Making waves: can basic ecological research generate headlines? And does it matter?

Note from Jeremy: this is a guest post from Andrew Kleinhesselink, a PhD student at Utah State University, and Peter Adler.

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“Gravitational waves: why it’s impossible not to be thrilled by this discovery”, announced the Guardian newspaper after last month’s discovery of gravitational waves by the Laser Inferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO). You had to admit that it was pretty thrilling. Even President Obama congratulated the LIGO team. Just like the detection of Higgs bosons by physicists in 2012, or the 1998 discovery of the universe’s accelerating expansion, physicists had somehow attracted massive attention to a scientific result that few members of the public can fully understand and that has little (or at least only indirect) practical significance.

It’s easy to justify basic research when the public celebrates a discovery like this as a pinnacle of cultural and intellectual achievement. Maybe this is the source of ecology’s often diagnosed physics envy: we wish our science sold itself this well. So why doesn’t basic ecological research attract LIGO-levels of public interest? What kinds of ecology stories do attract attention? Should the answers to these questions change how we justify our research—or maybe even the kind of research we do?

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The latest on diversity-productivity relationships: getting past a zombie idea

I’m a bit late to this (sorry, got busy then it slipped my mind), but better late than never. Writing in Nature, Grace et al. 2016 try to slay the zombie idea of a humped diversity-productivity relationship by integrating multiple theories into a single structural equation meta-model that they then fit to data. I don’t ordinarily comment on individual papers from the recent literature. But I’ve been following work on this topic so I thought I’d say a few things. I think there are some important larger lessons here for how to do good ecology.

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We aren’t scientists because of our method – we’re scientists because we count

Scientists still enjoy a fairly high reputation in society as a whole (notwithstanding creationists and climate deniers). It is worth pausing to ask why scientists are still given credibility in this increasingly doubting age. Continue reading

Chill out about Jingmai O’Connor’s criticism of bloggers (UPDATEDx2)

Today in Things the Science Twitterverse is Predictably Upset About: paleontologist Jingmai O’Connor’s interview in Current Biology in which she says that

Those who can, publish. Those who can’t, blog.

I was going to comment on this in the Friday linkfest, but I decided I had enough to say that wasn’t already being said on Twitter that I’d turn it into a post. It’s an experiment–this is the first time I’ve ever tried to use the blog to intervene in a social media firestorm in real time.

tl;dr: Chill out, everybody. Yes, she’s wrong, but it’s not a big deal. She’s probably just overgeneralizing from her own experiences, and you’re being unfair if you’re ripping her, rather than merely disagreeing with her.

(UPDATE 2: Definitely looks like she’s speaking from personal experience in that interview; see the comments. I think this is useful context, but delving further into the personal context here would get us away from a discussion of broader issues. So in the interests of a productive comment thread, I ask that future commenters stick to general issues rather than focusing on O’Connor’s personal experiences.)

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Let’s identify all the zombie ideas in ecology!

As regular readers know, I worry a lot about zombie ideas–ideas that should be dead, but aren’t. Zombie ideas are the most important failures of science’s self-correction mechanisms: they’re big, widespread errors or misconceptions that aren’t recognized as such. Over the years, I and our guest posters have identified several zombie ideas in ecology:

The intermediate disturbance hypothesis

r/K selection

Species interactions are stronger and more specialized in the tropics

Humped diversity-productivity relationships

“Neutral” = “dispersal-limited”

“Neutral” = “drift”

Local-regional richness relationships (specifically, the ideas that linear ones are ubiquitous, and that linear ones show that colonization not local species interactions controls local community membership)

And we’re starting to see folks identify other candidate zombie ideas in other venues. For instance, Luke Harmon thinks the notion of ecological limits on continental scale species richness is a zombie idea. I don’t agree, but I can see the argument. Peter Abrams thinks ratio-dependent predation is a zombie idea, though I’d call it a lost cause. Terry McGlynn just listed a couple from his own fields of entomology and tropical biology (three-toed sloths are Cecropia specialists; canopy ants are dominant because of their high-sugar diet).

Here’s my question to you: Is that it? Are those the only zombie ideas in ecology? Or are there others, shambling around unrecognized, eating the brains of the next generation of students even as we speak?* Tell us in the comments: What are the other zombie ideas in ecology?

Remember, zombie ideas are widespread errors. We’re not looking for personal criticisms of individual scientists here, and no such criticism is implied by discussion of zombie ideas. Having proposed or supported a zombie idea doesn’t make anyone a bad scientist. Science is hard and we all get things wrong sometimes.

p.s. I can’t believe I never thought of this post idea before!

*Textbooks are a refuge for zombie ideas.

Trying to understand ecological data without mechanistic models is a waste of time

Note from Jeremy: this is a guest post from Greg Dwyer.

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Jeremy invited me to do a guest post because he saw my 2014 ESA Ignite talk, in which I argued that data are almost worthless without some connection to mechanistic models (Jeremy posted interesting comments on the session shortly after it happened).   That statement is a little stronger than what I actually believe, but the status of mechanistic models in ecology is so weak that it is hard for me to avoid losing my patience when confronting ecological research that is unconnected to an explicit model.   For the purposes of this essay, I am therefore going to stand by my talk title: Trying to understand ecological data without mechanistic models is a waste of time.   I think that the only caveat that I would add would be “except in cases where the underlying question is too trivial to be interesting.”

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Biodiversity and pizza – an extended analogy leading to a call for a more multidimensional treatment of nature

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the term biodiversity. Not so much its scientific defintion as its usage in public discussions. No doubt this is because I am increasingly using the word biodiversity to describe my own work as I move in more applied directions. And a few weeks ago I got to spend over an hour with a reporter talking about the history and implications of using the term biodiversity. She asked good questions and forced me to get clear about what I really think. So I’ve got a lot of thoughts rattling around in my brain on the usefulness of term “biodiversity” that I would like to discuss with the community.

Biodiversity is a really important term that is being woven into the international regulatory framework at the moment. But biodiversity is also an emotion laden term in ecology these days. So … I’m going to adopt the philosopher’s trick and talk about something completely different for a bit (pizza!) and then circle back and tell you I was really talking about biodiversity all along.

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If a scientist falls in a forest where nobody can hear them, have they done science?

A meme that seemed to run through much of the comments on Jeremy’s recent post on salesmanship in science seemed to be that you could be a wonderful scientist but a terrible communicator of your science and that you would suffer for this career-wise and that would be unfair. This came as a surprise to me. I have a hard time thinking of people who I would call a great scientist but a terrible communicator. Now they may have stage fright and give a bad talk, but write great papers (or vice versa). And they may be bad networkers or bad self-promoters. But the sterotypical genius with ground breaking ideas but who drools and can’t put two words together let alone coherently communicate what they’ve done and why it is important, no. Which leads to the deeper, more philosophical question, if there is “good science” inside somebody’s head and it can’t get out, is it science? Hence the allusion in the title to the zen koan about a tree falling in the forest. Or if somebody is shipwrecked on a desert island does research for 10 years and then dies and their notes decay before they are found, have they done science?

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