Brian, Meghan, and I will all be at #ESA2017. Please say hi to us! Even if we’re outside the convention center, or eating a meal, or chatting with someone else at the moment (maybe just wait a minute for a break in the conversation in the latter case). Please say hi even if you just wanted to say “love the blog” or whatever. Conferences are a good time to meet other ecologists–we’d love to meet you. 🙂
Attention conservation notice: this is a long, navel-gazing post. Sincere thanks in advance to anyone who bothers to read it, as you’ll be giving up your valuable time to help me out, which I very much appreciate.
My recent post strongly criticizing E. O. Wilson’s editorial on math in science drew a wide range of reactions, from very positive to very negative. The positive and negative reactions concerned both what I said and how I said it. And the Wilson post isn’t a unique case, except in drawing much more traffic than any post I’ve ever done. The debate sparked by that post was terrific, I thought–it was a great advertisement for blogging as a medium for discussion and debate.
Now that the debate has died down, it seems like a good time to step back and talk in general about my approach to blogging. About why I blog in the way I do, in terms of things like choice of post topics, style of writing, and the way I engage with commenters. I’ve talked about much of this before, but I think it’s good to revisit it periodically and invite feedback.
I’m only speaking for myself in this post. Dynamic Ecology is a group blog, and Meg, Brian, and I have talked in a general way about how the blog operates, what we’d like it to be, etc. We keep in touch with one another to coordinate post timing. And we comment on each other’s posts, and pat each other on the back when one of us writes a really good post. But having said that, we mostly operate independently. Brian, Meg, and I all choose our own topics and write our own posts, and none of us has any input or oversight on anyone else’s posts. I think that’s a good thing—one big reason to have a group blog is to expose readers to a greater range of views and voices, on a greater range of topics. So while I doubt Brian or Meg will be surprised by anything I say below, I’ll leave it to them to chime in if they wish.
For me, blogging is a “brain dump.” It’s a way for me to quickly share any ideas I have that I think are worth sharing, but that for whatever reason aren’t best shared in the form of a peer-reviewed paper. So for me, blogging is a complement to, rather than a substitute for, writing peer-reviewed papers. Lots of worthwhile scientific communication isn’t peer-reviewed—think of the talks, posters, and conversations we all deliver, see, and participate in at scientific conferences.
In particular, I think blogging is a good medium for discussion and debate. The back and forth can be much faster, and can involve many more people, than can debates conducted via peer-reviewed papers. Again, the Wilson post is a great example. My own view is that ecology would be better off if we had more arguments (well, debates). Ecology is hard—the world is complicated, the data we’d ideally want often are difficult or impossible to collect, etc. So there’s a strong temptation in ecology to look for shortcuts—easy, broadly-applicable routes to insight. In my experience, shortcuts rarely if ever live up to their original promise, and often turn out to be dead ends. I think that if we were all more critical and demanding of each other, we’d be less prone to jumping on the latest trendy bandwagon and it wouldn’t be so hard to root out zombie ideas. Obviously, there’s room for reasonable disagreement with me on this; I’m just explaining where I’m coming from. And on a personal level, I like a good argument (which is different than just liking to argue).
The primary audience at which I aim is academic ecologists in developed countries, and their postdocs, graduate students, and advanced undergraduates. This is in many ways a very narrow audience; “ecology” as a whole is far broader than that! This reflects my admittedly-narrow interests and expertise (in some ways I’m a fox–but in other, perhaps more important ways, I’m very much a hedgehog). That academic audience is the audience to which I think I have things to say that are worth saying. It’s not that I don’t care about the many ecological topics on which I don’t post, or don’t think those topics are important. They’re hugely important–they’re just not topics I feel motivated to write about, and they’re not topics on which I have much to say. Just as macroeconomics is hugely important–but isn’t something about which I have anything useful to say. I know that Dynamic Ecology has many readers from other backgrounds, and those readers sometimes express disappointment or annoyance that we write for the audience we do. I confess I’m not sure what to do about this. I feel badly for any readers who don’t feel like there are blogs out there covering the topics they’d most like to read about. But Dynamic Ecology can’t be all things to all people. I’ve made some effort to broaden the range of topics we cover and views we offer (more on that below), but I can’t see Dynamic Ecology ever becoming a comprehensive ecology blog. I’d like to see the ecology blogosphere as a whole provide comprehensive coverage of ecology. The only way I feel I can contribute to that is by writing about my own admittedly-narrow interests in a way that I hope is interesting to others. In all honesty, I am continually stunned that there’s an audience for “whatever it is I happen to feel like writing about”. Before I started blogging, I’d never have guessed that there was a huge unmet demand for posts on how the intermediate disturbance hypothesis is a zombie idea, or about how I almost quit science to become a high school teacher, or how macroecology is like astronomy.
Speaking of the size of our audience: I do care whether or not this blog draws an audience. Probably, I would eventually have quit blogging had my writings at Oikos Blog (where I started blogging) not begun to draw an audience. I care not because an audience is valuable for its own sake—it’s not as if whoever dies with the most pageviews wins—but because I do think I have some things to say that are worth reading. However, I’m not prepared to do anything to draw an audience. Many ways of trying to draw an audience would either be ineffective (at least in the long term), or would defeat the purpose of having an audience. Here are some of the things I do to try to draw an audience, and some things I don’t do:
- I write in what I hope is an entertaining style, or at least a non-boring style. Who would read a boringly-written blog?
- I post on topics I think readers will find interesting or useful. That’s why I often post controversial or contrarian things. It’s not that I actually think everyone else is wrong about everything—far from it! It’s that it would be boring for me to say things that everyone already knows or agrees with. For instance, that’s why I don’t post summaries of recent papers from the literature, not even papers I really liked. I tend to find such posts boring, and most readers seem to as well (such posts were among my least-read posts back when I was at Oikos Blog). Conversely, I do advice posts because lots of readers seem to find them useful, even though they’re not my favorite type of post to write (though they are easy to write, which is a plus for a busy/lazy blogger like me).
- I post a lot, because the number one way to build a large audience for a blog is to post regularly. That’s a big part of why I invited Meg and Brian to join me—it’s easier for a small group to maintain a high frequency of substantive posts that are worth reading.
- While I’m willing to fill gaps in the posting schedule with short posts, or occasional posts that are just for fun, I try to avoid doing so too often. And I never put up a post that I think is just bad, boring, or pointless, purely for the sake of posting. That might maintain or increase our traffic levels in the short term, but in the long term I’m sure it would lose us readers. Plus, what’s the point of trying to keep an audience if you don’t actually have anything to say to them?
- Hard as it may be for some readers to believe, I never say outrageous or controversial things just to draw an audience. My most strongly-worded posts—on E. O. Wilson’s recent editorial, on zombie ideas, on the Spandrels of San Marco—reflect my strong but sincerely-held and honestly-stated views. In part, blogging for me is an opportunity to be honest and open. It’s a chance to say what I really think. I’m tenured. I have as much freedom to say what I want as anyone ever has, which is a tremendous privilege that I’m very lucky to have. It would be a shame to waste it. And I think there’s a lot of value, in particular for students, in knowing what an established ecologist like me really thinks. Not that I’m typical—in many ways I’m not—but all I can do is put my own example out there.
Following on from that last bullet point, I recognize that “what I really think” is not necessarily what readers want to hear! Here are my thoughts on that, in no particular order:
- This blog has a big readership (well over 20,000 pageviews and 7000 unique visitors per month), which continues to grow. So while I certainly don’t think I’m perfect (see below for more discussion than you probably want), overall I do think I’m doing a pretty good job. If I wasn’t doing a pretty good job, I don’t think the blog would have a large, growing audience. And the bulk of the feedback I’ve gotten confirms that. But I’m not perfect, and hopefully feedback on this post will help me get better.
- My tone often is quite forceful, especially in posts that argue for or against something. I know that some readers—and perhaps many folks who don’t read the blog—would prefer some other writing style. Which is something I struggle with, because there’s no pleasing everyone. For instance, some readers found my recent post on E. O. Wilson to be totally over the top in terms of tone. But as far as I can tell, at least as many readers were cheering me on, thrilled that someone had the courage to say out loud what they’d been thinking! And of course, there are other readers who don’t really care about or don’t mind my tone (maybe they sort of mentally filter it out as they’re reading, because that’s what you have to do when you’re reading that crazy Jeremy Fox guy…) It really is a difficult circle for me to square sometimes. On the one hand, some people’s favorite posts are the most strongly-worded ones. But on the other hand, a few people have told me (anonymously) that they find my writing incredibly arrogant and seriously offensive, and that anyone who writes as I do must be very nasty (those are more or less direct quotes; I’m not exaggerating). One person even claimed that many senior ecologists feel this way, and that once word gets out about their feelings, my career will be ruined. Which dismays me—I do not like offending people or making enemies. And it worries me, because people who don’t like the blog, or even hate it, aren’t likely to contact me. So while only a few people have told me they hate the blog, or have significant concerns about it, I don’t really know how many such people there are (although I’ve tried to find out by inviting feedback) Which makes it difficult to decide how seriously I should take their criticisms. Anyone who writes for public consumption has to decide if they can live with the full range of reactions that their writing might generate. Most days, I’m comfortable living with the full range of reactions my blogging generates. But once in a while, I worry.
