Hoisted from the comments: are you still improving as an ecologist?

Benjamin Martin had a great comment on my recent post asking “What’s your best paper?”:

Perhaps one reason so few replied to your original question on their best paper is that your audience is largely skewed towards early career types, and if they are like me the title of “best paper” is an ephemeral one.
Nearly every first author paper I have written has at one point been my “best paper” , but was quickly relegated to the ranks of “its a paper…” It’s a little frustrating because it would be really nice to have a paper for which you maintain that initial level of pride. But in another way, the feeling you get when you notice the improvement from one year to the next was probably the most rewarding part of grad school. I don’t fret too much about if I will eventually get a TT job because thinking back on how little I knew about anything as a a newly minted college graduate reminds me it was a worthwhile investment.
I wonder for people further along in their career, if there is a point where you eventually feel like [you’ve] more or less made it, for example there is no longer a significant (positive) temporal trend in the quality of your work? If so about when? Or what was is the functional form of your scientific growth? Linear, exponential, hyperbolic? If I had to guess, I would go with sigmoidal growth with an inflection point around the last year of the phd/first year of a postdoc, but maybe this also varies a lot among disciplines and individuals.

So, what do you think? Are you still improving as an ecologist? How has your rate of improvement changed over time? How do you keep improving if you already have your Ph.D., so that your “official” training is more or less over?

I think it’s good to ask oneself questions like this periodically. It forces you to step back and think self-consciously about what you’re doing, what you want to do, what you should do, and how to make sure those things overlap as much as possible.

Of course, all this kind of begs the question of what it means to “improve” as an ecologist. I’m not going to attempt a definition, except to say that (obviously), the more background knowledge and technical skills you have, the better you are. That’s presumably one important way in which grad students improve–they learn stuff and acquire skills. But “having lots of background knowledge and technical skills” falls way short of completely characterizing what it means to be a good ecologist. Indeed, I doubt there is any single adequate characterization–subjective and personal considerations necessarily are in play here. So in answering Ben’s questions, feel free to assess your own improvement however you see fit.

Looking forward to your comments.

Does scientific controversy help or hurt scientific careers?

In the comments on a recent post, regular reader Artem Kaznatcheev asks an interesting question:

For instance, in the Nowak, Tarnita, & Wilson evolution of eusociality paper, was Tarnita negative[ly] affected by the controversy surrounding that paper (even though it seems like her contribution was the mostly in the SI, given her other work, and not in the actually controversial body of the paper)? In general, does controversy hurt or help (or neither, or more complicated) junior scientists?

Like I said, interesting question! Like most scientists, I’m interested in the sociology and anthropology of my own “tribe”. How different factors shape both individual careers and the direction of science as a whole. And of course, as someone who’s said some controversial things on this blog, and who cares about his own career, I have a keen personal interest in the answer!

My answer to the general question is basically “more complicated”. Which is another way of saying I don’t really have a coherent answer, just a bunch of tentative thoughts to get the conversation started:

  • I have no idea if or how the kerfuffle over Nowak et al. has affected Tarnita’s career, so I’m just going to focus on the general question rather than that specific case.
  • Anyone’s career trajectory depends on many factors, including blind luck. Luck is especially important early in one’s career. Plus, most scientists are never involved in major controversies. So I think it’s unusual for scientific controversies to have a detectably large effect (positive or negative) on anyone’s career. I don’t think that makes the question less interesting, but I think it’s important to keep in mind that the question has to do with fairly unusual situations.
  • I think the answer to this question depends on how you define “helping or hurting one’s career.” If you define it narrowly as “materially affecting one’s chances of being hired, tenured, or promoted”, I suspect it’s quite rare for controversies to matter. Being involved in controversies could of course affect one’s career in more subtle ways, for instance by making you more (or less!) likely to be invited to give seminars or participate in symposia, or making you a bit more well-known so that you’re a bit more likely to be contacted by prospective graduate students, or etc.
  • I think the only controversies that have any chance of seriously affecting your career one way or the other are high-profile ones. Just writing, say, a technical comment critiquing a published paper creates a debate between you and the authors of the paper. But the debate ordinarily is short-lived and concerns some matter of fairly narrow interest, so doesn’t attract much attention and wouldn’t ordinarily affect anyone’s career. Again, I think things like the kerfuffle over Nowak et al. are exceptional.
  • If the controversy is high-profile, the effect on your career probably depends on what the controversy is about, and how it’s resolved. For instance, if the controversy is about whether your work is technically unsound, and the eventual resolution is “yes, it is”, that could hurt your career. The example of the Felisa Wolfe-Simon, who claimed to have found “arsenic-based life”, comes to mind as a possible example here (though I emphasize that it’s only a tentative example as I haven’t followed that controversy, or Dr. Wolfe-Simon’s own career, in any detail). But if the controversy is about the technical soundness of someone else’s work, and you’re the one who first pointed out the flaws, and you convince the rest of the field that you’re right, I’d think that would help your career. Rosie Redfield’s role in the arsenic-based life controversy is a possible example (again, I suggest this only tentatively). Another possible example is the economics grad students who found really serious mistakes in an influential paper by two famous Harvard economists. I’d think that might help their careers a little.
  • If the controversy isn’t about technical soundness, but instead is about some big issue on which reasonable disagreement is possible, I think being a leading participant in the controversy would probably help your career on balance, by raising your profile. But in that case, what helps your career isn’t so much that you’re involved in a controversy, I don’t think. What helps your career is that you’re seen as making a major contribution on an important topic. Brian might have some thoughts on this, as he has a number of papers relating to the controversy over Hubbell’s neutral model, including his very first publication.
  • I think it’s pretty rare for scientists to seek out scientific controversy for its own sake. I mean, people often recognize when they’re taking a controversial stance. And occasionally people may try to “sell” their results by making them sound a bit more controversial than they really are. But I don’t know that anybody takes controversial stances because they’re controversial. Or if they do, they also take the stance because they believe in it. For instance, E. O. Wilson may have been indulging in a bit of deliberate bomb-tossing with his editorial on mathematics in science–but I’m sure he also believes what he wrote. I note that there are those who disagree, and think that there are scientists who take controversial stances purely in order to help their own careers. But the examples given in that piece are people like intelligent design advocates and climate change denialists. I suppose such people may be taking controversial stances purely to help their careers in some cases–but as far as I know I don’t think their careers are scientific careers (as opposed to careers in, say, political advocacy).
  • Avoiding controversial topics because they’re controversial is probably more common than seeking out controversy. Early in my postdoc, I vowed not to work on biodiversity-ecosystem research because at the time it seemed like a highly controversial topic, and I wasn’t convinced the controversy was going to lead to anything productive. Of course, I ended up changing my mind, because the controversy died down, and because I came up with some research ideas that seemed worth pursuing and that weren’t directly related to controversial matters. And there are topics I won’t blog about, because I don’t feel like dealing with the unproductive argument that probably would result. But in both cases, my concern wasn’t (or isn’t) any possible effect on my career, which I’m sure would’ve been (or would be) negligible. It’s just that, if I’m going to get into an argument, I want it to be an argument worth having. I love a good argument. But an unproductive argument is no fun and a waste of time for all concerned.
  • As far as I can recall, high-profile controversies in the history of ecology and evolution mostly have involved people who were already prominent, or who went on to become prominent. Perhaps in part because being prominent gives you some power to create a controversy where none would otherwise exist. And perhaps in part because, as I suggested above, being a leading participant in discussions of the key issues of the day probably helps your career on balance.
  • If over the course of your career you’re involved in numerous controversies, I suppose that might affect your career in some way. It could well affect other scientists’ perception of you, of course, without necessarily affecting your career. There are a few prominent ecologists and evolutionary biologists who have something of a reputation for being involved in controversies.
  • I can’t think of any example from ecology and evolution where someone’s career was seriously hurt due to their involvement in some controversy.

Hoisted from the comments: name the most productive, and unproductive, ecology debates ever

Commenting on my recent post on the need for more “short selling” (i.e. criticism) of ideas in ecology, Jeff Houlahan asks a good question:

When was the last time we had an in print debate that matched the heat and light of Diamond versus Connor & Simberloff? Or Andrewartha and Birch versus Nicholson? I’m sure there are more recent examples but they don’t come to my mind.

Let’s crowdsource the answer. Name some vociferous-but-productive (“heat and light”) debates in ecology, either historical or current. And just for comparative purposes, name some that were unproductive–all heat, no light. In the past I’ve speculated on why heated debates in ecology get started (it’s often not for any obvious scientific reason). But the productivity of the subsequent debate is a separate question.

A few opening bids:

Productive: the debate over whether effects of plant diversity on primary productivity are purely “sampling effects”. A narrow debate, to be sure. But a productive one. An important issue was raised, and then resolved to the satisfaction of pretty much everyone (there are always a few holdouts) through a combination of new data and new analytical techniques.

Unproductive: Tilman vs. Grime on plant competition along productivity gradients. I freely admit I never followed this debate very closely, so maybe lots of people will disagree with me on this and tell me what a rich, interesting, and productive debate it was (is? is it still going?) All I can say is that I didn’t follow it closely because when I looked into it briefly many years ago, my foxy sense* warned me off. The sort of mathematical framework that people like Dave Tilman (and me, and basically everyone I hang out with) use to think about competition is just so different from the sort of primarily-verbal models people like Phil Grime use. There has to be some sort of agreement on basic terms, concepts, and goals in order for a debate to be productive, and I’m not sure the necessary baseline agreement was there in this case (again, please enlighten me in the comments if I’m way off base here…) One offshoot of this debate (well, I think it’s an offshoot; maybe it’s a whole separate thing?) has been what is in my view a pointless side debate over alternative indices of the “strength” or “importance” of competition. In general, I think debates over alternative ways of measuring something that lacks a precise agreed definition run a higher-than-normal risk of being unproductive. See, e.g., the debate over alternative ways of measuring alpha and beta diversity. Such debates are arguments about definitions, disguised as (or mixed up with) arguments about substantive issues, and that’s a recipe for disaster.

Not sure: has the debate that Joan Roughgarden started about sexual conflict theory in evolution been at all productive? Early on, I had the impression that the answer was no, that Joan’s criticisms of established thinking were idiosyncratic and implausible at best. But I’m an ignorant outsider, and I haven’t followed subsequent developments in the field at all. Have any productive new lines of work emerged from Joan’s criticisms?

If we get enough responses, we can attempt a comparative analysis of the features associated with productive vs. unproductive debates in ecology. For instance, just from the examples suggested so far, the breadth of the topic under debate does not seem to predict the productivity of the debate. There are examples of both productive and unproductive debates over narrow issues, and over broad issues. Which is a little surprising. I might’ve thought that narrower, more “technical” debates would be more productive because it’d be more likely for all sides to agree on definitions, goals, background assumptions, etc.

*Foxy sense is like Spiderman’s “spidey sense“, only instead of warning me of physical danger, it warns me of unproductive arguments that would be a waste of time to follow. 😉

Hoisted from the comments: Using Google Ngrams to document the decline of botany, zoology, and natural history

Further to our recent discussion of the decline of natural history relative to ecology (starts here), frequent commenter Joachim notes that, according to Google Ngrams, natural history’s heyday was in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It started declining well before ecology took off, and actually has been more or less stable since the rise of ecology. This suggests that “natural history” declined because science started becoming increasingly professionalized and lab-based during the 19th century. So if the decline in prestige of natural history bothers you, you should probably be less upset with ecologists than with Herschel and Whewell. Botany peaked at around the same time as natural history. But zoology’s peak seems to have been rather later, perhaps in the early 20th century, although zoology’s popularity apparently has changed relatively little over time.

Don’t take this too seriously. All the usual caveats about (over)interpreting Ngrams apply. But I thought it was intriguing enough to be worth posting on.

Hoisted from the comments: our best off-topic comment threads

Many blog readers don’t bother to read the comments; our readers are no exception. Which, while totally understandable, is kind of too bad because our posts often spark quite interesting discussions that go far beyond and greatly enrich the original post. Brian, Meg, and I really are far from the only ones with interesting things to say around here!

But just exhorting everyone to read the comments would be futile (if that would work, you’d all be reading the comments already!) So I’ve decided to try an experiment. Economist and long time blogger Brad DeLong does occasional posts called “hoisted from the comments”, where he takes what he thinks are particularly good comments and turns them into posts. I’m going to try the same thing. I hope this will encourage people to read the comments and perhaps even comment themselves. It also seems like a nice way to say thanks to our many excellent commenters. And it’s an easy way to put up “new” content during those periods when otherwise I wouldn’t have time to post anything at all.*

And while this does amount to “recycling”, my hope is that most readers won’t mind, because most don’t read the comments. Plus, in future posts I’ll make clear in the post title and intro what the “hoisted” comments are about, so if they sound familiar to you, you can easily skip reading the post.

So for the first one, I decided not to hoist particular comments, but particular comment threads, specifically off-topic ones. I don’t mind off-topic discussions in the comments as long as they’re productive. Often, the natural flow of the conversation in the comments is away from the topic of the post towards related but different topics. But off-topic comment threads seem particularly likely to be missed by readers. So without further ado, here are some of our best off-topic comment threads, all of which I recommend checking out:

  • Margaret Kosmala, Brian, and I had a good discussion of when (if ever) to ask a colleague for a pre-submission review of a draft ms you’ve written. Starts here.
  • Several commenters combined on a useful technical discussion about when and how to correct for spatial autocorrelation in species distribution modeling. Starts here.
  • Margaret Kosmala kicked off an interesting discussion between me, Terry McGlynn, Jim Bouldin, Eric Larson, and others on the differences between “ecology” and “natural history”, the history of how they developed, whether ecology today “devalues” natural history, where one can publish “natural history” so it will be widely noticed, and more. Starts here.
  • In the comments on a humorous post a while back, Florian Schneider and I had a brief serious discussion of body size “constraints” on food web structure. I argued that body size constraints appear far more common than they actually are because the systems in which they operate just happen to be the ones we’ve studied the most. I also pushed back against Florian’s suggestion that body size constraints are somehow “primary”, even in systems in which prey are larger than their predators. Starts here.
  • And finally, in my recent post on alternative ways of filtering the rapidly-growing literature and deciding what to read, Carl Boettiger had a great comment suggesting that the issue eventually will become moot–because we’ll eventually have to give up on the idea of reading the literature at all! (“the whole idea of reading papers itself doesn’t scale indefinitely.”) Go here.

In the comments on this post, I’d welcome your feedback on this experiment.

*Being a good blogger is not mutually exclusive with being lazy. 😉