Friday solstice link: The Dead of Winter

It seems like Kieran Healy’s The Dead of Winter only gets more relevant, and lovelier, with every passing year. You should click through and read the whole thing, so that you have context for the concluding lines:

A society—a civilization, if you like—is a hard thing to hold together. If you live in an agrarian society, and you have only stone, wood, and bone for tools, and you are on the western edge of Europe, few times are harder than the dead of Winter. The days are at their shortest, the sun is far away, and the Malthusian edge is right in front of you. It’s no wonder so many religious festivals take place around the solstice. Here were a people, more than five millennia ago, able not only to pull through the Winter successfully, but able also to build something like a huge timepiece to remind themselves that they were going to make it.

Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year.

Are there any examples of a single question/method/approach taking over an entirely scholarly field, to the field’s detriment?

Recently, I was amused to read opponents of randomized experiments in developmental economics complaining that randomized experiments are “crowding out” other approaches. An accusation that turns out to be simply false if you tally up what sorts of papers journals actually publish. The fraction of developmental economics papers that report results of randomized experiments is growing but remains a modest-sized minority of all papers.

I found this amusing because the same groundless argument gets used in ecology all the time. There are people who think (falsely) that meta-analyses are crowding out other sorts of ecology papers. There are people who think (falsely) that quantitative ecology faculty positions are crowding out other sorts of ecology faculty positions. Etc. Somehow, it’s comforting to learn that other fields have the same silly fights ecology does. I’m half-tempted to generalize from these examples, and propose Jeremy’s Law of Complaining About New Things: everybody who doesn’t like [new thing] just reflexively complains that [new thing] is crowding out [old thing].**

Ok, snark aside, here’s a serious and I think interesting question: are there any examples of a particular question/approach/method/etc. completely taking over an entire scholarly field (or reasonably-large subfield)? To the point where you can’t expect to have a career in that field, or publish in that field, unless you work on that question, or use that approach, or etc.? And in the cases where this has happened, are there any in which it later became clear that the takeover was a bad thing? That it would’ve been better, in retrospect, for the field to maintain a greater diversity of questions/approaches/methods/whatever?

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How many times should you expect to move before obtaining a TT asst. professor position in ecology?

One of the hardest parts of the academic career path is having to move. It certainly is possible to have an academic career while remaining in, or eventually returning to, a specific geographic area. But even if you manage to do that, you’re likely to have to move around within that geographic area.

But how many times, exactly? I decided to compile some data.

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Friday links: Haeckel vs. Christmas cards, green + bond = green bond, phylogeny of baked goods, and more

Also this week: history is pseudoreplicated, RIP social psychology, scientific short stories, Darwin vs. snow, Jeremy shares his Ghostbusters: Afterlife anecdote, and MOAR! Grab a coffee and settle in; lots of good stuff this week!

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What are some good examples of ecologists using multiple models to bracket reality?

In his wonderful old essay on the many uses of false models, William Wimsatt notes that one can use multiple false models to bracket, and thus give insight into, a more complicated reality:

Two false models may be used to define the extremes of a continuum of cases in which the real case is presumed to lie, but for which the more realistic intermediate models are too complex to analyze, or too special in their application to be of any general interest, or for which the information available is too incomplete to guide their construction or determine a choice between them.

Wimsatt gives the example of Haldane’s two alternative (phenomenological) models of crossing-over in genetics, one of which assumed that chromosomes are infinitely flexible, and the other of which assumed that they’re completely rigid. Reality is in the middle: data on crossover frequency is intermediate to what you predict from Haldane’s two models, suggesting that chromosomes can be thought of as somewhat flexible.

Question: What are some good examples of ecologists using multiple false models in this way?

I feel like there must be many good examples of this use of false models in ecology. But the ecological examples that come to my mind are all cases where this approach wouldn’t work, because the real case does not in fact lie on a continuum between the extremes. I’m thinking for instance of metapopulation models. Imagine trying to bracket the dynamics of real metapopulations by studying two limiting cases: completely isolated populations with no dispersal, and a bunch of populations interconnected by such high rates of dispersal as to effectively comprise a single large well-mixed population. You wouldn’t get any insight into the intermediate case of colonization-extinction dynamics solely by studying those two limiting cases. Colonization-extinction dynamics comprise a distinct dynamical regime that requires intermediate dispersal rates, but isn’t “intermediate” between “no dispersal” and “high dispersal” in any other sense. For instance, expected metapopulation persistence time generally is higher at intermediate dispersal rates than with either no dispersal or high dispersal.

But surely there must be good ecological examples I’m just not thinking of? Help me out! 🙂

What are the best examples of scientists “playing against type”?

Playing against type” is when an actor plays a role very different from the sort of role that the actor usually plays, or that made the actor famous. The link goes to a list of actors who’ve done this.* Think Daniel Radcliffe going from Harry Potter to Equus.

Question: what are the best examples of scientists doing this in their papers? By which I mean, the best examples of scientists writing papers very different from the sort of papers they usually write, or are best known for. And have you ever “played against type” yourself?

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What are you looking forward to as a semester break treat?

I’ve had a really busy fall, and am very happy to be in the home stretch!* There are a lot of things I’m looking forward to about the break between semesters, one of them being:

Philip Pullman's The Secret Commonwealth

I loved Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (which I first listened to — in audiobook form — as a grad student) and the first book in the new trilogy, The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage was a highlight of my semester break two years ago. I know that I will not be able to put down the second book once I get into it, so I’m saving it as a post-semester reward! I also got a book by Martha Grimes. I haven’t read any of her stuff before, but I suspect I’ll like it. Since I’ve decided to reread The Book of Dust prior to reading The Secret Commonwealth, that means I have three books that I’m saving for the semester break that I’m really looking forward to.

In conversations with a few folks lately, they’ve talked about what they have in mind as a semester break treat — I’m definitely not the only one with reading plans! I’m curious to hear what others have planned. Please share in the comments!

*I mostly feel like “Home stretch! Finish strong!” but other times this is more accurate: