About Jeremy Fox

I'm an ecologist at the University of Calgary. I study population and community dynamics, using mathematical models and experiments.

Faculty: you should attend your institution’s graduation ceremony, it’s great

Last week I attended the University of Calgary convocation–the graduation ceremony–for the Faculty of Science.* I didn’t used to. When I was first hired at Calgary, and for many years after, I didn’t attend convocation. I didn’t see any point in going to a boring two hour ceremony, the bulk of which would consist of watching students I didn’t know walk across the stage. I also thought I was too busy.

I was wrong on all counts.

I only realized I was wrong a few years ago, when a colleague told me that she always attends convocation. Because there’s no prouder feeling you can have as a professor than seeing students–especially, but not exclusively, the ones you taught–receive the degrees they worked so hard to earn. And because it really means a lot to the students to be able to shake hands with the professors they know as they finish crossing the stage. She was right.**

A graduation ceremony also reminds (and reinforces) to everyone in attendance how valued and valuable the college or university is as an institution. That’s a really enjoyable–and important–thing to remember. It’s pretty easy to forget that as you go about the day to day business of being a prof.

Plus, convocation is not even boring, honestly. The bit where the students walk the stage as their names are called is basically people watching for the audience. I find it relaxing. And it helps that Calgary does it right and encourages audience members to cheer as students walk the stage, rather than making everyone sit in somber silence.

So now I always attend convocation, and if you’re a prof I encourage you to do so too.*** I acknowledge that there are other, private ways for you to mark the graduation of the students whom you know. But they aren’t mutually exclusive with attending convocation. And it’s understandable if you feel as I once did–that it would be boring and you’re too busy. But if you feel as I once did, then I think you’re the sort of person who would benefit most from attending. You need a reminder of how awesome it is to be part of an institution that’s bigger than any one person and makes the world a better place. Attend your institution’s convocation; you won’t regret it. 🙂

*Calgary is a big university, we subdivide the graduating students into several convocation ceremonies.

**Also, this generation of students grew up on Harry Potter, so they all love academic robes. Their graduation ceremony is the closest they’ll ever get to being in Hogwarts. 🙂

*** “Encourage” is a key word here. I’m not slamming any prof who doesn’t attend convocation. This post is meant as encouragement of the sort my colleague once gave me, not as criticism. Nobody should use this post as an excuse to go onto social media and rip anybody. (And I assume and hope nobody would, but just in case…)

Poll results: what are the biggest problems with the conduct of ecological research?

Recently I polled y’all on which of the many purported problems with the conduct of ecological research are actually problems. For each of 24 purported problems in ecological research, respondents were asked if it was a serious problem, moderate problem, no/minor problem, or opposite of a problem.

Here are the results! They’re very interesting! You should totally read on!

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Poll: which purported problems with ecological research are actually problems?

We talk a lot about critiques of ecology around here. Problems in the day-to-day practice of ecology that are sufficiently serious to be worth recognizing and addressing. Maybe even so serious that the entire field could be said to be in crisis.*

Or at least, they’re problems that somebody thinks are serious enough to be worth recognizing and addressing.** But maybe that somebody is wrong! Sometimes somebody just has a bee in the bonnet about something that’s not a problem, or not a big problem, or even the opposite of a problem.

Hence this poll! Below is a list of a bunch of purported problems in ecological research. Then there’s a poll inviting you to share your opinion of the seriousness of each problem, in those areas of ecology with which you’re sufficiently familiar to answer. There are four possible answers: serious problem, moderate problem, no/minor problem, and opposite of a problem. For instance, if the purported problem was “not enough people read Dynamic Ecology” and you thought too many people read Dynamic Ecology, you’d choose “opposite of a problem”. If you thought the right number of people read Dynamic Ecology, you’d choose “no/minor problem”. #sillyexample

Problem list (links go to discussions of the purported problems):

  • Failure to make and test good predictions (link, link)
  • Hypothesis-free research, or research based on weak “pseudo-hypotheses” (link, scroll down to #7)
  • Statistical machismo: using over-complicated statistical methods without properly weighing the pros and cons (link) (note: even if you dislike the term “statistical machismo”, vote on the purported problem the term refers to, not the term itself)
  • Zombie ideas: ideas that continue to be widely-believed and taught despite strong reasons to think them false or otherwise seriously flawed (link) (note: even if you dislike the term “zombie ideas”, vote on the purported problem the term refers to, not the term itself)
  • Inefficient theory: theoretical models that have too many free parameters, relative to the number or range of phenomena they explain or predict (link)
  • Mathematical models of specific systems overvalued compared to general theory: overvaluing mathematical models of specific systems, compared to more general theoretical models that apply in an approximate way to many different systems (link)
  • Theory overvalued compared to data (too many possible links for me to pick one)
  • Generality overvalued compared to system- and site-specific case studies (link, link)
  • Meta-analysis overvalued compared to collecting one’s own data (link)
  • Lab/microcosm/mesocosm studies overvalued/misleading compared to field studies (link, link)
  • Undervaluing natural history; ecological research insufficiently grounded in natural history (link, link)
  • Too much research that’s irrelevant to conservation/global change, and/or that falsely claims relevance to conservation/global change (link, link)
  • Lack of replicability; too few attempts to replicate published studies (link)
  • Too much null hypothesis significance testing (link, link)
  • Bandwagons: choosing a research topic or approach based on its popularity rather than its own merits (link)
  • Technology-driven research: “hammer in search of a nail”; research using the latest technology at the cost of being flawed in other ways (link, scroll down to #9)
  • Inferring causation from correlation, or from other inadequate evidence (link)
  • Overemphasis on novelty (link)
  • Vague/unclear/non-operational terms and concepts (link, link, link)
  • Underpowered studies (link, link)
  • Pseudoreplication: treating non-independent observations as if they were independent (link, link)
  • Small scale field experiments undervalued, particularly compared to large scale observational studies (link)
  • HARKing, p-hacking, cherry-picking data, garden of forking paths: questionable research practices that increase the odds the data will appear to reject the null hypothesis, or appear to match the investigator’s preferred hypothesis (link, link)

*This post focuses on problems and perceived problems in ecological research, not in how subgroups of ecologists are treated, or in how ecology is taught, or how ecological research is funded, or etc. Those other things are important, they’re just not the focus of this post. So please do not respond to this post by tweeting or commenting “What about [problem beyond the scope of this post]?!” Find some other, private way to vent your annoyance that this post isn’t about whatever you wish it was about.

**It may surprise some of you to learn that, personally, I don’t think that the entire field of ecology is rife with massive problems; I just think it’s good mental exercise to occasionally consider that possibility. I think there are plenty of success stories in ecology. I think the field as a whole is progressing rather than regressing or spinning its wheels, but I find it hard to say if the field as a whole is progressing fast “enough”, or “as fast as possible”. And I think that rather than focusing on the overall state of the field, or whether that state is improving, it’s more useful to focus in a more granular way on identifying and addressing specific problems. Hence this post.

Friday links: do blind orchestra auditions really benefit women, advice vs. coaching, machine learning vs. eggnog, and more

Also this week: “carry on” vs. “mad dash” ecology, best tweet ever (Manuscript Central edition), Game of Thrones vs. baby names, philosophy musical, salary disclosure vs. the gender pay gap in academia, who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf randomized experiments, and more. Lots of good stuff this week!

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Want to write a guest post for us on where to eat and drink in Louisville for #ESA2019?

Do you like to eat food and drink beverages? Do you know good places to do those things in Louisville? If so, you should write a guest post for us on where #ESA2019 attendees should eat and drink!

These posts have become something of an annual tradition for us (example 1, example 2). Feel free to put your own personal spin on it. You can make it long, or keep it short and to the point. And if you want to write it with some of your friends, that’s cool too. Your fellow ecologists will really appreciate it!

We’d need the post by early Aug., so you have plenty of lead time. If you’re interested in the gig, email jefox@ucalgary.ca.



What overused, vague, or otherwise unhelpful phrases would you like to ban from ecology papers?

Inspired by a discussion I saw elsewhere*: what overused, vague, or otherwise unhelpful phrases would you like to ban from ecology papers? Ok, maybe not ban. But phrases that you encounter far too often, that usually could be dropped or replaced to the betterment of the paper.

I’ve already talked about mine: starting a paper with a statement like “Many ecologists have long been interested in [topic]” or “[Topic] is of wide interest in ecology”. Your paper should be about ecology, not ecologists. Tell the reader why your topic is interesting, not that other ecologists think it’s interesting.

I can’t find the link now, but here’s another that I first saw pointed out by Andrew Gelman: references to the “small but growing body of evidence” for some claim. It’s obvious why we’d care about the amount/nature/quality/severity of the evidence for X. But why on earth should anyone care that the evidence is growing? Why is the first derivative of any interest? I think the answer is “it’s not”. It’s just an empty rhetorical device, encouraging the reader to make an unwarranted extrapolation regarding the eventual size that body of evidence will achieve in future. As illustrated by the fact that nobody ever refers to the “large but shrinking body of evidence” for any claim.**

Starting with the phrase “Ever since Darwin…” is another one, though that’s more common in talks than in papers. Here’s my old post on cliches in ecology talks.

Ok your turn: what overused, vague, or otherwise unhelpful phrases would like to ban from ecology papers?*** Looking forward to your comments, as always.

p.s. Note that I’ve used cliched, vague, and otherwise unhelpful phrases in many of my own papers. I follow templates in my own scientific writing, just like most everybody else, without always consciously realizing it. Which means that sometimes I follow bad templates. We are all sinners.

*Which I’m not linking to because people on Twitter sometimes don’t want their conversations linked to, because they think of them as private conversations that just happen to be public. I’m pretty sure that in this case the people in question wouldn’t mind a link from us, but I’m playing it safe.

**My goal in life–well, one of them–is to publish a paper including the phrase “This work subtracts from the large but shrinking body of evidence that…” 🙂

***Please don’t say “statistically significant”. I don’t want the thread to go down that road.

UPDATE: comments now closed.