- Related to the previous point: everybody has different sides to their personalities. I enjoy blogging in large part because it gives me an outlet for aspects of my personality that don’t otherwise have much of an outlet. Like the side of me that loved late night dorm room arguments with friends in college, or the side of me that liked serving as a tour guide for various venues in my younger days (in many of my posts, I think of myself as a “tour guide” to the bits of ecology that interest me). And I’m fine with people seeing those sides of me. I like those sides of me, they’re a big part of who I am. But I think all of us are better people for having more than one side to our personalities, and not letting any one side dominate too much. I worry sometimes that blogging gives too much encouragement my argumentative, overbearing, overly-talkative side. I know that that side of me can be hard to take sometimes, even for my closest friends (to my friends: seriously, thanks for putting up with me!) Should I make more effort to suppress or dial back that side of myself?
- Also related to the previous point: economics blogger Noah Smith recently said that, as a blogger, you have to remember that anything you say sounds ten times worse online than it would in conversation. There are no non-verbal cues to take the edge off what you’re saying. This is right, and I try to keep it in mind. But I’m not sure how good I am at that.
- I have a snarky sense of humor, and I let that come through in my posts. It’s my hope that this helps defuse what might otherwise come off as some overly-strident posts (many readers have told me that my zombie jokes have had this effect). And I do sometimes make jokes at my own expense, and just to make jokes. I hope I don’t come across as taking myself, or this blog, too seriously, because I don’t.
- My writing generally is very confident. That’s because I am confident! Mostly, I think that’s a good thing. After all, I’m highly trained and very experienced—I have a Ph.D., I spent four years as a postdoc, and I’ve been a professor for almost nine years. Surely I ought to know what I’m talking about within my area of expertise! And mostly, I think I’m a pretty good judge of recognizing when I don’t know what I’m talking about (not always; see for instance this, or the old post [sorry can’t find it now] where I had to apologize for ignorant and unfair criticisms of the Evolution 2012 meeting organizers). And while I occasionally use the blog to ask questions and seek advice (e.g., on choice of stats textbook, extinction cascades, or structural equation models), most of my ideas for posts tend to concern topics on which I know something. Having said that, when giving advice, I do often emphasize that I’m just providing my own views, that different people will have different views, and that my advice should not be taken as gospel (e.g., this). But for other sorts of posts, I tend not to bother with ritualistic hedging (“I could be wrong, but…”) or ritualistic inviting of other views (“What do you think?”), because I regard that as understood. Of course I could be wrong, and of course you’re welcome and encouraged to comment! But perhaps I should do more to avoid creating an unintended perception of overconfidence? If so, what should I do? Should I make a point of concluding every post by saying something like “This is just my opinion—what do you think?” Are there other things I could do to avoid coming off as over-confident, but without coming off as wishy-washy?
- I use rhetoric, which I know isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. All I can say is that I don’t ever consciously use rhetoric as a substitute for substantive evidence and logical argument. I try to use rhetoric to dramatize, clarify, and drive home substantive points. I’m never just looking to toss out “applause lines”, score cheap points, or “win” the debate at all costs. But I am well aware that for some readers, rhetoric can obscure rather than drive home substantive points. Some readers assume that anyone using rhetoric must be trying to cover up a lack of substantive arguments for their views. I don’t share that assumption, but I do appreciate where it comes from. And I know statistics blogger Andrew Gelman recently decided to tone down his writing, as he felt his rhetoric and snarky humor was causing too many readers to misunderstand the substantive points of his posts. This is something on which I’d particularly welcome feedback. I’ve talked in the past about when I think the use of rhetoric in scientific writing is both justified and helpful in getting one’s substantive point across. But I’m not sure how good I am at following my own advice on that, or whether I should quit trying to follow that advice because too many readers disagree with it.
- I don’t often change my mind, and I know some people see this as a sign that I’m closeminded or biased. A sign that I don’t take the views of others seriously. I’d like to think that’s not the case. I certainly don’t delete or ignore comments with which I disagree, or engage in personal attacks on those with whom I disagree! And I’d like to think I change my mind in response to good evidence and arguments, but not otherwise. Isn’t that what scientists are supposed to do? For instance, when Chris Klausmeier offered what he thought was a counterexample refuting some of my claims in my zombie ideas post, I took it very seriously, to the point of doing a whole post on it. And I dug into Chris’ counterexample in detail, eventually figuring out that it wasn’t actually a counterexample. Both Chris and I really learned something from that exchange, and I ended up using Chris’ example in a paper. That’s just one instance of me taking pushback seriously, I could give many others. But for me, “taking pushback seriously” means engaging with it. Scrutinizing and evaluating the evidence and arguments offered. Asking for and offering clarification if needed. If I don’t agree, explaining why in as much detail as I can. For me, the mark of a good debate isn’t that agreement is reached (although of course it might be), it’s that the discussion keeps moving forward. As my exchange with Chris illustrates, I think that’s how good debates really teach you something. In other words, I don’t think that “frequency with which someone changes their mind” is a good measure of how openminded or unbiased they are.
