Ask us anything: is there a place for “hot takes” in ecology?

Every year we invite readers to ask us anything! Today’s question comes from Jonathan Walter. It’s paraphrased and summarized; click through for the original:

Is there a legitimate role in science for “hot takes”–provocative statements intended to spur productive thought and discussion? Can the potential benefits outweigh the risks of offense and alienation, particularly considering aspects of culture and privilege that might shape who could be an ecological provocateur and how scientists from diverse backgrounds respond? What would be the practices of an effective ecological provocateur? Is the ecological provocateur a role that some people should take on as a key part of their professional identity, or would ecology be better served by multiple ecologists each pushing the envelope on a case-by-case basis?

Brian’s answer:

Well the word “hot-takes” has some bad connotations in the sports world, and to me implies instantaneous, unresearched intuitive reactions which don’t really belong in academia. But if the question is do I think blunt, direct critiques can benefit the field, then yes. Such critiques should not be ad hominem (its about the ideas, not the people), and they don’t need to be rude, and they should take into account relative power and privilege when they are exchanges between individual people, and they should be constructive (i.e. try to take science to a good place, not just tear down other peoples work). But really if as academics we cannot handle criticism of our ideas, what are we doing? Its rarely remarked as part of the scientific method, but robust critical social interactions are inherently one of the biggest strengths of the way scientists operate.

I suspect most people would be hard pressed to disagree with the above in the abstract, even if they complain about it when it happens to them. And quite frankly, I think ecology could benefit from a bit more robust critique. We never kill off wrong ideas, we allow them to just fade away and then come back again in 30 years.

I feel where the thinking gets more controversial is when one invokes rhetoric to make one’s critiques. I don’t mean attacking people or insulting people, but maybe a little snarky about the ideas per se. So, just e.g., “zombie ideas” or “statistical machismo”. Couldn’t we have robust debate and critique without rhetoric? Personally, I think this is a false dichotomy. Actually and literally no we cannot. There is no critique of ideas without choice of language. We are apes that communicate by language and choice of language always matters to both the speaker and the hearer. So, no, rhetoric cannot be separated out. There is only more effective and less effective rhetoric. Its a bit like a court of law – you cannot assume rational humans judging who ignore drama and rhetoric, so you set up rules where both sides argue as hard and as effectively as they can (within limits like not lying or badgering witnesses). I know this paragraph will be controversial, but it is what I believe. If you end up on the wrong side of successful rhetoric, don’t let your feelings get hurt, you are part of a long and important scientific tradition, just make an even more compelling argument back.

Having argued that you cannot separate scientific discourse from rhetoric, I do think it is important to also acknowledge that we every day make choices about how strongly to lean into the rhetoric. When I wrote one of the first papers critiquing neutral theory my rhetoric was very measured: “[title:]A test of the unified neutral theory of biodiversity… [excerpt from abstract: ]it remains to be shown that the ZSM fits the data significantly better than reasonable null models. Here I test whether the ZSM fits several empirical data sets better than the lognormal distribution. It does not. …  This means that there is no evidence that the ZSM predicts abundances better than the much more parsimonious null hypothesis.” That was blunt and direct but it was also certainly dialed down from what it could have been. I never said neutral theory failed or was rejected or disproved for example.

When I chose to take on reviewers insisting on complex statistical methods that were unlikely to change biological conclusions I wrote a post with the title “Statistical Machismo”. If you read the whole post you will find (I hope) that I made a lot of detailed and careful arguments mounting evidence and did not any point call the people I disagreed with idiots or anything close to that. But that one sound bite “statistical machismo” really changed the whole discourse. It nutshelled and crystallized a vague, amorphous background impression many people had so the coinage was critical in changing how people perceived things. This was a topic area that needed (to my view) a soundbite to get traction.

