to do the proposed work vs. publication of the proposed work. (ht Chris Blattman)

You’ve probably heard of the famous Russian experiment to domesticate red foxes. But if not, here’s a good news story. (ht my dad) A tidbit the story doesn’t mention: IIRC (and I may not), the same researchers also tried to domesticate other species, including river otters. It only ever worked with foxes.

This week in Links That Are Funny Only To Me: Area Philosopher Proves We Did Not Build This City On Rock And Roll.

And finally, Headlines That Read Oddly To Ecologists. 😉 (ht Economist’s View)

From Meg:

xkcd had a wonderful, accessible comic on Earth’s average temperature. I think it would work really well for introducing students to climate change.

Sorry for the slow reply. I type that all the time, especially lately, but completely agree with the message in the blog post that it’s sort of silly to apologize for life happening. The post made me think of this article that gave info on typical email response times, saying that the median response time is 2 hours. I think that’s why, even when I’m replying within a few days, it often feels like my reply has been “slow”.

Hoisted from this week’s comments:

“When students are assorting themselves among disciplines, ecology draws a big chunk of the ones who love to be outside in wild nature, and a very small number of those attracted to elegant theoretical ideas…The art, then, is how to tackle Big Questions in systems people actually want to study.” – Mark Vellend

“I would add: read papers that do experiments/observations similar to the ones you want to do…If a method in a particular paper seems promising, contact the authors and ask about all the *stuff* that didn’t get into the paper.” – Margaret Kosmala

“There are very old, sealed in glass pond scum microcosms that have been at UT Austin EEB since the 60’s…The person who has them really wants someone to sample them!” – Colin Averill

“[Perhaps] the very first use of ‘field work’ also happened to be a humble-brag.” – Tuomas Aivelo

15 thoughts on “Friday links: quit saying all scientists should do X, climate change comic, and more

  1. For the link about how the Election Research Pre Acceptance Competition is equivalent to a grant process, the Registered Reports information page describes how the two are distinct and the benefits that come from including an analysis plan in a preregistration. From that page ( There are many differences between these types of review. The level of detail in the assessment of RRs differs at a scalar level from grants – a funding application typically includes only a general or approximate description of the methods to be employed, whereas a Stage 1 RR includes a step-by-step account of the experimental procedures and analysis plan. Furthermore, since researchers frequently deviate from their funded protocols, which themselves are rarely published, the suitability of successful funding applications as registered protocols is extremely limited. Finally, RRs are intended to provide an option that is suitable for all applicable research, not only studies that are supported by grant funding.

      • I was thinking ‘all ecologists are morally obliged to fight politically for biodiversity conservation’. Some famous founders of conservation biology have said this frequently. I do not agree.

    • Last week on Twitter Jonathan Foley said that “all scientists should do some form of science outreach / communication” (presumably outside the classroom), and later, that the latter is a “moral imperative”

      I don’t agree with him and I’m a strong advocate of public outreach. Statements that say all people should do this or that are pretty dumb–it’s not going to happen (nor should it IMO) for any group of any size. I think it’s fair to say that all people should stop saying that all people should do X.

      • One problem among others with Foley’s view is that it selects for crappy outreach. Which is why actual science communication professionals think it’s a *terrible* idea for all scientists to do their own outreach.

  2. The Hendry piece is where it’s at for me this week.

    The topic he addresses is so yuge, with multiple sub-topics, that I don’t know where to start. Books could be written. We are not remotely close to anything like useful prediction in ecological response to climate change, except on some massively broad level that has little or no relevance to anything that ecosystem managers care about or deal with. And it’s not just because ecosystems are complex and difficult to predict either. There are major issues with climatological prediction–some of these have to do with physics uncertainties, others with scaling issues, and still others with which climate variables are most relevant to various systems/taxa. This is first degree enormous in terms of problematicity. You can hardly find a more difficult scientific question to address.

    Brian’s points in the past, if I recall correctly, have to do with successful prediction being the most stringent test for our theories. I also agree with that and don’t see any conflict between these two viewpoints–they’re orthogonal IMO.

    On xkcd. I seem to be in the minority in that I don’t care for that comic strip. Too cutsie for my tastes and the guy has zero artistic ability. This is (at least) the second climate change related cartoon he has put up, and in both cases were either exaggerated or questionable. It is a long standing paleo-climate question as to whether it is definitively warmer now than even during the Common Era (last 2k years), let alone the entire Holocene. The author was criticized on Twitter by at least one paleoclimatologist for this, before I stopped paying more attention.

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