- I’m heavily involved in the comment threads. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that conversations with commenters are one of the most fun parts of blogging for me. Another is historical. At Oikos Blog, and early on here, the audience wasn’t big enough to generate self-sustaining conversations among commenters. The only sort of conversations that were possible were between the post author and the (few) commenters. I think we’re just getting to the point where our audience is big enough that we can regularly expect to have self-sustaining conversations among commenters, with little input from the post author, as happens at blogs like Crooked Timber. I’d love for us to have Crooked Timber-type comment threads! And I know my heavy involvement in the comment threads might create the perception that I think the only worthwhile conversations must involve me, or that I insist on always having the last word. I’m going to experiment with dialing back the frequency with which I comment, and also try waiting a little while before making my first comment on any given post. Of course, I’ll still respond quickly to any comments clearly intended to invite a response from me.
- Another thing I worry about is that, in trying to take full advantage of blogging as a medium for vigorous discussion and debate, I’m driving away readers who are turned off by vigorous discussion and debate. I absolutely don’t want to drive away such readers. I want Dynamic Ecology to be a great place for vigorous discussion and debate, but also a great place other sorts of discussion. I think we’re getting there, but there’s probably room for improvement. For instance, I worry that, in responding to comments, I’m sometimes too quick to seize on opportunities to start a debate, when there were other ways in which I could’ve responded. Even if the subsequent debate is productive, it does represent a lost opportunity to start a different sort of conversation. I also worry that I miss opportunities to exhibit more curiosity about where commenters are coming from, and why they hold the views that they hold. Even if I do disagree with those views, that disagreement need not always be front and center, or even “on stage” at all. It’s always a judgement call which disagreements are worth voicing, and which ones are best passed over in silence, in order to promote a different sort of conversation. Not sure if I always make the best judgements on that. And as I noted above, I don’t often do posts asking questions of readers, which may leave the unintended impression that I’m uncurious.
- I’ve been trying to do a greater range of posts (more advice posts, book reviews, etc.), and to do fewer posts criticizing the ideas of others. Inviting Brian and Meg to join me, and inviting occasional guest posts (several of which are in the pipeline, by the way), are other ways I’ve tried to broaden the blog. My hope is that every reader will like at least some reasonably large fraction of the posts we do. I’m curious if long-time readers have noticed this effort to broaden the blog, how well they think it’s working, if they’d like to see it go further, and if they have any other ideas for how to broaden the blog. I worry about this in part because of a recent comment from someone who felt that the blog had become more strident and critical in tone over time. I thought we’d been moving in the opposite direction!
- One thing we’re going to start doing to further broaden the blog is to turn some especially good comments into guest posts. Either by just copying and pasting the comment as a new post, or by asking the commenter to write a guest post building on their comment. Besides further broadening the blog, this seems like a good way to thank our commenters and to encourage others to comment. A recent correspondent suggested this, and it’s a great idea.
- When I screw up and cross a line that shouldn’t be crossed, I apologize, publicly. But obviously, it would be better not to cross any lines in the first place.
I sincerely welcome your feedback in the comments. As a blogger, I don’t have any editors or pre-publication peer reviewers to restrict, guide, or improve my writing. All I have to go on is post-publication feedback. And that feedback ordinarily comes in the form of comments related to specific posts, rather than on the blog in general. I encourage you to provide any and all feedback on the blog, particularly my own contributions (as I said, I’m speaking for myself in this post). Everything is fair game—choice of post topics, tone of writing, engagement with commenters, anything. Positive feedback, negative, or some of both–it’s all good. Comments on what we’re currently doing, and ideas for things we could do differently/instead/as well–fire away. And if you want to comment anonymously, which is totally fine, you can do so. Just use a pseudonym, and either omit your website and email address or give fake ones. If you prefer, you can also email me at email@example.com. I won’t publish or share any emails I receive, in whole or in part, without the permission of the sender.
Thanks for reading, looking forward to your comments.
p.s. I’m not going to comment on this post, except in response to specific requests that I comment. If it seems useful, I might do a follow-up post responding to the comments on this post.
I’ve strategically let Meg and Brian introduce themselves first so I can be brief. I’m a theoretical ecologist at Michigan State University’s Kellogg Biological Station. How a theoretician ends up at a field station might be a good topic for a post later. My wife Elena Litchman and I have been here for seven years now (does that ruin the surprise about how I ended up at KBS?), and are just getting back from sabbatical at the Danish Technical University. Most of my work is on phytoplankton, from physiology to global ecology, centered on community ecology, but I’ve worked on terrestrial vegetation, plant-fungal mutualisms, and even Daphnia epidemiology (hi Meg).