Personally I am comfortable with the rhetoric I used in both instances, but it would be complex to explain why. The neutral theory case was very clearly tied to two individual people who were the orignators/proponents so it felt like it was a more personally focused critique where as statistical machismo felt like taking on a substantial fraction of the field (and so far from being a personal attack). The neutral theory case went in a published journal but statistical machismo was a more informal blog. The rhetoric on the other side of the neutral theory was more moderate (p<0.05, look at the good fit, this is a really general powerful theory) than statistical machismo “it is unacceptable in science to not use this technique” the “assumptions are violated” (when every statistical assumption is violated) “biases the results” (when it is a twist of the traditional meaning of bias in statistics to say that but “bias” is a really powerful loaded word). Neutral theory already had fever attention, statistical methods was sort of background. I probably cannot fully explain my choice in each case. But I can say both arguments had a real impact on the field in the way I hoped, and I’m pretty sure if I flipped the rhetoric levels between the two examples, both would have had less impact. So ultimately that is a very utilitarian argument about effectiveness. And it is probably important to also note that I think the phrase “statistical machismo” has accomplished its goal and moved on to being unconstructive and should be retired.

So to summarize: scientific argument is fundamental, argument is not separable from rhetoric, we do have choices about the rhetoric we use (and are accountable for them), and our rhetoric choices will never make everybody happy. In short, its our job as scientists to be both effective and responsible in using rhetoric. And I really think ecology as a field needs more blunt critiques with some snappy rhetoric.

Jeremy’s answer:

Depending on one’s point of view, I’m either the best person to answer this question, or the worst. 🙂 Ok, I never intentionally say provocative things I don’t believe just to draw traffic (though I’ve been accused of that…). But I do sometimes try provocative ideas on for size (e.g., this). And I do sometimes present ideas in provocative ways (e.g., this, this).  On the other hand, precisely because I do those things, you can probably guess how I’ll answer this question based on things I wrote before. But if you want to hear them again (“NOOOOO!!!” I hear you all shouting, with justification…), here’s the too-lengthy answer you were hoping for dreading. 1000+ words of “on the one hand, on the other hand”! Get excited! 🙂

First of all, I’m going to focus on provocative criticisms, since I think they’re the most challenging sorts of provocations to justify. And I’m going to focus on provocations about science, as opposed to provocations about, say, pedagogy or science funding or equality in academia, or whatever. That’s purely in order to stick to what I’ve thought the most about.

Here’s the tl;dr version of what I’m about to say: I think there’s some non-zero rate at which scientists collectively should publish provocative criticisms of previous scientific work, in order to maximize the rate of scientific progress. But there’s definitely scope for reasonable disagreement on what the optimal rate is, or even if it’s non-zero.

Ok, if you want the gory details, here’s my theory of when it’s ok for a scientist to be deliberately provocative. I think one of the biggest risks to scientific progress is groupthink. By which I just mean that the scientific consensus is dubious or wrong, for whatever reason (and it could be for various reasons, most of which can happen even though almost all scientists are competent and ethical). I emphasize that I don’t think it’s common for the scientific consensus to be dubious or wrong. But when it happens, it’s bad. Further, when the scientific consensus is dubious or wrong, some of the normal error-correcting methods of science tend to break down, just when they’re needed most. For instance, peer reviewers who think–incorrectly–that X is well-established may tend to dismiss out of hand mss claiming not-X, on the grounds that there “must” be something wrong with the ms if it claims not-X (I’ve heard of an egregious example of that…). Students will be taught X, thereby perpetuating incorrect belief in X. Few will want to go out and check whether X is true or not, because that wouldn’t be novel. Etc. So how does a scientific field break out of a “bad equilibrium” in which the Peircean consensus is wrong?

Well, one way is for some contrarian scientist to marshal logic and evidence and make a good case. Which maybe just means being stubborn–putting up with repeated rejections until you finally break through and publish your good-but-contrarian case in a journal people read. But if that doesn’t work, then maybe you need to get people’s attention first. Engage in some sort of provocation or other attention-grabbing. Shake people out of their “dogmatic slumbers“, so that they’ll then listen to your good substantive case. Attention-getting can take many forms, from a bluntly-worded paper title, to unusual analogies, to satire, to using blogs or social media to get your contrarian claims in front of an audience without having to get through peer review. Our posts on “zombie ideas” and “statistical machismo” are a case in point. I guarantee you that if those posts had been written in the dry, technical, hedged style of scientific papers, hardly anyone would’ve read them or cared.

