About Brian McGill

I am a macroecologist at the University of Maine. I study how human-caused global change (especially global warming and land cover change) affect communities, biodiversity and our global ecology.

Why don’t we scientifically measure teaching effectiveness?

This post might as well be subtitled “A rant on the misuse of student evaluation of teachers”. I’ll just get that out of the way right up front.

One of the defining attributes of being a scientist is that we’re really good at the practice of quantifying things in a repeatable, meaningful way. Take journal impact factors as an example. We’re able to talk about them and pretty quickly agree that journal impact factor is a flawed and noisy but useful one-dimensional representation of a high-dimensional quantity, journal quality, but a rubbish measure of the quality of a single paper. Or say you’re on the committee of a student who tells you they want to measure competitive effects. You’re pretty likely to lead them down several conversations. Do they mean per capita effects on population growth rates? or per unit biomass impacts on biomass? or coexistence effects on other species? Conversely is their measurement of competitive effect likely to be strongly impacted by overall species richness or by productivity of the system? And what are the error bars on their measurement methods likely to be? If they are looking at biomass impacts are they measuring wet or dry biomass? How will this be standardized? How much variability can be removed by standardizing techniques?

Phew! We scientists sure make measuring something into a sophisticated exercise (and I hasten to note that is because experience has taught us it is important to do this). So how come both faculty and administrators are content to just take student evaluations of teachers on a 1-5 Likert scale so seriously?

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What kind of scientific crisis is the field of ecology having?

I have been thinking a lot about crises in fields of science. I don’t mean “grants are shrinking” crises or “we continue to treat subgroups abominably” crises. Nor am I talking about the fact we are documenting an ecological crisis on our planet. Those are real and important. But I mean here “the science we are producing and communicating is wrong” kinds of crises. I think these crises probably say a lot about science. Both in how they managed to go wrong. And in how the crises got recognized and fixed.

I am going to list five different crises in five different fields of science (four are recent, one is old), and then I am going to ask what kind of crisis ecology is most likely to have (or is having?). Continue reading

Eating, Drinking and Sightseeing in Portland for #ESA2017

I am excited to welcome you to my home town and home state. The state, Oregon, has not changed much since I lived there 30 years ago. Most people’s dominant impression of Oregon is very tall, very green trees. But in fact it contains biomes ranging from cold desert to temperate rainforest and includes grasslands, oak woodlands, alpine tundra and several forest biomes. It also includes elevations ranging from a rugged rocky coastline to half a dozen permanently glaciated peaks over 3000m (most of which are active volcanoes) (and has 3 distinct mountain ranges). Portland has changed a lot more in those 30 years. It remains a laid-back, outdoor-oriented, tolerant, Bohemian, funky city. But it is more self-consciously precious (as satirized in Portlandia) and is way more crowded than when I was a kid and the traffic is now terrible.

The Willamette Valley (which includes Portland) at this time of year can have highs anywhere between 85º-100 º F (roughly 30-40 ºC). It will typically be fairly dry though, and despite the reputation for rain, from July-September rain is quite unlikely (the weather blows in from the desert to the east).



I know this is probably pointless, and you’ll probably all blindly follow your cellphone GPS instead. If so, skip this section. But 5 minutes looking at an old fashioned map can make you look like a pro getting around central Portland and give you the joy of exploration and discovery. So …

The coordinate center of Portland is the Burnside bridge. East is divided from West by the Willamette river (which runs roughly north-south and rhymes with “dammit”). And North is divided from South by Burnside St, a major street that runs east-west. So downtown Portland which is south of Burnside and west of the river is in SW (southwest) Portland. The convention center is in NE Portland (although both downtown and the convention center are very close to the coordinate origin and so each other). Numbered avenues run north-south on both sides of the river, starting with 1st Ave closest to the river and increasing in numbers away from the river. The streets north of Burnside follow the alphabet – so Burnside, Couch (pronounced “Kooch”, not like a sofa), Davis, Everett, Flanders, Glisan (prounced “gleason”), Hoyt, Irving and so-on. South of Burnside it is not so logical – you will find names like Taylor, Alder, Salmon, Yamhill, Jefferson, Madison (a mix of presidents and local place names). The convention center is at effectively NE 3rd and Irving. So if you find yourself at NW Everett St and 5th Avenue, you know you have about 8 blocks to walk east and four blocks north. Very approximately and only near the center of town,  there are about 20 blocks to the mile or 12 blocks to the kilometer (but google it – don’t blame me if something is further than this suggests). So in the latter case of 12 blocks to walk you would have about 0.6 miles or 1 kilometer to go.

There are a few exceptions. On the west side, 7th avenue is named Broadway. And of course some of the biggest exceptions are right around the convention center. The convention center is basically at NE 3rd and Iving (I street). So just to the east of the convention center should be east 4th and 5th avenue but they are called Martin Luther King (MLK) Ave and Grant Ave respectively. And the streets to the north of the convention center should be the L & M streets (Lovejoy &  Marshall) but they are called Holladay & Multnomah. But if you get at all south or west of the convention center where all the food is, everything is regular. In particular you should be able to walk across the Steel bridge (use a map or GPS the first time as the freeways make walking to the bridge a bit convoluted) and you will be right at NW 1st Ave and Glisan street and everything south and west of there is well-behaved.

If you want to go running I would recommend Waterfront park (on the west bank of the Willimette – i.e. between W 1st Ave and the river) from NW Glisan to SW Clay. Or run uphill from downtown to 23rd and either Jefferson or Burnside (SW) to enter Washington Park with numerous trails up into the hills. Or take SW 6th Ave south until it turns into Terwilliger Ave, a tree-lined parkway with a wide sidewalk which winds up into the hills.

Getting around

You can get to lots of good places if you are willing to walk a couple of miles round trip. If you don’t have time or energy, you will want to use public transportation. Similarly if your hotel is downtown rather than at the convention center, you can walk or take public transportation the mile or so to the convention center. Public transportation is generally excellent in Portland and comes in three flavors. Max is the light-rail, Portland Streetcar is the trolley cars, and the buses just go by the name TriMet. Max is your best bet between the convention center and core areas near the river. The streetcars run around the periphery a little bit but may be useful if you want to go further out in the Pearl district. Both Max and streetcars run right by the convention center. You can do almost anything on the buses too but simpler to stick to the street cars and light rail.

Both Max and streetcars (unlike the buses) operate on the honor system (i.e. nobody checks if you have a valid ticket, you just walk on, but occasionally inspectors will board asking for proof and hand you an expensive fine if you don’t have a valid ticket). A key change from the last time ESA was in Portland is the free zone has been eliminated. In 2012 you could hop on a Max downtown and ride to the convention center for free. This is no longer true! Because they work on the honor system, if you didn’t know you could hop on for half the week thinking the free zone still existed without being challenged, and then end up with an expensive fine. As far as fares, the best choices are to buy a ticket for one day (from machines on the platform or train), or buy a 7 day ticket (from the same sources). There is also a 5 day “book of tickets” but: a) it only costs $1 less than 7 day, b) the tickets are not validated when you buy them, you have to put one in a validation machine on the platform or train when you first start using it or it isn’t valid, and c) they’re only available at convenience stores, not the trains or platforms. There are also available one-way and round-trip tickets, but the one-day tickets seem more cost effective. So my recommendation is one day tickets ($5) or 7 day tickets ($26) The Max ticket also works on the streetcars.

You can find a convenient map of all the public transit in the core area to print out before you leave home or download to your phone at https://trimet.org/maps/img/citycenter.png or use their trip planner.

You can take the Max red line from the airport to the convention center or to downtown where the hotels are.


Portland is justifiably considered one of the roots of the microbrewery movement (there were going concerns over 30 years ago). So I’m not going to particularly specify where to find good drinks. You can find them almost anywhere. Every restaurant will have several local beers on tap. And there are many microbrewers around. I believe this might have something to do with the popularity of Portland for ESA conventions 🙂 (Jeremy adds: check out yesterday’s beer geek’s guide to Portland!) Oregon is also becoming increasingly well-known for its wines (and this will only improve; climate change is going to move California’s Napa valley to the Willamette valley over the next 50-80 years). So similarly, you can find plenty of good local wines on every menu. Oregon specialties include the Pinots (Pinot noir, Pinot gris, Pinot rose) and Chardonnays (but no need to reject the local Riesling, Syrah, Cabernet, Zinfandel, Merlot, Gewurztraminer, bubblies, etc.). If you are really serious about wines, you will want to rent a car and drive west of Portland on 99W (heading out from highway 217). In under an hour you will drive past over a dozen wineries with local tasting shops.