Some topics I’ll try to hit this month: paper review process and publishing ethics, the practice of theory, trait-based approaches (hi Brian), and whatever else comes to mind. Stimulating discussion would be great.
Aside from wanting to contribute to exploring this relatively new medium, I’ve got a selfish reason to try blogging. I don’t enjoy writing. It’s my least favorite part of the scientific process. Formulating an idea in mathematical form? Love it! Hacking out a better algorithm for analyzing a model? Awesome! Figuring out why a model behaves the way it does? Exciting! But putting these things down on paper? Painful. Regular blogging should be a great way to force myself into the habit of producing text. So, thanks to Jeremy for the opportunity and to you all for reading.
The first thing you need to know about me is I am a technological Luddite trying out blogging. Not in all senses – I have been a professional computer programmer in some fashion for 30 years. However, I remain rather old-fashioned in my view of technology as a mode of human interaction. My wife and I together own one cell phone which we leave in the car. I don’t twitter or Facebook. I reluctantly use Linked-In in a passive mode and think Research Gate is one too many of this type of thing. I think email was an evil invention (notwithstanding a few good uses like scheduling face-to-face meetings and interacting on things that are inherently written like draft manuscripts). But basically I think face-to-face interactions are the best followed by the phone/Skype and the internet is a distant third.
So why am I agreeing to try out blogging? Because I see blogging as possibly one of the few “good” uses of computer interaction. Academia is a field where you learn more and more about less and less. A corollary is that there are fewer and fewer people who are professionally interesting to talk to (who know the same more about the same less that you do). Its been obvious to me for some time that my main intellectual interactions are with like-minded people scattered around the world and not my colleagues down the hall from me (who are nice people and with whom I enjoy chatting about the weather and kids, teaching and failings of higher administration ). In the past, interaction with these few globally scattered intellectually like-minded colleagues has taken two forms: conferences/working groups and co-authoring papers with specific people launched at conferences/working groups. But these are both limited. Meetings are at most a few weeks a year. Papers as interaction are very narrow band (a few people on a specific topic) and rather formal. I wish for something more.
At its best, the internet is a tool for connecting like-minded people. eBay found such a niche in connecting people who agree that a putrid green lamp shaped like a moose is really valuable. I have become convinced that blogging will become a critical tool for academics, filling this same niche of connecting a few like-minded people scattered world-wide for serious, but informal scientific discussion. Other fields got there first – everybody who is anybody in economics has a blog. Political science too. And in these fields serious discussion and consensus building happens in the blogosphere (at a speed way faster than journals can do). To this end, there are a number of ecological blogs I enjoy. But Jeremy has really changed the game with his blog. It has become a go to place where there is lively discussion on intellectually important topics on a regular basis. He has done this through hard work and smarts and deserves a lot of credit. I am grateful for being invited to hitch a ride on what he has created.
So, what do I intend to blog about? The answer is probably more something to put in action and do than to talk about, but briefly:
- Macroecology and more generally large-scale ecology. This is my core research area. Occasionally I’ll post F1000 “cool paper” type of posts but more often I envision reflective pieces on the state of the field (inspired by but no hope of matching John Lawton’s “Views from the Park” – also I know an inspiration for Jeremy). You’ll probably hear a bit about organism-climate interactions and climate change too.
- Sustainability science and doing socially relevant science. My current job at the University of Maine is 50% based in the Sustainability Solutions Initiative. Anybody who compares ESA 2012 with ESA 2002 can see this is a direction the field is going in a big way. And I think it needs to (nb: this doesn’t mean abandoning basic research). But there are a lot of pitfalls and challenges. I hope to reflect on these.
- Ecoinformatics and statistics – This is another big direction in ecology (very evident at ESA this year) with a lot of pitfalls and traps.
- General career tips – I recently taught a graduate course in “Professional Skills in Biology” and found I had a lot of opinions about how to write a paper, find a job etc.
Enough meta-reflection about myself. Let the blogging begin!
As Jeremy’s post indicated, Dynamic Ecology is becoming a group blog. I thought it would be useful to have an initial post where I simply introduce myself, lay out some of the topics I plan on blogging about, and solicit feedback on those ideas (and additional ones that you think might be worth covering.)
So, first, to introduce myself. I’m an Assistant Professor in the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at the University of Michigan. I only just started here this fall, after spending 4.5 years at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. Before that, I was a postdoc at Wisconsin and a graduate student at the Kellogg Biological Station and Michigan State University. I am an evolutionary/disease/community/food web/aquatic ecologist (which of those I feel most like depends on the day). Most of my research uses Daphnia as a model system. (Note: the Daphnia in my avatar is infected with a virulent bacterial parasite that we usually just call scarlet. She’ll die within a couple of days. Poor girl.)