But there are no perfect answers here. Day-to-day scientific progress works best when it’s not a free-for-all, when everybody knows and abides by the agreed rules of the game. Intentionally stretching or breaking the rules to get people’s attention can cause some people to react badly. And sometimes those people are right to react badly! For instance because the consensus is right and the provocative contrarian is wrong, or because the provocation was rude. Or maybe your provocation gets people’s attention, but then instead of taking your substantive points seriously they just push back with provocations of their own. So the field goes from being stuck in a dubious/wrong consensus to stuck in a huge unproductive argument.

Part of the issue here is that there’s always disagreement on what exactly the “rules of the game” are, or should be. For instance, there’s a lot of disagreement over what constitutes inappropriate “salesmanship” or “self-promotion” in science, and it’s much the same with provocative criticism. Some people just like reading provocative stuff, others don’t. Which I think is mostly fine–people who don’t like reading provocative stuff can just not read it. But on the other hand, one could argue that there are “spillover” effects from provocative writing on those who don’t read it. For instance because it helps create a climate in which too many people prioritize attention-seeking, or treat others rudely. So although I think there’s a legitimate and useful place in science for provocative criticism, there’s definitely scope for disagreement on that.

There might be scientists who think of “provocateur” or “critic” as a part of their professional identities, though probably only a part in most cases. One of the best ways to get others to pay attention to a provocative claim is to have a reputation as someone who mostly does good solid science. I assume that’s part of why Brian’s statistical machismo posts were taken seriously by many others, and I hope it’s part of why my zombie ideas posts were taken seriously by many others. If all you do is criticize provocatively, people mostly won’t like it (even if their reasons for disliking it are debatable). Heck, even if it’s only a bit of what you do, you’re going to make at least a few enemies. Robert Peters’ critique of ecology made him prominent, but it did not make him popular. Which is one reason why most of our posts are not provocative criticisms (although for better or worse, the few provocative critical posts seem to be the ones readers remember…). And which presumably is why I can’t think of anyone in ecology who mostly just criticizes everybody else (in evolution, I can think of one person: Dan Graur). But I don’t want to speculate on anyone else’s self-image, so rather than saying “some ecologists self-identify as provocateurs”, it’s probably safer to say that there are ecologists who spend more effort than most trying to correct what they see as widespread mistakes in the field. Peter Abrams for instance, or further back the aforementioned Robert Peters.

Scientists who issue provocative public criticisms of their own field definitely tend to be white guys, though they’re not all white guys. Think for instance of all the heat Lenore Fahrig‘s taken for pushing back against the consensus that habitat fragmentation is bad for biodiversity. Or think of Angela Moles pushing back (with Jeff Ollerton) against the consensus that species interactions are stronger and more specialized in the tropics. Or in physics, think of Sabine Hossenfelder. I confess I’m not sure what to make of the fact that it tends to be white guys who engage in provocative criticism of their own fields. I mean, I think it’s bad that it’s mostly white guys who do this. But what should be done about that? Should we encourage women and members of other historically-underrepresented groups to speak up when they think the scientific consensus is wrong, and try to reduce the costs they pay for doing so? Think for instance of Ambika Kamath having the courage to make the case that Anolis lizards are not territorial like everyone thought they were–and winning an ASN Young Investigator Award in part for that work. That seems like admirable intellectual leadership to me, and I’m glad to see her rewarded for it. And I’m glad she’s continuing to engage with the inevitable pushback she’s gotten, and I hope none of that pushback has been unprofessional. Alternatively, maybe the whole notion of brave, provocative contrarianism is just part of a racist patriarchy. Part of a system of norms and behaviors that allows (a few) white guys to mouth off while everyone else is expected to listen. Thereby allowing (a few) white guys to exercise disproportionate and undeserved power over the direction of the field, and driving others out of the field. If so, maybe instead of encouraging everybody else to act like (a few) white guys, we should work to change the norms of the field so that provocative, contrarian criticism is devalued or even eliminated. I know that in economics and philosophy–two heavily male-dominated fields with cultures of no-holds-barred debate–many people are trying to change the culture, with good reason (see here for a bit of discussion about philosophy). Now, I don’t think ecology’s much like those fields. We’re much better gender-balanced. And there’s definitely not a norm in ecology that encourages people to provocatively criticize the work of others, not even among white guys. But arguably, ecology should seek to become even less like economics or philosophy, and develop an even stronger norm against provocative criticisms, for the sake of promoting diversity and equity. I disagree with that argument, but it’s certainly a defensible argument. I don’t have any easy answers here. Neither does anybody else, as best I can tell; these same debates crop up in many venues. (Aside: I’m also not entirely sure how we’d develop an even stronger norm against provocative criticisms. For instance, does white male ecologists ripping one another for being uncivil support or undermine the norm of civility? 🙂 )

