What are the best examples of scientists “playing against type”?

Playing against type” is when an actor plays a role very different from the sort of role that the actor usually plays, or that made the actor famous. The link goes to a list of actors who’ve done this.* Think Daniel Radcliffe going from Harry Potter to Equus.

Question: what are the best examples of scientists doing this in their papers? By which I mean, the best examples of scientists writing papers very different from the sort of papers they usually write, or are best known for. And have you ever “played against type” yourself?

First example that comes to my mind is this interesting little macroecological paper from Graham Bell. He’s best known as an evolutionary biologist, though he’s also written numerous papers on the application of neutral theory to ecology. But the linked macroecological paper isn’t neutral theory, at least not primarily. So it’s very different from any other Graham Bell paper I know. Although it does share some features with many of his other papers, such as the use of simple models to generate testable predictions that might be expected to hold in many different systems. And I have no idea whether Graham himself sees this paper as a “one-off”, or as “of a piece” with his other papers. So I guess YMMV on whether this paper is a good example of a scientist “playing against type”.

Note that, before you can play against type, you have to have established a type. So the fact that Graham Bell started out as a grad student doing natural historical studies of newts doesn’t count as playing against type.

A more borderline case is when someone changes types–plays against type for so long that the new type just becomes the “type”. A scientist who works for a long time in one system before switching to a different system would be an example. Like Cher switching from singing to acting (and then back to singing). 🙂

Reflecting on my own papers, there’s only one that feels to me like it was playing against type. No, it’s not my paleontology paper. That one involves the Price equation, which features in many of my papers, so I definitely wouldn’t consider that paper to be playing against type. And no, it’s not the paper I have in press at a philosophy journal. That would be playing against type for many scientists, but definitely not for a philosophy fanboy like me. It’s Vasseur et al. 2014, the only paper of mine that emerged from the one working group I’ve led. Leading working groups isn’t my strong suit, so the process that led to that paper was very much a matter of playing against type for me. But I doubt it looks that way to anyone else, since the topic (interspecific synchrony) and the study system (freshwater zooplankton communities) are both ones I’ve written about in other papers.

Can you think of any better examples?

*That list has a few eye-openers, at least for me. After The Sound of Music, Julie Andrews was in a film that obliged her to striptease?!

18 thoughts on “What are the best examples of scientists “playing against type”?

  1. What a great question! Thinking about my own work (because that’s easiest, and I have a meeting in 10 min) my most apparently against-type (and weirdest) paper would have been my 2014 paper on humour and beauty in scientific writing (https://scientistseessquirrel.wordpress.com/2015/04/14/do-scientists-yearn-for-beauty-or-why-i-wrote-my-weirdest-paper-ever/). Except that writing that paper was part of my work on The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, so it was more foreshadowing the addition of a new type to my rather-unfocused collection of types… Maybe instead a series of three papers on the diversity of T-cell line response to immune challenge in mice (starting with Journal of Immunology 163:6106-6113 1999)? Although a bit like your argument about the Price equation, those came about because someone came looking me knowing I taught about diversity indices and might be able to help them quantify some cell biology stuff.

    Maybe if I had a better-defined type, I could play against it more effectively 🙂

      • Well, I do now that you’ve mentioned it 🙂

        Which makes me wonder why I didn’t. Its subject matter is certainly against type for me – I teach a lot of population dynamics but it’s not something I’ve published much on. Ditto for biostatistics, and that paper is the intersection of population dynamics and biostatistics! But I think the approach is pretty much ON type: a fairly simple idea about an unexpected effect, fleshed out with simple simulations and then looking at data (mine or others) for signatures of that effect. (But my excellent coauthors Auriel Fournier and Easton White get the credit for pulling off the last 2/3 of that). My woefully-undercited paper on how travel costs can stabilize plant-insect interactions (Theoretical Ecology 1:179-188, 2008) follows pretty much exactly the same playbook.

        So partly, as you got at in the post, my “type” could be several things: a system, a question, a logical approach, or some combination.

  2. Graham Bell had quite a few ecology oriented papers over the years with his colleagues at McGill. For example I often cite a paper looking at the spatial variation in soil nutrients in a forest which shows there is as much variation in a few square meters as there is in a large chunk of forest (50m x 50m if memory serves). It was published in 1993 in Oecologia. I’m not entirely convinced he has a type. Just a vein of evolutionary work that makes up about half of his papers.

    Which makes me really curious if I’m perceived as having a type. I’ve resisted pretty hard. After my first paper was on neutral theory people wanted me to just write and review papers on neutral theory. Then after a paper on species abundance distributions, people tried to type me to that. My perception is that since then people have given up on having a search image for my papers. At least in my own mind its important to my scientific self-image not to have a type, which is I suppose curious/odd.