Some of the topics I am interested in blogging about are the standard sorts of things you might expect from this blog (e.g., reviews of particular papers or areas of the literature). Other topics include:
1. Setting up a new lab: I am in the thick of this, having just moved to a new university. I’ve done this once before, which certainly helps, but there’s still plenty to figure out. When I started at Georgia Tech, there wasn’t a whole lot out there even about general lab setup, and nothing about scouting out new field sites while starting a faculty position (or other issues of particular relevance to ecologists).
2. Women in science (and, more specifically, women in ecology). I’m a mom, and issues related to women in science and work-life balance (whatever that means) are quite interesting to me. There were some posts in threads on the ecolog listserv last spring/summer that were jaw-dropping, frankly, and made me realize the topic of women in ecology really needs more discussion.
3. Story-behind-the-paper: I’ve had a few that I think would be of general interest, including the paper that almost made me drop out of grad school, and the one that Ecology rejected that later got a Mercer Award.
4. Twitter and other social media for ecologists: I’m fairly active on twitter, and really enjoy being on twitter. I realize that many people still think it’s a silly waste of time, so I thought I would do some posts laying out why I think it’s a great tool for scientists/ecologists/academics, and also some related to some other issues raised by Twitter (e.g., live-tweeting of talks).
5. Teaching: I’ve taught a pretty wide range of courses so far. (Recommendation: do not develop as many new courses as I have pre-tenure!) At Georgia Tech, I taught things ranging from a large (90ish student), sophomore-level, required (of all Bio majors) General Ecology course through a small, upper-level undergrad & grad, discussion-based courses with no textbooks and almost no lecturing. Here at Michigan, I’m teaching Intro Bio, and trying to incorporate some active learning into the course. (This course, along with the setup of the new lab, means that I won’t be able to blog as often as I’d like this semester, but hopefully I’ll be able to pick up the pace later.)
I’m definitely open to other suggestions (or to feedback on which of those sound particularly interesting or totally not worthy of devoting time to).
*This is an attempt at a joke, based on Jeremy being Oikos Jeremy when he blogged at the Oikos blog. I think this means we should be Dynamic Brian, Dynamic Chris, Dynamic Jeremy, and Dynamic Meg, but that doesn’t seem to have caught on.
The man himself graciously passes on his complete publication list for interested readers, noting that Google Scholar and Web of Science do not find all his papers.
Peter Abrams has retired (I think; he’s been easing into it for a couple of years and so I’m not sure if he’s officially 100% retired just yet). I don’t know Peter very well personally–we’ve chatted a number of times, and reviewed each others’ papers–but I do know his work quite well. Indeed, I still have two filing cabinets full of paper reprints, which I began accumulating when I started grad school and didn’t stop accumulating until a couple of years ago. They’re organized by author. I have so many Peter Abrams reprints that I need two file folders to hold them all; he’s the only author for whom that’s true. So by that measure of “impact”, Peter Abrams has had more impact on me than any other ecologist. And given how carefully I read many of those papers (filling the margins with notes), and how I developed into someone who (I think!) approaches ecology in much the same way as Peter does, it’s fair to say he’s had as much impact on me–by any measure–as any ecologist. So I thought it appropriate to mark his retirement with an appreciation. Hopefully, folks who knew Peter better than I did will chime in in the comments.
Peter Abrams was one of the world’s leading theoretical ecologists. His publication record is outstanding. He has something north of 150 papers I believe, many first-authored (often sole-authored) and mostly in leading journals. His interests centered on fundamental issues in population and community dynamics, which he preferred to explore using simple differential equation models of small numbers of species (what Bob Holt calls “food web modules”). Often, he would work on the boundary of analytical tractability, so his papers often combined analytical results for simple limiting cases with numerical simulations of more complex, analytically-intractable cases.
Peter was probably ecology’s greatest contrarian. He loved pushing back against the conventional wisdom. No one was better than Peter at exposing how much of what ecologists think they know is based on fragile conceptual foundations, unrecognized implicit assumptions, overgeneralization from special cases, and selective focus on certain possibilities to the exclusion of other, equally-plausible possibilities. Many of his earliest papers attack the idea of “limiting similarity”, the notion that there is some absolute limit to how similar coexisting competitors can possibly be. Peter returned to this idea often in his later work. Other early work showed that predator-prey coevolution often does not take the form of an “arms race”. Peter showed how coevolution of competing species doesn’t necessarily lead to character displacement, and in fact can to lead to character convergence. I’ve done a bit of work building on this idea of character convergence, and I think it would be a great hypothesis for some ambitious student to try to test empirically (it’d be a hard experiment, but if it worked it would be a Science paper) Peter wrote a nice review back in the mid-90s of all the reasons why species diversity might not peak at intermediate productivity levels. He did a bunch of modeling work on adaptive foraging in patchy habitats, showing that we typically don’t expect adaptive foragers to exhibit an ideal free distribution. He identified circumstances in which increasing density-independent mortality can actually increase population size, and circumstances in which species that share resources or predators can act as mutualists rather than competitors. He showed how extinctions brought on by gradual directional environmental change often will involve sudden crashes from high population size, rather than being preceded by gradual declines to low population size. Occasionally, I do think his contrarianism went too far. Some of Peter’s papers come off as just introducing arbitrary complications, purely for the sake of showing that the world is complicated. But those are the exceptions. Overall, I think ecology would be much better off if we had more contrarians like Peter. (I should emphasize that I have no idea if Peter sees himself as a contrarian. All I can say is that’s the impression his papers give me, which I admit may say as much about me as a reader as it does about Peter as an author).