OK – I probably told you more than you want to know about getting oriented in the city. But here’s the point. If you just start walking around the convention center you are going to be disappointed. And if you only go by my list there will 5000 people divided by 10 restaurants. So you need to learn to forage for yourself! And the key is to go to one of the neighborhoods a mile or so from the convention.  In these neighborhoods you can pick almost anything at random and it will very likely be good (Portland has an active and competitive food scene) so broadly:

  • Around the convention center – very sparse for eating and drinking. A few specific suggestions below but that is a high fraction of what is available. But by and large you’re better to walk a mile/hop on the Max to the west-side (across the river).
  • Lloyd Center – one of the nation’s first shopping malls (still contains an active year-round ice skating rink). Head out of the convention center on the north east side of the center, and head east on Holladay St and one more block north to Multnomah St. You will be rewarded with typical mall restaurants. There are some sit down restaurants in the mall. And there is a large food court (a dozen or so fast-food-ish restuarants ranging from the McDonalds to fast-food Mexican, Chinese, etc.). The main virtue is this is a quick way to get a group fed for lunch without having to debate where to go for half an hour in advance (I’m sure regular conference goers have never had this happen to them!). Nothing special about the food, but they are accustomed to serving the business crowd and getting people in and out for lunch. Holladay Park is a block south of the Lloyd Center if you want to grab food from the food court and then eat it outside. Four years ago there was a crepe food truck in the park, but I can’t find any evidence of that now – might be worth checking out though. Easily walkable about ½ mile one way, or take the red, green or blue Max lines east two stops (Lloyd Center) and then walk north a block (the food court is on the 2nd floor). Probably quickest option for lunch short of buying in the convention center or going to fast food immediately around the convention center.
  • Old Town (NW between 1st and 3rd Avenues and Burnside and roughly Irving Streets) – mix of shopping and restaurants. Was the hippest area a decade or two ago so a bit more establishment now. Still plenty of good restaurants and very close to the convention center. Walk across Steel Bridge and head south or take the blue or red max lines south from the convention center.
  • Chinatown (NW roughly 3rd and 4th Avenues). Not the most vibrant Chinatown in the US, but definitely a selection of Chinese restaurants in this area. I don’t have a specific one to recommend. Honestly, you’d probably get more exciting Asian food by heading out to the NE 30-50 Aves and finding lots of Vietnamese restaurants or out to Beaverton and finding lots of Korean restaurants (these both contain restaurants based in the ethnic communities living there), but these last two choices require a car/taxi/long ride on the Max. To reach Chinatown walk across Steel Bridge and head south or take the blue or red max lines south from the convention center and then head a few blocks away from the river
  • Pearl District (NW roughly 4th Avenue to 14th avenue, Burnside to Irving Street). The hip place these days. Lots of old warehouses now containing offices and restaurants and apartments. Land in the middle of this neighborhood, walk a block or two and you’ll see 2-3 places you want to eat or drink. Walk across Steel Bridge and head south and west, or take the green or yellow max lines south from the convention center and get off at 6th and Davis and head west, or the blue street car line on Couch and head east (take the red street car line back to the convention center – if you do the opposite you will take the very long circle all the way around central Portland)
  • Downtown (SW roughly 1st Avenue to 10th Avenue, Burnside south to Jefferson) – where many hotels are located. Also tons of restaurants and pubs but also the skyscrapers. Will feel a bit empty in the evening. Also a bit more establishment. As you get further from the river (towards 10th St), it will start to feel more lively, hip and like the Pearl District. Take the blue or red or yellow or green max lines south from the convention center, or the blue street car line (take the red street car line back to the convention center – if you do the opposite you will take the very long circle all the way around central Portland)

So be bold. Explore. But to get you started here a few restaurants organized by neighborhood. Not living in Portland anymore and Portland having a very active food scene, these recommendations are courtesy of my sister, Amy, who lives in Portland (although I have been to about half of these). Warning many of these are very popular restaurants and probably need reservations or a willingness to wait.

A handful of good restaurants around (=~1 mile) the convention center:

  • Milo’s City Cafe — 1325 NE Broadway St (far side of Lloyd Center from convention center) – serves breakfast, lunch (also breakfast available until 2:30) and dinner – pastas, salads and meat – http://miloscitycafe.com/
  • Produce Row – 204 SE Oak (Oak & 2nd)- inside seating and patio seating – “laidback gastropub” . Went there in 2012 with a large group quite successfully (and could actually talk to people in the group) – http://www.producerowcafe.com/
  • Altabira City Tavern – 1021 NE Grand Ave. inside the Hotel Eastlund just a couple of blocks NE of the convention center – has outdoor seating (roof top) – https://www.altabira.com/
  • Screen Door — 2337 E Burnside St (a good couple of miles ESE of convention center) – Traditional Southern Cooking With NW Food Values. Bakery on premises, Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner —  http://screendoorrestaurant.com/
  • Burnside Brewing Company – 701 E Burnside St (corner of Burnside and 7th) so about ¾ mile SE of the convention center – menus are short (emphasis on beer) but the food is not typical pub food – calls themselves hip and cozy- http://www.burnsidebrewco.com/
  • PR + CC — Prime Rib & Chocolate Cake – 1200 NE Broadway (just north of the Lloyd Center so about 1 mile from the convention center) – I don’t know anybody who has been there but the name kind of says it all … also has seafood, sandwiches and salads — http://primeribcc.com/
  • Eclipitic Brewing – 825 N Cook St, about two miles north of the convention center- East side by the Freemont Bridge – a funky brew pub (“we push the limits of creativity in the brew house”) with an analemma hanging from the ceiling http://eclipticbrewing.com/

And downtown

  • Mother’s Bistro — 212 SW Stark St, corner of Stark and 2nd – intended to be the best of Mother’s home cooking (for an American), lots of comfort dishes. One of my family’s favorites for brunch – http://www.mothersbistro.com/
  • Tasty and Alder — 580 SW 12th Ave (corner of 12th and Alder) — very popular – I would describe it as American comfort food but with gourmet twists and local sourcing – thus a very quintessential “Portland” restaurant, also great breakfasts – works best in a tapas style (order lots of small dishes and share around) – food is very good, waits are long – http://www.tastynalder.com/
  • Alder Street Food Truck Pod – between 9th and 10th and Alder and Washington – take the blue or red max line and get off at 10th and Galleria stop and head one block north to Alder – imagine a city block – the middle is still a parking lot – but on all 4 sides are dozens and dozens of food trucks – not surprisingly the food is diverse – Thai, Indian, Korean, Mexican, Middle-eastern, Korean-Mexican fusion, Polish, and much more. There is a park block (not much grass or trees – mostly lots of brickwork sculpted to provide lots of sitting places) kitty corner across from the 9th and Washington corner. You can sit there eat, soak up some sun and see an impressive cross section of the city’s denizens. Warning – don’t assume that food trucks are quick – there is a high variance – when my family went two weeks ago some of us were served in 5 minutes once we picked our truck and one took 25 minutes – ask if you’re in a hurry. You’re only two blocks from Powell’s Bookstore too (see below). And as a history of Dynamic Ecology side note, this is where Jeremy convinced to me to join onto the blog (it didn’t take much convincing though). (Jeremy adds: oh yeah, I remember that now!)
  • Blue Star Donuts – 1237 SW Washington St (Washington street just west of 12th) – the two most trendy places in downtown Portland to satisfy a sweet tooth are Vodoo Donuts (22 SW 3rd Ave so just south of Burnside and close to the convention center and open 24 hours a day) and Salt and Straw Ice Cream (838 NW 23rd Ave so a haul from the convention center, open until 11) but both may have very long lines (out the door) and are not worth it in my opinion. For my money top ice cream should be a classic flavor, just handmade with high quality ingredients. An emphasis on “quirky flavors” doesn’t add to my experience. And as my sister says, Voodoo Donuts is for kids, Blue Star Donuts (7AM-8PM) is for grownups. Yumm! Check out the fruit glaze donuts (BlueberryBasil, Passion Fruit, etc.). Or better yet, go with a group, order 3-5, and cut them in pieces so you can sample a variety. Also close to Powell’s Books (see below)

And finally, some starting points in the Pearl District:

  • Oba– 555 NW 12th Ave (12th Ave just north of Glisan) – upscale Nueva Latina cuisine – http://www.obarestaurant.com/
  • Andina – 1314 NW Glisan S (corner of Glisan and 13th Ave) – novoPeruvian cuisine – upscale Peruvian food – if you’ve never had Peruvian try the ceviche (lime-cured raw fish), loma saltado (traditional steak and fries), or anything that has potatoes or blue corn (including the chichi morada or blue corn juice) – can do tapas style (makes a nice lunch). SOOOO good but make a reservation — http://www.andinarestaurant.com/
  • Bridgeport Brewing – 1313 NW Marshal Street (i.e. 13th and Marshall – north side of the Pearl District – could take the blue streetcar to NW 10th and then switch to the green streetcar) – lots of inhouse ales and a more diverse food selection than most brewpubs (includes pizza, burgers, salads and more). http://bridgeportbrew.com/

Side trips

If you have some extra time, here are a few other places to see:

  • Powell’s Book Store – 10th and Burnside (blue street car or yellow/green Max 6th & Pine stop) – Imagine an entire city block with 15 foot high ceilings (used to be a car dealership). Now imagine that entire city block filled with bookshelves 10 feet high mixing new and used books on every topic under the sun. Then imagine that continuing up for three floors. It is the world’s largest independent bookstore. If you want technical ecology books stick to the vendor displays at the convention center, but if you want anything else, head here. Grab a map when you enter so you can find the book sections you want. The science fiction and mystery sections are each bigger than some whole bookstores (now you know what kind of books I read). The kid to young adult book section is about 1/3 of a city block. Open until 11 every night so you can stop by after dinner if you want.
  • Washington Park – roughly SW 23rd and Jefferson (walkable – about two miles from the convention center or one mile from downtown hotels – but may want to look into public transportation) – contains a Japanese garden and a rose test garden (varieties from all over the world planted to see how they do here). Both are far enough up the hill that you will have spectacular views back east over the city and Mount Hood. The outdoor amphitheater (bring a picnic) has programs every night Aug 1-10. Further up in the park (you will need to think about transportation) is an arboretum and a zoo. And even further is Forest Park – one of the largest urban forests in the US – 20 miles of trails through mostly old growth forest (the hills were too steep to cut).
  • Tryon Creek Park – one of the only state parks within urban city boundaries in the US. Probably need to take a taxi or the 38 bus. Good biking or running trails. At the far end of Terwilliger that I mentioned above for running if you’re looking for a really long run. Lots of guided and interpreted trails for hikes. Good place to get introduced to the ecosystem native to the Willamette valley that has been almost completely eliminated by farming and cities. Could easily spend a long afternoon here. And pick a lot of blackberries to eat.
  • Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) – a good, fun science and technology museum. Not on a par with Chicago or the Smithsonian of course. But any nerd could happily spend half a day or more here. It does a nice job of being interactive without dumbing down the science. It is in SE, so take the streetcars; take the red line to get there, getting off at the OMSI stop, then the blue line back.
  • Columbia River Gorge – for a fun day trip, head east up the Columbia River. As it passes through the Cascade Mountains, the river banks narrow to a steep walled gorge. There are many hiking trails and spectacular water falls. Rooster Rock State park is also a popular beach (including one of only two legally clothing optional areas in a state park in the country – that’s Portland for you – although not on the main beaches). Further up river is Bonneville Dam (and its salmon ladders) and the town Hood River (supposedly the windsurfing capital of the world – the winds narrow down to pass through the gorge). If you’re in a hurry take Interstate 84. For a more scenic trip, take the historic Columbia River Highway. By far the most popular destination is Multnomah Falls. But its almost always overcrowded (in ESA 2012 I went on a Friday morning and it was still mobbed). There are several other smaller falls (Bridal Veil, Horsetail) with parking and trails that interconnect with the top of Multnomah Falls and almost nobody goes to them. Park there, enjoy one fall and then take a few mile hike to Multnomah.
  • Mount Hood/Timberline Lodge – just an hour east of Portland you can reach the treeline (about 6000 feet) and a massive, lovely lodge built by craftsmen hired during the Great Depression to put them back to work. There are plenty of trails and two restaurant options. Summer is short up here so the wildflowers are usually great. A ski-lift over a kilometer long makes summer skiing on the glacier possible. People in their 70s in tennis shoes have climbed to the top (11,245 feet) in the summer months but it is definitely not recommended – the upper slopes are a technical climb with an active volcanic fumarole, snow arrette, crevasses, and a narrow ice canyon with rocks melting out and rolling down in the summer and plenty of well prepared people have died on this mountain too. But if you stay below the top of the ski lift at 8500′ you’re fine – just be prepared to hike in snow if you go above about 7000′ – stay on the horizontal trails at 6000′ otherwise) You can get here by public transportation with three switches.
  • Oregon Coast – about two hours west of Portland (half of that due to traffic). The two main roads from Portland to the coast are Highway 26 which comes in at Canoyn Beach and Seaside and Highway 99W then 18 which comes in at Lincoln City. In my biased opinion the best and least touristy part of the coast (unless you go way south) lies between these two areas (which of course takes longer to get to, but its only another ½ hour to avoid massive crowds). Neskowin, Pacific City, Garibaldi, Cape Lookout and Tillamook are all rugged and not overcrowded. You could do a long day trip (or overnight trip), driving out 26, heading south on the coastal highway 101, stopping wherever, then heading back east to Portland on 18 then 99W (and stopping at some wineries on 99W). You can reach Seaside and points north by taking a bus from the train station (it’s how Amtrak reaches the coast).
  • Mt St. Helens (about 1.5 hours north and you’ll need a car) – used to be the most symmetrical of the Cascade peaks and easily seen in Portland (Mt Hood is bigger and to the east while St Helens is to the north). But on May 18, 1980 (and yes everybody who was living in Portland then as I was still remembers that date) it literally blasted off about 1/3 of its top. It remains a very active volcano and you will occasionally see plumes coming out of it. It is now a national monument you can visit. It is too dangerous to go in the fumarole which has an again growing lava dome. But you can explore a landscape that was variously flattened or blowtorched by the explosion and see the awesome powers of recovery by Mother Nature. Many ecologists have made their name observing this unusual example of primary succession.