In terms of how to be a good provocateur (assuming there is such a thing…), one way is to be a provocateur about field-wide issues. I try to avoid singling any individual out for criticism, or even using individuals as examples of the field-wide issues I write about. But I’m not sure how effective this is. Scientists’ personal identities are tied closely to their work. So if you say something negative about scientific work, you run the risk it will be taken personally by someone.

I think good provocateurs choose appropriate venues. Think of the “opinion” or “forum” papers that some journals publish. As another example, a formal Oxford-style debate is a setting in which everyone concerned agrees it’s ok to try a provocative idea on for size, and to use rhetoric as well as logic and evidence in order to argue for that idea. I think scientific conferences should host more formal debates. As another example of choosing one’s venue, I write more provocatively on this blog than I ever would in a paper. I did once try write a “zombie ideas in ecology” paper, back in 2011. It was rejected and in retrospect I’m sure the editor did me a favor by rejecting it. I now think it would’ve upset too many readers, relative to how many would’ve appreciated it. In contrast, a blog is a venue in which readers want to read a writer’s personal voice rather than a dry style. But even here there’s room for reasonable disagreement. On the one hand, textbooks and peer-reviewed papers have started using the phrase “zombie ideas” (another example). So at least some authors, reviewers, and editors are fine with using that phrase in those venues. On the other hand, some readers of this blog feel that phrases like “zombie ideas” should never be used in any venue. And of course, two of the defining features of online discourse these days are trolling, and dominance of the conversation by the most strident voices. So if blogs and social media are venues in which provocation is expected, well, maybe that’s a bug rather than a feature. Maybe I should be using this blog to raise the tone of online discussion, by refraining from anything that could be seen as provocation or trolling.

I actually made a conscious decision a few years ago to dial back the deliberate provocation and snarky humor in my blogging. I felt like our audience size had grown to the point where I no longer needed to be so provocative to get readers to take notice of my substantive claims. And some readers were starting to see this blog as a powerful voice. It’s hard to say exactly how powerful, and I do think a few readers probably overrate how powerful or influential this blog is. Only a fairly modest-sized minority of all academic ecologists ever read this blog, even in N. America. And this blog has no power to dictate what research gets published, or who gets hired, or anything like that. But still, this blog certainly has earned some measure of influence, and it’s vital that we don’t abuse it. A provocative, snarky writing style that’s entertaining (at least to some people) coming from an unknown ecologist with no audience probably sounds worse coming from a well-known ecologist whose blog gets 725,000 pageviews annually.

Good provocateurs write well. For instance, Brian’s a better provocateur than me. His occasional provocative posts definitely do a better job than mine of changing minds and prompting reflection without upsetting too many people. But I have never been able to emulate whatever it is that makes Brian’s occasional provocations more effective than mine. Brian’s just a better writer than me. And Stephen Jay Gould was a famously good writer, which is a big reason why so many people took his criticisms of the “adaptationist program” seriously.

The only surefire way to issue a provocative critique without upsetting anyone is if it’s a self-critique. I’m thinking for instance of Peter Adler’s provocative guest post, “Ecological forecasting: why I’m a hypocrite and you may be one too.” Or think of community ecologist John Lawton arguing that everybody should quit doing community ecology.