Peter was a theoretician’s theoretician–he was very precise, and very alert to how imprecision in how we define our terms can lead us astray. In the ’80s he pointed out just how tricky it is to define what we mean by “competition”, for instance because species can negatively affect one another at an individual level without necessarily reducing one another’s population sizes. He has a very thoughtful paper about how to individuate and count “limiting factors”, which is something you have to do in order to properly interpret and test the competitive exclusion principle (the number of species coexisting at equilibrium can’t exceed the number of limiting factors). That paper suggests that Hutchinson’s “paradox of the plankton” (how do so many species of algae coexist on only a few limiting factors?) is actually a non-paradox, and only looks paradoxical because we’re not distinguishing and counting “limiting factors” properly. He thought hard about the definition of “indirect effects”, and how to distinguish between different kinds of indirect effects. That work revealed serious problems with standard experimental designs used to tease apart “density-mediated” and “trait-mediated” indirect effects. And he almost single-handedly exposed the conceptual flaws in the once-trendy idea of “ratio-dependent” functional responses (in which the feeding rate of an individual predator depends on the ratio of predator abundance to prey abundance).
But it would be a mistake to think that all Peter Abrams did was just criticize the work of others or point out that the world is complicated (important as both those activities are). He was a pioneer of “eco-evolutionary dynamics”, from long before that term existed. Some of his very first papers, from the late ’70s and early ’80s, are about the consequences of adaptive foraging for coexistence and food web stability. And in 1993 he derived the canonical equation of “adaptive dynamics”, an approximation to quantitative genetics which makes modeling eco-evolutionary dynamics much more tractable than it otherwise would be (others derived the same equation independently around the same time, via other arguments). The population- and community-level consequences of behavioral and evolutionary adaptation is a key theme running through much of Peter’s work. Peter also did a lot of work on the behavior of fluctuating, nonlinear systems. And he made important contributions in areas I know less well, like modeling life history evolution and sexual selection.
It’s probably the fate of the contrarian to be underappreciated, especially if he’s also a theoretician. And while Peter certainly was very well-known and well-cited, he didn’t win a lot of the battles he fought, at least not in the minds of non-theoreticians. Unfortunately, ecologists today still mostly believe in limiting similarity (that’s the basis for much of “phylogenetic community ecology”, for instance), they mostly believe that competition always selects for character displacement, they mostly believe that high density-independent mortality rates prevent competitive exclusion, they mostly believe that the diversity-productivity relationship must be humped…But if Peter’s influence wasn’t widespread except among theoreticians and the more theoretically-minded empiricists, well, I think that’s just a measure of how rare it is for any one person to have really wide influence over an entire field. Especially if that person is trying to push back against established ideas.
Peter wasn’t just a prolific author, he was an extraordinarily active reviewer. A couple of years ago he told me that he refused to do more than one review per week! His example is one to keep in mind next time you’re tempted to turn down a review request because you’re “too busy”. And as someone who’s been reviewed by Peter, let me tell you, he was not one to just toss off sloppy reviews! Peter was as thorough and rigorous as any reviewer I’ve ever encountered in all my years as an author and editor. He knew the literature back-to-front, and always let you know if he thought you were reinventing the wheel or putting old wine in new bottles. I can’t say I always agreed with his reviews, but they always made my papers much better.
As I said, while Peter’s work is hardly unknown, I do think it’s underappreciated. But it’s never too late for that to change. So if you’re looking for something to read, Peter’s retirement is as good an excuse as any to dig into his “back catalog”. You’ll be well-rewarded.
If you just heard about this blog from Jarrett Byrnes’ ESA meeting talk, welcome, and thanks for checking out Dynamic Ecology! Besides reading the “About” page to get an overview of who I am and what this blog is all about, you might be particularly interested in the following posts:
Jarrett referred to my posts on “zombie ideas”, ideas which should be dead but have proven unkillable. Here is the first of those; it’s the most popular post I’ve ever done. In the comments on that post you can find links to many of the others, or you can search on “zombie” in the search bar.
