Friday links: zombie ideas in the humanities and social sciences, fantasy birding, Rhesus pieces, and more

Also this week: disturbing survey on equity and harassment in economics, the emotion police, Darwin jokes, and more.

From Jeremy:

Zombie ideas in the humanities and social sciences (or are they?): ambitious books that were massively influential across multiple disciplines when first published, but that have been picked apart by specialists and lost stature over time within the disciplines they touch on. (ht @kjhealy) Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions is on the list–what do folks think of that? I’m on record suggesting that ecologists should read Kuhn; perhaps I should rethink that advice! The linked piece also ends with a good question: how come nobody writes these sorts of books any more? (to which my answer would be: they do, but they write them as popular books–think of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse for instance) Here’s an extended quote, to encourage you to click through and read the whole thing:

The dazzling diversity of evidence that Undead Texts marshaled to make their points, once a badge of broad learning and deep insight, now seems irresponsible, the very essence of unscholarly…[But] the problem with Undead Texts is not that they are unscholarly; it is that they are antidisciplinary. Yet all of us who have taught undergraduates know that it will probably be an Undead Text they’ll remember the longest. The brighter the student, the deeper the impression left by a work that defies current scholarly conventions by straddling specialties and zooming out from the local. Those same students, if they go on to graduate school, will be taught to sharpen their critical teeth by tearing apart the very texts that led them to devote their lives to their fields. Has the time come to rethink a definition of scholarship that excludes the very texts that once mesmerized and inspired us?

Any possible analogy to ecology is left as an exercise for the reader.

On the dangers of “motivatiogenesis”. That is, providing different motivations or rationales for your work to different audiences–each of which would be seen through by the other audience. Very interesting point, I’m trying to decide how common I think this is. What do you think? Contrary to the linked post, I’m not sure motivatiogenesis is connected to zombie ideas, though I need to think more about it.

Karen Uhlenbeck has become the first woman to win the Abel Prize, the 17 year old “Nobel of mathematics”. (ht @noahpinion) Link goes to an accessible and interesting popular overview of her life and work. Interestingly, she’s a counterexample to the stereotype that brilliant mathematicians are all child prodigies. She wasn’t really into mathematics until her first year as an undergrad at Michigan. On the other hand, she did conform to one stereotype of brilliant mathematicians, at least when she was starting out:

I regarded anything to do with people as being sort of a horrible profession.


I also enjoyed this remark of hers, about being a role model:

[W]hat you really need to do is show students how imperfect people can be and still succeed.

A survey of more than 9000 past and current members of the American Economics Association revealed disturbing levels of sexual harassment and assault, and widespread perception of gender and racial discrimination that’s backed by other lines of evidence. Even allowing for the possibility that people who’ve had negative experiences may have been more likely than others to complete the survey, it’s bad. The AEA has announced various steps it will take in response.

I continue to follow with interest the debate within particle physics over whether to build a successor to the Large Hadron Collider, or whether we have good reason to think that would be a huge waste of money. Obviously, I’m not qualified to adjudicate these arguments. But I have to say, if the best argument collider proponents have is “nobody thought Christopher Columbus would discover anything either“, the collider should definitely not be built. Nobody who makes an analogy that terrible deserves to win a debate.

Adding this interesting-sounding new book to my reading list. What can history teach us about when individuals, governments, and societies respect and value scientific authority?

Many long-term trends continue apparently unaltered following some perturbation or intervention that you’d think would’ve altered them. Does that mean those perturbations and interventions had no effect, or no effect big enough to detect? No. Astute piece. (ht @noahpinion and Marginal Revolution)

I’m a bit late to this, but here’s a comprehensive review of the peer-reviewed literature on the factors shaping the lived experiences of PhD students during their graduate programs. I’ve only skimmed it, so can’t vouch for it. The total numbers of topics and studies covered are both massive, but there are few studies for many of the topics. And many of the studies reviewed comprised small samples from the very heterogeneous population of “all PhD students and all PhD programs in all fields in the entire world”. But with those caveats in mind, it’s surely useful to pull together all the literature on this broad topic in one place. (ht Jade, via the comments)

Philosopher Agnes Collard on the emotion police. Are there any feelings that everybody should always try not to feel? Very interesting. I would’ve welcomed more discussion of emotion policing by non-philosophers, in an attempt to achieve political or social goals. For instance, urging people not to feel feeling X because feeling X is purportedly either a symptom or cause of some Bad Thing (ignorance of important social problems, insufficient commitment to particular political causes, etc.). Or urging people to feel feeling X because that’s purportedly the only way to get them to behave as you want them to. But I guess that would’ve made for a much longer and less readable piece.

And finally, forget fantasy baseball, here’s fantasy birding. Yes, this is a thing that exists. Now I want fantasy leagues for everything that ecologists do. How about a fantasy league for publishing Nature pap…[crushed by 16 ton weight] (ht Matt Levine)

From Meghan:

Come for the science puns…

…stay for the nerdy Darwin jokes:

7 thoughts on “Friday links: zombie ideas in the humanities and social sciences, fantasy birding, Rhesus pieces, and more

  1. To my eye the Undead Text piece is a uniquely humanities discussion. If it has any relevance to ecology, it is only in the opposite. They tend to make their reputations by ripping apart old and big ideas. Not so much in ecology. And I think many in ecology lament the lack of broad sweeping ideas that tie together fields.

    All that said, I do think there is a parallel in that many of the papers that have influenced multiple generations of ecologists like Janzen-Connell or Janzen’s mountain pass would have a hard time getting published today because they were so speculative and rooted in anecdote. That is a loss for ecology.

  2. “Any possible analogy to ecology is left as an exercise for the reader.”

    On Friday afternoon, at 3:15. That’s too much for me. 🙂

  3. The emotional police piece is interesting. Aren’t there likely evolutionary reasons for some/all of those emotions, though?

    • “Aren’t there likely evolutionary reasons for some/all of those emotions, though?”

      I’m not touching that question with a 10 foot pole! One good rule for survival on the intertubes is “don’t do armchair evolutionary psychology in public.” 🙂

  4. Emotion Police: hatred is pain, no? I thought that was well understood.

    IMO today’s leadership seems to have either forgotten or fallen into self-benefitting ignorance of much that was known only a few decades ago. The west is collapsing, slowly but surely, knowledge is replaced by belief across the entire political spectrum, from anti-vaxxers to environmentalists.

  5. Pingback: Bold opinion pieces, RIP? | Dynamic Ecology

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