    • “At least in my own mind its important to my scientific self-image not to have a type, which is I suppose curious/odd.”

      That makes two of us. A few years ago, I had some reason to think that (some) other ecologists thought of me as “the Price equation guy”. In response, I made a conscious effort to think about other stuff besides the Price equation.

      p.s. In one draft of this post, I discussed a paleontological paper of yours as a possible example of you playing against type. But then I decided that was a bad example, it fell within the (broad!) range of stuff I think of as “your” stuff. Meaning, it was macroecology/macroevolution.

  3. Years ago, a bunch of comic strip artists used to draw each others strips for April Fool’s Day (do they still?). Which is an amusing example of a bunch of people all playing against type, by playing as some other type. Though in many cases the joke is that they’re *not* playing against type. So when, say, Family Circus artist Bill Keane draws, say, Pearls Before Swine, the result is more like a Family Circus cartoon than a Pearls Before Swine cartoon.

    Now I’m trying to think of whether you could do a scientific equivalent. Like, what if Meghan, Brian, and I all tried to write blog posts in the style of the others? Could we do it? Others certainly can do it. David Lodge’s novel Thinks… include hilarious passages in which Lodge apes the styles of other authors. But it’s not easy.

    Cover versions of songs are another possible example of playing against type. Especially when it’s a band covering a very different sort of music than they usually play. Although most covers don’t actually play against type much, or at all. For instance, when R.E.M. was starting out, they had a reputation as a great cover band. But to me, their covers all sound like R.E.M. songs. For instance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IxQS6lfn0yU. So maybe if you’re looking for a musical analogue of playing against type, you should look for pastiche–bands writing new songs in the style of other bands. Like They Might Be Giants aping The Cars (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TIdm4-G4ecg). Or The Dandy Warhols aping The Rolling Stones (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CU3mc0yvRNk). Or The Rolling Stones doing disco (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hic-dnps6MU).

  4. There are a couple of examples that come to mind for me…but it emphasizes how much your own point of entry into another researchers career ends up affecting the answer. Jared Diamond. I thought of him as a community ecologist predominately concerned with island biogeography (I wasn’t familiar at all with the majority of his career to that point which had been hardcore physiology). When Guns, Germs and Steel come out, it seemed , for me at least, to come from nowhere. As an aside, months before I had sent him an email asking him his views on a ‘nestedness’ debate that was going on, and he wrote me a very polite reply letting me know that he had completely lost interest in that discussion. He was clearly not interested in being ‘typed’.
    The second is Jim Brown. To me , he was the father of macroecology and somebody who had done enormously influential work with the large-scale community experiments at Portal (still running today). So, the fractal/scaling work with Geoff West and Brian Enqvist, seemed out of character to me. I suspect that people who do science trying to empty a bottomless reservoir of curiosity have trouble sticking to type. It might also help if you’re choosing grad students who have a wide variety of interests and passions.

    • Yup, Jim Brown is a great example of somebody who doesn’t have a “type” (or who has multiple “types”, if that’s possible). But if *you* have a type that overlaps with one of his types, you’re likely to think of him as having the same “type” as you, and then be surprised to discover his other “types”.

      Perhaps worth noting that, to Brown himself, the MTE stuff with West and Enquist is very much of a piece with his other macroecological work. In Jim’s eyes, both macroecology and the MTE are all about finding general empirical patterns, and explaining them with models that abstract away case-specific details.

      And if the MTE still seems a bit out of leftfield from Jim Brown, well, remember that he was a postdoc at UCLA when Jared Diamond was there, and hung out with some of the same people as Diamond, like Martin Cody. 🙂

      • I agree that the the metabolic theory stuff was pretty ‘macro-ecological’ but I saw the fractal and scaling stuff as separate from the metabolic theory. But maybe I don’t know the research well enough to see the links.

      • You raise an interesting issue, on which we have a good old comment thread (sorry, can’t find it now). In that thread, a commenter remarked astutely that most of the MTE is just (i) showing that different power laws are mutually consistent with one another, and (ii) combining known power laws with some fairly phenomenological assumptions to generate additional predictions. Arguably, the only really mechanistic bit of the whole MTE is the fractal branching circulatory system stuff, that explains–or is claimed to explain or might explain–the 3/4 power scaling of metabolic rate with body size. The commenter remarked that having a mechanistic explanation for the scaling laws, or at least for one key scaling law, somehow made the whole enterprise seem quite mechanistic, which was probably part of why it became so widely cited and influential. The “mechanisticness” of the original West et al. Science paper kind of “rubbed off” on the entire MTE. Even though you don’t actually *need* a mechanistic explanation of the metabolic rate-body size power law in order to do all the other MTE stuff. None of the rest of the MTE depends at all on having the correct mechanistic explanation for metabolic rate-body size scaling law, AFAIK. So if you see the fractal circulatory system stuff as separate from the MTE, well, you’re not alone! I and at least one of our commenters see it as pretty separate too. But my sense is that most ecologists don’t see it that way.

