Earlier this month I finally got to attend the ASN standalone meeting in Asilomar, which I’ve been dying to attend since they started doing them. This was the first time the meeting didn’t overlap with the first week of the Calgary winter term. It was a great meeting, both fun and productive. Here are a bunch of hopefully-interesting thoughts:
I had several really interesting conversations:
- One was about whether debates at scientific meetings serve any scientific purpose, as opposed to being (at best) mere entertainment and (at worst) encouraging ecologists’ over-developed tendencies to get into polarized unproductive arguments. I think debates can serve a useful purpose: clarifying the key issues for bystanders. But for debates to serve that purpose, I think you need the right debaters–people who are happy to engage in scientific give-and-take without taking it personally. In support of this view, I submit the first ASN standalone meeting debate, which I hear was great and which led to a great and well-cited pair of papers. And no, I don’t think “find the right debaters” is such a difficult task as to be effectively impossible. But there is definitely scope for reasonable disagreement with me on this!
- Another was about when it’s useful to revisit the foundations of some line of research, with a view towards rebuilding it from the ground up if necessary. Obviously, we’d never get anywhere if we were constantly setting aside everything we think we know and questioning the framing of every question we’re asking. But equally obviously, the optimal frequency of revisiting the foundations isn’t zero either. So are there any broadly-applicable “rules of thumb” for scientists to recognize when they need to go back to square one? One possibility: if well-informed outsiders from “adjacent” fields have fundamental questions about your research program that you can’t answer to their satisfaction, that’s one sign that maybe your research program needs to go back to square one. Part of this conversation was about the use and misuse of simple “baseline” or “null” models to identify and frame good questions. In evolutionary biology in particular, a common way to identify a question is to set up some simple evolutionary model (e.g., an optimization model) as a baseline, and then treat observed deviations from that simple baseline expectation as “puzzles” that need to be explained. The most common criticism of that approach is that it’s strawmanning, that the solutions to the purported puzzles are too numerous or obvious. But a deeper problem might be that the approach sometimes leads, not to questions with overly numerous or overly obvious answers, but to questions that have no answers at all because they don’t make sense. Because the organisms aren’t actually solving the optimization problem that the researchers assume they’re solving. It’s hard to recognize when you’re asking a question that doesn’t make sense, because no data will reveal that your question doesn’t make sense. Because for any data you collect, you’ll be able to spin some post-hoc interpretation of those data in light of the (nonsensical) question you’ve framed. I don’t have any answers here, though I’m confident the answer isn’t “never set up a simple baseline expectation and then seek to explain deviations from it”. I don’t think we can or should completely do without baseline expectations, or completely get away from treating deviations from our baseline expectations as puzzles in need of solving.
- A third interesting conversation was about partitions. I’m a fan of partitions, such as modern coexistence theory, but it wasn’t until this meeting that I’d fully appreciated other people’s deep objections to them. One objection is that partitions draw a boundary between the things they apply to, and the things they don’t apply to. So if you’re interested in the links between things to which some partition applies, and the things to which it doesn’t apply, you might well see that partition as getting in the way.
Speaking of modern coexistence theory…I continue to follow the emerging technical critiques of modern coexistence theory with great interest. I think the critics have some good points, though I disagree with some of them and I don’t know enough math to fully grasp others. I think for those critiques to gain traction among non-experts (who are by far the largest audience for modern coexistence theory, or indeed for any scientific idea), the critics are going to need to (i) make their criticisms more intuitive to non-experts (which is hard), and (ii) show how their criticisms connect to empirical data. After all, widespread interest in modern coexistence theory itself only took off after Chesson (2000) and other papers made the core ideas intuitive to non-experts, and a bunch of people started applying the theory to data. Now that there’s widespread interest in modern coexistence theory, there’s a pre-existing audience for critiques and modifications of it, and for alternative approaches that achieve the same broad goals. I hope the critics will see that pre-existing audience of people interested in modern coexistence theory as an opportunity rather than an obstacle.
I saw many excellent talks. Anurag Agrawal’s naturalist’s award talk was fabulous. I think it can be really difficult for someone who’s done a large body of important research on one topic to summarize it all in a single talk in a satisfying way. As opposed to a way that comes off as superficial because the talk skims over so much ground. Anurag did a great job of combining breadth with depth. Christopher Moore’s talk on modeling mutualisms was fabulous too. The historical introduction was not only creative and entertaining, but really drove home the need for new thinking in this area–a need to which the rest of the talk responded in a concrete, compelling way. Dave Armitage’s talk on species coexistence and range limits was very cool, though I only caught the second half. Stephen Munch did a wonderful job conveying the intuitions behind some difficult ideas in nonlinear forecasting. Rachel Germain showed how to experimentally test for character displacement without needing to measure phenotypic traits (!), applied the approach to plants (!), showed that competitive coevolution in plants alters their competitive abilities rather than leading to character displacement (!), and showed that the competitive coevolution does not show up in the plant traits that everybody ordinarily measures (!). Paulina Arancibia showed lovely protist microcosm experiment results on patch arrangement and metapopulation persistence. I hope the non-microcosmologists in the audience fully appreciated just how creative the physical experimental setup was, and what a massive amount of work it was to conduct. And I saw (and missed) many other excellent presentations, apologies for not listing them all.
The one problem that showed up in a few talks was overly long introductions.
Maybe Probably this is just me. Maybe I’m just getting impatient and grouchy as I get older. I increasingly find myself appreciating speakers who get right to the point. In a 15 minute talk, I don’t want several minutes of “big picture” introduction, usually centered on some conceptual diagram illustrating the speaker’s worldview/perspective. The best advertisement for your worldview/perspective is your science, not a conceptual diagram. Nor do I want an extended introduction to some basic concept or fact (well, basic for the audience at the ASN standalone meeting). The best talks start telling the audience members things they don’t know as early in the talk as possible. Protip for speakers to help address this: if one or more talks in your session have already introduced the same key concept/fact/perspective you were planning to start with, take the opportunity to skip that bit of your introduction and say more about your science instead. Related old post.
The poster session was small but very good. I liked how most of the posters were very text-light.
My poster went over well, the folks who came by during the poster session all “got” it and asked good questions. One of the best signs that your presentation was good is that you got good questions.
The main problem with presenting a poster is that you can’t walk around and talk to the other poster presenters about their posters.
The venue is old and charming, the location is lovely, and a small meeting at which everyone eats together really encourages interaction. But the venue’s also showing its age; a bunch of people had to be rehoused because of a boiler failure. Any suggestions for other venues?
Disappointed there wasn’t more of interest in the nearby tidepools. I don’t follow the rocky intertidal literature that closely any more, just because my interests have shifted over time. But I had thought the story was that Pisaster was bouncing back? There were no Pisaster in evidence at Asilomar, hope they return soon. Of course, I’m being greedy here, since I’ve actually seen Pisaster a couple of times before, including once as a tourist near Asilomar. I feel bad for anybody who came to the meeting hoping to check Pisaster off their life list and left disappointed.
My team did reasonably well in the natural history trivia quiz by following the highly effective strategy of “let Peter Morin answer all the questions.” Peter is amazing. 🙂