One way to be a bad provocateur in science is to self-identify as a brave teller of unpopular truths that only a select few have the smarts and courage to recognize. So that you take any pushback you get as a sign of bias or ignorance on the part of others. If you find yourself self-identifying that way, you’re probably just a jerk, or worse. Think of, say, Amy Wax and other white academics who hold racist views.

One last thought (“Finally!” I hear you all saying…): I think there’s an important difference between hot takes about news events, and the sort of provocative opinions we occasionally post. When a news event happens, lots of people race to comment on it quickly and provocatively in order to draw attention, and because they know the discussion is quickly going to move on to some other topic. I don’t think there’s the same dynamic in science, at least not regarding the topics we discuss on this blog. Our provocative posts are all about longstanding, “chronic” issues rather than news events. Only once in 7 years have I ever published a “hot take” about a news event, and that was to tell everyone to chill out about it. Ok, I do sometimes use our Friday linkfests to express opinions about recent-ish news events (“recent-ish” because, in Internet Time, something that happened two days ago is already old news…). But even there, I mostly avoid linking to or expressing an opinion on anything that’s recently gone viral on ecology Twitter (here’s a rare exception). Some of my takes are “hot” in the sense of “provocative”, but they’re hardly ever “hot” in the sense of “offered up in the heat of the moment, without stopping to think first”.


10 thoughts on “Ask us anything: is there a place for “hot takes” in ecology?

  1. “[R]obust critical social interactions are inherently one of the biggest strengths of the way scientists operate” is a good quote! Generally I also agree strongly with these answers. One thing to add might be how we *respond* to criticism, even when filled with strong rhetoric. I’ve seen recent critiques of mathematical modelling (my main area) crop up that I think could have been stronger and more provocative, given how large the community is now. But I also am unsure how I would have responded if they called out my particular research interests for instance.

    Your comment about such provocateurs being mostly white guys is very sobering indeed – despite progress in equality, I think this is definitely a role where it is easier to be a white guy than any other demographic. It’s also difficult to try and provide a space for this, without something quite clever I think.

  2. The provocative moments that I find most compelling generally have more to do with the nature of a result than tone or rhetoric. When a finding goes against the general expectations of a community of scientists, it’s the best kind of provocation. And, these, in my mind, need little consideration or thought – you just drop the story and wait for the splash. Brian, your most provocative paper, in my mind, is the 2014 Science paper concluding that biodiversity wasn’t declining over time. I would have guessed that this is the paper that would have received the most emotional and strident response…but maybe I underestimate people. And Lenore’s work on fragmentation is another great example, Jeremy. In both cases, if Brian and Lenore had found something different, I expect neither paper would have been perceived as controversial. The provocation arose from the finding. David Currie did work suggesting that deforestation didn’t have an effect on diversity (and published one important piece on the road to outing IDT as a zombie idea) but none of the language was provocative – just the conclusion. I don’t think we need the rhetoric to be more provocative and the idea of ecological provocateurs makes me itch a little. But, I think we could use more ecologists setting out with the explicit objective of challenging accepted ecological ideas with data.

    • Hmm. I think this is often right, but not always. Just putting the data (or the logic) out there doesn’t always get everyone thinking and talking.

      For instance, Chesson & Huntly 1997 conclusively refutes the textbook understanding of how disturbances (or “harsh” environments, or fluctuating environments) promote coexistence among competing species. The textbook understanding of the *mechanisms* literally can’t be right, a point which has nothing to do with (e.g.) whether empirical diversity-disturbance relationships are humped or not. The paper was published in a widely-read, prominent journal. And the response from ecologists was more or less crickets. And before you say, well, that just shows some people will never pay attention unless they see DATA, Violle et al. 2010 PNAS is an experimental demonstration of Chesson & Huntly’s theoretical argument (notice I said “demonstration”, not “test”; again, the theoretical argument *is* the test, it doesn’t *need* to be tested). Again, crickets. But when I came along in 2013 and said all the same things Chesson & Huntly 1997 said, just more forcefully and with a catchy title: boom, hundreds of citations and mentions in two textbooks.