The best post I’ve ever done is here. At least, I think it’s the best.
To understand why I started this blog, you need to understand why I left the Oikos Blog, which means you need to understand why I started blogging over there in the first place. (The following story is the same one I told in my goodbye post over on Oikos Blog)
The Oikos Blog wasn’t my idea. I first heard about it when it was announced to the Oikos editorial board. The initial vision was basically that it would be a group blog: all ~30 editors would post occasionally. The hope, I think, was that the blog would be a new way to promote the kinds of interesting conversations and novel thinking that the journal had always tried to promote. Certainly, that was my own hope. I thought the blog was a great idea, a case of Oikos thinking outside the box and recognizing the potential of a new technology. There are lots of ideas in science that are worth sharing and discussing, but aren’t best shared or discussed via formal papers, or at least not only via formal papers. Besides being valuable in its own right, I had high hopes that the blog could burnish the journal’s image, especially among younger readers like grad students and postdocs, and encourage them to submit to and review for the journal.
At the time I was reading a few blogs, including one by a good friend, but I’d never thought of blogging myself. But since the journal was starting a blog, I figured it might be fun to try it out. Finally, when colleagues ask me to do this sort of thing, I try to default to saying “yes”.
So I started posting. I quickly realized several things:
- I was pretty good at it. I was quite pleased with how some of my early posts turned out. And close colleagues were very positive.
- It didn’t take much of my time, not more than I was prepared to give at any rate. I’m a reasonably good and reasonably quick writer. I’m based in Canada, so I don’t have to chase money all the time thanks to the way our federal granting agencies work. And I’m tenured, so while I still have plenty of incentive and desire to publish papers, I’m not under the same pressure as untenured faculty to publishasmuchaspossibleasfastaspossiblenownownowNOW!!!111!!!1!
- I liked doing it. It gave me an outlet to share my opinions about ecology and how it’s done. As my friends, and regular Oikos Blog readers, know, I’m not shy about sharing my opinions! 😉 I also enjoy a good debate, and blogging is good for that.
But Chris and I were the only editors who chose to post, with me posting most frequently. I figured other folks might start posting once we built a bit of an audience. So I just kept doing what I was doing, and during occasional email discussions among the editors I’d talk up the blog and encourage folks to post. And we did build an audience, which both flattered and humbled me. Indeed, we built a bigger audience than I ever thought we would–eventually something like 5000 page views per week on average, which as far as I can tell is a very large audience for a blog aimed at academics and focused on non-controversial topics (well, non-controversial compared to, say, politics). But no one else chose to post. To be clear, I’m not criticizing my colleagues at all for this. It’s up to each of us to choose how to allocate our time, and I recognize that I’ve made an unusual time allocation decision that others aren’t necessarily in a position to make. But it became increasingly clear to me that the Oikos Blog wasn’t really serving its original intended purpose. In the minds of many readers, the blog had become identified with me rather than the journal.
Which I found increasingly awkward. There were topics I wanted to blog about (e.g., new papers coming out in other ecology journals), but which I avoided because they seemed inappropriate even for a journal blog as broadly-defined as the Oikos Blog. And there were things I wanted to try that just couldn’t be tried at the Oikos Blog. And while no one at Oikos had ever said anything but very positive things about my blogging, it wasn’t hard to imagine that at some point there might be a (quite reasonable) push to link the blog more tightly to the journal. And I realized I wasn’t necessarily keen to see that happen, because it might dilute “my” content. It wasn’t just the readers who’d started to identify the Oikos Blog with me; I’d started to do so too. Which meant it was time for me to go.
I’m tremendously grateful to Chris Lortie, Dries Bonte, Tim Benton (the previous EiC), and the other higher-ups at Oikos and Wiley for coming up with the idea for the Oikos Blog, for trusting me to run with it pretty much as I saw fit (I was free to write whatever I wanted, with no pre- or post-publication oversight), and for all the positive feedback they gave me along the way. I hope that I lived up to their trust, and I’m glad there are no hard feelings about my departure. My decision to leave was entirely my own; I have nothing but good things to say about everyone at Oikos. I continue to want to see the Oikos journal do well, and I’ll continue to support it.
I’ll look forward to seeing what Chris et al. do with the Oikos Blog now that I’ve gone my own way. Right now the blog and the journal are essentially independent of one another. I think they can be greater than the sum of their parts. I’ve suggested some ideas to Chris on how that could happen, and he and other folks at Oikos have their own ideas as well. Oikos Blog isn’t ending, it’s merely changing, and I’ll look forward to following the changes.
And of course, I’m looking forward to furnishing my new blogging home. Initially, it will be similar to the Oikos Blog, but I’m working on what I think are some fun new ideas. Welcome to Dynamic Ecology!