How science is and isn’t like the legal system

I have been musing a lot lately, motivated in part by the post-fact era we seem to have moved to, on what makes science such a powerful way of knowing. Hopefully, my thinking will advance enough that I can write a post on that soon. The one thing I’m sure of is it is not the conventional answer of “we have the scientific method”. But in the mean time, I served on a criminal jury not too long ago. It got me thinking about how the criminal trail process and science were and were not similar. This seems like at least a good starting point to think about what makes science a powerful way of knowing.

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A post-fact world: Part III -what is a scientist to do?

I started this 3-part series noting that a lot of scientists (including myself) are very dismayed to be living in a post-fact world. I think the instinctive reaction to this that I have heard over and over again is basically “I have to do more outreach, talk more to the public, explain my science in a more understandable fashion and just get them to understand”. This is in many ways an unsurprising response. It is playing to our natural tendencies and strengths. It is in many ways doubling down on what we already do. Its also more than a little elitist (we need to educate them who don’t know as much as we). It is also empirically rejected – this is the knowledge deficit model (if people only knew more science they would behave differently) which has been thoroughly studied and resoundingly rejected (can I say trashed?) by social scientists (e.g. did you know among the general public the more scientifically literate people are, the LESS likely they are to perceive serious risks in climate change and the more likely their political affiliation is to predict their views on climate change?).  The knowledge deficit model (tell people smoking is dangerous) didn’t work to stop people from smoking. And its not working on climate change. More generally, it is not ever going to work. The literature on this is extensive.

Just to be clear, I have this “knowledge deficit” response too – I’ve spent much of the last semester working with three middle schools helping them understand climate change and exploring what they can do about it. And doing this certainly cannot hurt. So I’m not arguing against doing it or criticizing those who have these inclinations. But I am wondering if it is the best response or just the easiest and most comfortable response?

So I spent the previous two posts in this series trying to get outside of my own little scientist head and see what history and social science can tell us about how we got to a post-fact world. Namely, I argued that:

  1. Our current post-fact world has been coming for half a century and is part of broad brush societal trends
  2. Humans are not particularly prone to careful abstract thinking about cause-and-effects and largely choose beliefs and make decisions based on a mix of social-thinking, emotions and fast-thinking.

Or to put it succinctly, the human brain never worked by the knowledge deficit model (adding knowledge=changed beliefs and behavior) and societal trends for the last 50 years have only moved us further away from that non-existent ideal. So where does this leave us as scientists in dealing with a post-fact world?

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A post-fact world: Part II – what our social scientist colleagues already know about human thoughts and behavior

This is the second post in a three part series on being a scientist in a post-fact world. The first post explored the history of how we got here. This post focuses on the fact that social scientists have pretty much known for a long time that most humans decisions are not taken based on facts and helped by increased understanding. The third will attempt to look at what scientists living in a post-fact world should do.

I am by no means a social scientist. But I most definitely recognize their existence and the validity of the work. Therefore as an honest scientist, I should first look at what is in the literature and rigorously studied before leaping to and giving primacy to my own intuitive ideas about how people’s minds work.

If I were to summarize the findings in a few words its that humans don’t base their thinking and behavioral decisions on fact-informed logic. Computers do. Spock does (did?). Academics pretend we do. Scientists arguably do in the aggregate across all scientists, but demonstrably don’t as individuals. And most humans don’t even pretend to be logical-factual in their decision making processes.

Here is a blitzkreig summary of social science literature on human decision making (so short as to be almost insulting to the complexities of the field, but hopefully digestible):

  • Humans are short term thinkers – economists have formalized this in the notion of the discount rate. Businesses often use a discount rate of about 8%. That means that $100 today is worth about twice as much as $100 given to me 9 years from now, and four times as much as $100 given to me 18 years from now. Note this has nothing to do with inflation. It is a statement about how much humans are willing to defer gratification. Economists treat this as a rational behavior. You may or may not see this as rational. But it sure explains a lot about why it is really really hard to get people to care about graphs of the impacts of climate change that have a title with the year 2080 in it. Problems in 2080 press on me about 0.52% or roughly 1/200th as much as the problems I have today. Climate change is going to have to to be 200x more impactful on my life than finishing my dissertation, get tenure or raising my kids are this year.
  • Humans have diverse, ordered needs – Maslow famously identified a hierarchy of needs. The idea is that humans only worry about higher level needs after lower level ones are addressed. The first priorities are physiological (food+warmth), then security (physical safety). Then comes social belonging/love followed by esteem/prestige. At the top of the list is self-actualization. Now, to be sure Maslow’s hierarchy is a simplification, and it has been corrected and amended to death, but the original idea remains compelling for capturing some core ideas. Where does keeping the planet protected come in? Where does appreciating a cool butterfly? or appreciating biodiversity?  They’re certainly pretty high in the list (i.e. low priority), quite probably only at the tippy-top actualization level. UNLESS they become part of social belonging and self-esteem, which leads immediately to …
  • Humans make a lot of choices as expressions of identity and belonging – A great deal of human behavior is made as a signal of what group one belongs to more than a carefully thought out story. A great example is climate change. Circa 2000 polls showed that the best demographic predictor of belief in climate change was education level (more education made one more likely to believe in climate change). But over the 2000s climate change became simply a predictor of political affiliation (in the US Democrats were more likely to believe in climate change than Republicans). Climate change become a badge of identity and belonging rather than a fact evaluated based on education. In short, social calculus explains much of our thinking and behavior and explains many things that would otherwise seem irrational.
  • Humans have dual circuits for thinking – Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel prize for his research on this topic. He calls them fast and slow thinking. Fast thinking can do amazingly complicated things including reading a billboard at high speed. But it is not based on logic or abstract thinking. And it is subject to many biases and fallacies – in short to many errors. Slow thinking is basically our Spock and the only place that applies logic and facts to arrive at novel conclusions. But the point is that a surprising number of our decisions are taken by the error-prone fast thinking part of our brain.
  • Human emotions drive much decision making – This comes as a shock to classical economists but not to psychologists nor advertising executives. This simple idea has led to the far more effective campaigns against smoking that involve television campaigns and pictures on cigarette packages that involve disgusting teeth, people recoiling from the smoker etc vs the older campaigns that just put a black-and-white print message on cigarette packs saying “Warning Surgeon General has determined that cigarette smoking is dangerous to your health”

Before summarizing the implications of this for a post-fact world, let me briefly comment on how this relates to scientists:

  1. Scientists are a very unusual subset of human personalities – in a nice paper by Weiler et al 2012 they use the Myers-Briggs personality assessment*. Myers-Briggs identifies four roughly independent axes of personality variation. So each individual’s personality is located in a 4-dimensional space. They compared US climate scientist’s personalities (and other types of scientists) to the general public. What they found is that on one axis (extrovert vs introvert) scientists were no different than the general public (about a 50/50 split in both cases). But on the other 3 axes, scientists were statistically significantly biased towards one end. Most importantly, scientists are more intuiters while the general public is more sensers. These words can be a little misleading but basically intuiters work with abstract thinking, while sensers work with concrete sensory-driven thinking. Scientists are also more thinkers (analytical and looking for cause and effect) than feelers (focused on empathy and personal relationships) (this is the weakest distinction of the three significant axes). Finally scientists are more judgers (prefer linear processes leading to crisp outcomes) than perceivers (happy to follow non-linear processes retaining a cloud of ambiguity). Long before this study, psychologists took the 2^4 (=16) corners of the 4-D space and identified jobs that people with that personality type were typically found in. One personality INTJ (introvert, intuiter, thinker, judger)  was actually labelled the scientist box. But INTJ is a rare corner – it is about 1.5% of the population (note that by default each corner should have 6.25% of the population). And ENTJs (extroverts but sharing the other 3 personality traits with INTJ and most scientists) are another 4% of the population So if you read the first part of this post and said “the people I hang out with aren’t this irrational”, it is because you are hanging out with a very weird outlying 5% of the population who are demonstrably unusually prone to linear thinking about cause-effect and abstract processes.
  2. Scientists work by belief too – But it would be a serious mistake to take this as a badge of exclusionary elitism. All that data above about irrational thought processes applies to scientists too (we are humans before we are scientists). Get really honest with yourself about why you believe in climate change. Is it because you understand the details. Do you know the laws and equations of black-body radiation. It only requires high school algebra and geometry to calculate a rough heat balance of the earth. Have you done it? Can you name the key experiments and observations confirming this theory? Or are you using social processes to decide who you trust and believing in climate change because others say so? And what is the source of your knowledge about CO2 being a greenhouse gas – can you explain why? have you looked at empirical data? or do you “know” it because somebody you trust told you its true? Don’t worry everybody thinks using the “social computer” of many people communicating to each other. We would be absolutely paralyzed if we had to deeply know everything ourselves – even as scientists we have to trust other people to build our cognitive world view  (see an interesting-looking book on The Knowledge Illusion – Why we are never thinking alone). We differ from non-scientists only in our criteria for picking who to trust, not in avoiding “knowing” by “trusting”. Or to take a different line of argument, do you know of scientists who have a pursued an idea when it seems hopeless? sometimes they turn out right (and then become famous). One example is the story of Barry Marshall who discovered and proved that stomach ulcers are caused by a bacteria. Starting only with correlational evidence (most ulcers had the same bacteria), her persisted not only against expert opinion but through a series of experiments that would appear to reject his idea, before later experiments confirmed his idea. Lakatos recognizes this aspect very clearly – the hardened core assumptions are chosen by belief and cannot be rejected or accepted. And Kuhn’s idea of scientific revolutions clearly showed that scientists belief systems play an important role. So scientists work by beliefs and trusting others even within science! What is special about science is that we have an adversarial system in which the rules of logic win over majorities of scientists, not because individual scientists are more Spock-like than the rest of humanity.