      “Spandrels of San Marco” is another example. I highly doubt that Gould & Lewontin could’ve inspired as much discussion about the nature of adaptation and how test for it if they’d just gone out and collected some data on genetic drift or whatever and then written a normal paper about it.

      As another example, recall Angela Moles’ and Jeff Ollerton’s post questioning the idea that species interactions invariably are stronger and more specialized in the tropics. The reams of data they cited in support of their argument *were already in the literature*–but yet somehow many people in the field hadn’t noticed.

    • Perhaps worth noting that Brian and his co-authors, and the authors of a similar 2013 PNAS paper, were accused (falsely, in my view) of being deliberately provocative–drawing extreme conclusions that weren’t justified by their results, rather than just letting the results “speak for themselves”.

      I don’t think that undermines your point. But I do think it illustrates Brian’s points that rhetoric–and the *perception* of rhetoric–is unavoidable, and that there’s no pleasing everybody with your writing style.

  3. A weirdly-relevant story from Matt Levine’s financial newsletter today:

    “At the New York Times, Nellie Bowles writes about an education-technology venture capitalist named Jason Palmer who tweeted a mean thing about a failed startup, and then a bunch of other venture capitalists and founder types tweeted mean things about him, and he was sorry and promised not to tweet mean things about any more startups even if they were obvious nonsense. “By not knowing the rules,” writes Bowles, “he showed exactly what those rules are, and just how the Silicon Valley positivity machine runs.” It runs by cheerleading for startups that you like, and not saying anything at all about startups that you think are worthless.”

    I mention this because it illustrates one possible vision for public discussion of science by scientists: if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all, at least not in public. There are walks of life where that is the actually-existing norm–apparently, Silicon Valley venture capital is one of them. So we can perhaps learn something about whether that would be a good or bad norm for science by looking at its effects in those walks of life where it is the norm.

    • I’ve been part of those cultures in business. Arguably that culture exists within faculty within say a department. Faculty are very loathe to call out problematic behavior of fellow faculty. (with some very negative results).

      But I can’t imagine how that is a functional culture for science where pursuit of truth is supposed to be valued over selling product.

      • As Matt Levine notes, that norm of “don’t criticize anybody else’s work” can sort of survive in a context in which it’s a fairly closed group of people evaluating one another’s work, and no one outside the group has much basis on which to question those evaluations. So for instance, you can caricature Silicon Valley as lots of tech startup founders and prospective founders taking private pitch meetings with tech venture capitalists. Those venture capitalists decide who to invest money in, and who not to, but without publicly criticizing any people or startup ideas they decided not to invest in. And, crucially, there’s no way for anyone who thinks startup X is a bad idea to bet against it–you can’t short the stock of private companies, and often you can’t even easily sell stock you bought in them previously. So long as those startups remain private companies, nobody outside of Silicon Valley has all that much basis to criticize those funding decisions, or any way to put money behind their criticisms. But once some of those private tech startups decide to go public (or grow big enough that they basically can’t avoid the public getting more information about them, as was the case with Uber and Facebook before they went public, and as it happening now with WeWork as it contemplates going public), well, all of a sudden you’re going to have people criticizing you. And crucially, those people have all sorts of ways to put real money behind their criticisms. They can sell your stock, short your stock, mount shareholder activism campaigns, etc.

        As you say, I think science is like public companies. There’s no way for scientists, as a group, to structure the evaluation of science in such a way that there’s not only a norm against public criticism of anybody’s science, but no way for anybody to act on that criticism effectively. A lot of science is government funded! Lots of scientists are government employees! I don’t really see how it would be sustainable for scientists as a group to have a really strong norm (I mean, appreciably stronger than we already have) against public criticism of other scientists’ work. Not even a norm that’s supposed to only apply to other scientists. I mean, I think it’s fine if some or even many individual scientists choose not to publicly criticize the work of other scientists, because they feel they have better ways to spend their time or whatever. But expecting that personal choice to be a norm that everybody else is expected to follow? I just don’t see how that norm would be sustainable in a world in which science is publicly funded and affects the lives of non-scientists in important ways.

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