        None of this is meant at all as a criticism of Jim Brown, Geoff West, Brian Enquist, or the MTE. It’s a remark about the sociology of science–about how the MTE was perceived by others. Well, two others, anyway–me and one of our commenters! Perhaps our view of the MTE is not widely shared; I don’t know.

  5. Surprised no one has mentioned Darwin. His “type” is, clearly, evolutionary biology and it’s certainly what he’s most famous for. But he also wrote a lot of ecological books and papers, e.g. on earthworms, seed and invertebrate dispersal, etc., as well as some geology.

    • Gonna have to disagree with you on this one, Jeff. 🙂 Darwin’s too far back to have a “type”, to my mind. There was some scientific specialization back then, but not nearly as much as today. And Darwin himself was notable for his breadth of knowledge and interests, and for the breadth of approaches he was prepared to undertake., even compared to his contemporaries. It’s telling that these days, so many different types of scientists all claim Darwin as an intellectual ancestor. There are people who say Darwin was “really” a geologist, “really” a natural historian, “really” an ecologist, “really” a theoretician, and “really” an experimentalist. And they’re all right in a sense! (which means they’re also all wrong, in another sense) Even among evolutionary biologists, Darwin was revered by such different “types” as Stephen J. Gould and John Maynard Smith. No, Darwin didn’t have a “type”, I don’t think.

      • I see your point. I suppose I was thinking in terms of how Darwin is broadly perceived today: I think that _most_ people would see his type as evolutionary biology.

      • Is “evolutionary biologist” a single type, though? I mean, I think of, say, Gould as a very different type than Maynard Smith, even just setting popular writing aside and restricting attention to their papers. But yet they’re both evolutionary biologists.

        This raises an interesting question: are there entire scholarly fields or broad subfields populated entirely (or mostly) by scholars of a single recognizable “type”? (if you make the subfield narrow enough, the answer has to be “yes”, hence the qualifier “broad”)

        Maaaaybe economics, or at least certain subfields of economics? I often hear economists referring to “thinking like an economist”, as if that was a single, recognizable way to think.

        Not mathematics, at least not taken as a whole–see Tim Gowers’ essay on “the two cultures of mathematics”.

      • Well, then we start to get into questions of where we draw the field boundaries and for most of the examples in your post we can say that their type was to be a biologist. In this respect it’s harder to find examples of scientists who play against type by crossing those very broad boundaries.

  6. Interesting post, but I can’t think of a particular ‘famous’ scientist. I also think type depends on scale…e.g. At the broad scale I’m a community ecologist, but with different levels of detail I could be an insect ecologist, an ecosystem services scientist, or a landscape ecologist.

    I think the more interesting question is why do we typecast scientists anyway? How does it benefit science and what effect does it have on career interactions? Not easy qustions to answer. I was recently at a conference where I presented a talk focused on insect conservation (which I kind of assumed was a fairly obvious part of my ‘type’). Afterwards, someone commended me on the talk and commented (almost in surprise!) along the lines of ‘but I thought you did applied research..’.

    • “I think the more interesting question is why do we typecast scientists anyway? ”

      Hmm. Good question. I think my answer is: how could we possibly avoid doing so? Getting to know someone, whether through reading their papers or in some other way, usually means forming an impression of what they’re like (as a scientist, or as a person). It’s pretty rare to read a bunch of someone’s papers (or to talk to someone a lot, or whatever) and yet have that person remain an enigma or a stranger to you. And forming impressions of what people are like (whether as scientists, or as people) isn’t just unavoidable, I do think it’s useful for some purposes. The fact that people get to know one another, and develop professional and personal reputations, isn’t a bad thing on balance!

  7. This is a great point, Jeremy. I think people balk against being a ‘type’ – especially when that is based on incorrect and superficial assumptions around things like colour, gender, height, attractiveness etc. And I expect that folks are particularly sensitive to it who have experienced that throughout their lives in very negative ways.
    But, there are ways we assign people to ‘types’ around things like the kind of research they do and how they do it (or even about things like ‘how they treat others’) that may actually be useful and make sense.

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