People decide what to believe and take decisions on how to behave through a complex process in which emotions, social considerations, and error-prone “fast” thinking circuits all play a large role. The logical, analytical, abstract, fact-driven slow-thinking circuits are used fairly rarely. Scientists tend to use their slow-thinking circuits (I’m making a few leaps here) more than most people and so it is bad to generalize from how we think. But even scientists tend to primarily think with emotions and social considerations and “know” things that would probably better be described as “trust” or “believe”. And even within the realm of logical thinking it is not obvious how things far in the future or high up in the Maslow hierarchy of needs should be weighed in. The New Yorker made a similar argument recently in an article entitled “Why facts don’t change our minds?

So what do you think? Am I overstating the irrationality of human behavior? Of scientists? Should every human think completely rationally and be data-driven about whether to smoke or worry about climate change? Whether they should or not, do they think purely rationally? What does this mean for scientists who want the world to change based on facts we discover?


*Again social scientists have moved beyond Myers-Briggs and lean more to the Big Five Personality traits which has more empirical justification. But Myers-Briggs has been used for decades, many people know how to interpret it, and it has close relationships to the Big Five. Just my opinion, but if you’ve never taken a Myers-Briggs test, it is worth the 20 minutes to see where you come out. You can find lots of decent tests online these days and it may give you some insights about yourself, but mostly it will give you some insights that not everybody else thinks the same way you do.

A post-fact world: Part I – on how we got here

Like many scientists I have been dismayed of late to observe just how much “post-fact” or “alternative-truth” the world I live in has become. Like many scientists I have been reflecting a lot lately on what it means to be a scientist living in a post-fact world. Has my job and expertise become completely irrelevant? As regular readers know when I say I’ve been reflecting, you should expect a long post (or series of posts). I have broken my thoughts up into a 3 part series. In the first I take a historical perspective and argue that this post-fact world is really the result of trends in society going on for decades. In the second part, I turn to our social scientist colleagues who have been studying how people think and choose behavior and highlight some of the most salient points that they have learned to explain why we are in a post-fact world. In the third part, I attempt (and attempt is still a pretty strong word, struggle might be better) to draw conclusions from this about what a scientist should do in a post-fact world.

This is of course an ambitious undertaking. Even an arrogant undertaking. Many caveats apply. I am neither a historian of science nor a psychologist nor risk behavior specialist. For sure, almost none of my ideas are original, but despite that, I am not going to carefully footnote each source (this being an informal blog). And I am indubitably biased in having a primarily American perspective on this (although I try to include global examples and believe the general trends are global). In short, this is just another crackpot musing on the internet. Warning: my thoughts run a little contrary to the directions I have heard many scientists heading. But the primary value of this blog to me is the chance to throw ideas out there and hear other peoples thoughts on them. So here goes …

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Michael Rosenzweig: an appreciation

I am currently attending a Festschrift this week for Michael Rosenzweig. Make no mistake, he is still actively doing science, but with 50+ years of scientific career, it seems like a good time to reflect on what an impressive career he has had. Just for full disclosure upfront, he was my PhD adviser, so I’m hardly the most unbiased reporter, but of course that gives me a close perspective.

Mike was awarded the Ecological Society of America’s Eminent Ecologist award in 2008 and he has well over 100 papers, many massively cited, and three books, so I imagine many are familiar with his published work, and it would take too much space to summarize it anyway. I want to offer several more reflective and in some cases more personal thoughts. Take them as a reflection of my respect and appreciation for Mike or my musings on the ingredients of a good scientific career as you wish.

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#ibstucson – International Biogeography Society 2017 meeting

I returned this weekend from the IBS 2017 meeting in Tucson. It was a great meeting. The organizers moved it on fairly short notice from Brazil to Tucson due to concerns about Zika. This resulted in a lot of extra work for the organizers, but it didn’t show. It was a well-run meeting. And it was my favorite type of a meeting a few hundred people organized around a fairly specific topic.

I’m not going to repeat individual talks – check out the twitter feed for many great talks (#ibstucson). As is usual with me, such meetings inspire big-picture musings. This one probably more than most, since the last time I was able to attend IBS was the inaugural meeting in Mesquite Nevada in 2003. I noticed a lot of differences in the 14 year gap.

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