Friday links: eagles vs. roaming charges, should you worry about getting scooped, and more

Also this week: it’s the end of California as we know it, PCA vs. Elvis, #MathGals, physics doom loop, remembering Napoleon Chagnon, and more.

From Jeremy:

It’s the end of California as we know it.

Very interesting-looking unreviewed preprint (of which I’ve only read the abstract), quantifying the effects of getting scooped in science. In structural biology, there are negative effects on you if you lose the race to report a new protein structure (basically, your paper is less likely to appear in a leading journal). But the negative effects are much smaller than structural biologists themselves think they are. Told you so. (ht Marginal Revolution)

Math With Bad Drawings interviews the designer of the #MathGals t-shirts.

How technological advances contributed to a feat–the first free solo climb of El Capitan–that at first glance would seem to involve no technology. Interesting. (ht Marginal Revolution)

Ezra Klein interviews climate scientist Kate Marvel for his podcast.

Stylized facts in the social sciences. Here’s my old post on stylized facts in ecology.

The crisis in physics is not only about physics. Good blog post from Sabine Hossenfelder; makes a point that goes beyond her book:

The major cause of this stagnation is that physics has changed, but physicists have not changed their methods. As physics has progressed, the foundations have become increasingly harder to probe by experiment. Technological advances have not kept size and expenses manageable. This is why, in physics today we have collaborations of thousands of people operating machines that cost billions of dollars.

With fewer experiments, serendipitous discoveries become increasingly unlikely. And lacking those discoveries, the technological progress that would be needed to keep experiments economically viable never comes by. It’s a vicious cycle…

I found this “vicious cycle” remark interesting. Usually we think about how a scientific field’s questions and methods should change in response to technological advances. In ecology, think remote sensing, or further back, computers. Hossenfelder’s post suggests that a field’s methods also need to change because of lack of technological advances. As for her suggestion that studying more sociology and philosophy of science would help physicists better judge which hypotheses are most worth testing with a few super-expensive experiments, what do you think? I’ve found my own modest reading in philosophy of science helpful to me in deciding what ecological questions to ask and how to answer them. But I know other ecologists who haven’t found sociology and philosophy of science useful to them at all in deciding what questions to ask and how to answer them. And stick around to the very end, where she holds up ecology as another example of a field in which a previously-favored approach is running into its natural limits.

Using PCA to reconstruct greyscale images. Fun illustrative example.

Prominent anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon passed away recently. Here’s a look back at the politically-motivated false accusations of misconduct that tarred the later years of his career.

Spider-Man, Spider-Man, doing the things a spider can. Like going to the university library (ht Matt Levine). 🙂

I assume the eagle texted “hello hoomin i is in iran spendin all ur moneh lol“. 🙂

4 thoughts on “Friday links: eagles vs. roaming charges, should you worry about getting scooped, and more

  1. where she holds up ecology as another example of a field in which a previously-favored approach is running into its natural limits.

    I admit that I’m curious whether you think there’s anything to this argument, since I find it difficult to believe she knows your field at all well (based on her tendency to make rather ignorant statements about astronomy and sometimes cosmology).

    I’m more inclined to think that the problem with fundamental physics is that it’s become — in the last few decades — an extremely simple and data-impoverished field. By “extremely simple” I don’t mean easy; rather, its subject matter is, in effect, limited to a handful of particles, fields, and interactions which (apparently) do not vary at all from place to place or time to time (leaving aside radical speculations about the very early universe). There are two theories — the Standard Model of particle physics and General Relativity — which seem to describe almost everything exquisitely well, with only their underlying incompatibility with each other and a rather tiny set of unexplained phenomena (e.g., neutrino masses, dark matter, dark energy).

    Most other fields of science — certainly my own (astronomy) and I’d imagine ecology as well — deal with extremely varied and complex systems and are swimming in an abundance of both data and unexplained phenomena — and a general awareness that in many ways we’re still only scratching the surface.

    This bit at the end of her post — “How physicists handle their crisis will give an example to other disciplines.” — strikes me as evincing a certain amount of “physics supremacy” thinking (“Physics is only fundamental science, all others are just various applied forms of physics. Even the failures of physics must lead the way!”).

    And, of course, the emphasis on “studying more sociology and philosophy of science would help physicists better judge which hypotheses are most worth testing with a few super-expensive experiments” is the sort of thing one might expect theorists to emphasize, since it puts (or keeps) them in the driver’s seat.

    • “I admit that I’m curious whether you think there’s anything to this argument, since I find it difficult to believe she knows your field at all well ”

      At a minimum, her timing is off. It’s been a long time (like, since the mid-1990s) since small scale field experiments were the dominant approach to ecology. If indeed they ever were. Even during what I think of as the heyday of field experimentation in ecology–the late ’70s through the mid-’90s–there were still plenty of observational studies getting published in leading ecology journals. Ecology as a field certainly has pendulum swings in terms of what’s seen at the “hot” methodology. But those pendulum swings are never so large that leading journals end up completely filled by papers that all use the same approach.*

      “I’m more inclined to think that the problem with fundamental physics is that it’s become — in the last few decades — an extremely simple and data-impoverished field. By “extremely simple” I don’t mean easy; rather, its subject matter is, in effect, limited to a handful of particles, fields, and interactions which (apparently) do not vary at all from place to place or time to time (leaving aside radical speculations about the very early universe). There are two theories — the Standard Model of particle physics and General Relativity — which seem to describe almost everything exquisitely well, with only their underlying incompatibility with each other and a rather tiny set of unexplained phenomena (e.g., neutrino masses, dark matter, dark energy).”

      As I understand Sabine Hossenfelder, she’d mostly agree with you on this. Though perhaps disagreeing on what physicists should do about it.

      *Anecdotally, I have the impression that outsiders to any field often have an outdated impression of what the field is like. For instance, economics columnist (and ex-economist) Noah Smith likes to make fun of the Guardian for periodically running editorials ripping academic economics for its purported blind spots and biases–overlooking the fact that those criticisms are demonstrably at least a decade out of date. Which isn’t to say that economics is now perfect or lacking in biases, just that its external critics are fighting the last war. It makes me wonder what outdated views I hold about other fields in which I have a passing interest.

      • Anecdotally, I have the impression that outsiders to any field often have an outdated impression of what the field is like.

        I’m reminded of a comment I saw in Cosma Shalizi’s Pinboard bookmarks in reference to a review of a recent book by Steven Pinker, to wit:

        “This hints at an interesting study to be written, about how intellectuals freeze their views of disciplines other than their own at an early age, and indeed keep propagating ideas they picked up, perhaps without realizing it, in college or graduate school, long after they’ve been corrected in their homes. In this case, I suspect that a lot of what Pinker (Ph.D., 1979) says is extrapolating from conditions of the 1970s…”

      • To what extent does the same thing happen *within* fields, on topics other than those on which your own research focuses? I’d argue that this is a big part of how “zombie ideas” like the intermediate disturbance hypothesis get propagated. A “hot” idea gets widely taken up, to the point where it gets into undergrad textbooks. But once an idea is in the textbooks, it doesn’t get taken out very easily or quickly. And so if the once-hot idea subsequently gets refuted or heavily modified by specialist researchers, it’s going to take a long time for that new view to trickle outward to non-specialists, and eventually into the textbooks.

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