Should we aim to leave students feeling empowered to tackle climate change? Should we try to give them hope? And, if so, how?

As I’ve blogged about a few times recently, I have been working with a couple of collaborators, Susan Cheng and JW Hammond, on a project aimed at understanding student views on climate change. As part of this, I’ve been thinking about what we teach and how we teach it, and also about a common challenge faced by instructors who teach about climate change: how do we convey the severity of climate change without leaving students feeling depressed and hopeless?

As I was working on the manuscript describing the first set of our results, I typed a sentence to that effect, and then just sat and stared at the computer for a bit, wondering “Is it my responsibility as a biology instructor to leave students empowered and with a sense of purpose?”

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When did you realize you work on climate change?

Some ecologists start their careers planning to study climate change, and others make a decision to pivot towards that line of research. But something I find fascinating is that there are ecologists, myself included, who didn’t necessarily set out to study climate change, but who are accidental climate change biologists. To give just one example: if you work on a time series on natural populations, communities, or ecosystems that extends more than a few years, chances are you’ve found that climate change is now a part of what you’re studying.

I’ve thought about this over the years as projects we work on that started out as basic research into host-parasite interactions end up relating to climate change. Some links are obvious—wanting to understand how temperature influences host-parasite interactions leads pretty naturally to thinking about how climate change will influence host-parasite interactions. Some links are less obvious—for example, we wondered whether the light environment might be influencing when and where we saw parasite outbreaks. As I recall, our initial interest in this was not related to climate change. But lakes are getting browner, in part due climate change, so any work we do on how lake light levels influence disease naturally links with climate change. And we now have some data on host-parasite interactions in lakes that spans 1-2 decades. Once you’re into decadal time scales, you have to consider the impact of climate change on what you’re seeing.

I’ve also thought about this in terms of some projects I didn’t work on. When I started grad school, one of the projects I was thinking of working on related to what was going on under the ice in lakes in winter, and how things like snow cover influenced that. So, when I saw news articles about a new study showing that there will be an “extensive loss of lake ice…within the next generation”, I thought back to those grad school plans to work on lake ice & snow cover. My recollection is that my interest in that project was mainly wanting to understand the basic biology of lakes, but clearly it would have ended up being a study of climate change if I’d pursued it.

Based on conversations with colleagues, I know I’m not alone in coming to realize that I am an accidental climate change biologist.

So, I’m curious: for my fellow accidental climate change scientists, when did you realize you were studying climate change?

Guest post: Advice I’d give to a young ecologist considering a career in US government science, in light of the recent government shutdown

Note from Jeremy: this is a guest post from Jim Grace, who has worked in both academia and US federal science. It was written last week, during the then-ongoing US government shutdown, which is why the post refers to the “ongoing” shutdown. Thank you to Jim for sharing his personal views.

If you’re interested in this post, you might also want to have a look at our previous guest post from NOAA’s Wendy Morrison on a career as a US government scientist.


Jeremy, thanks for inviting me to post on the topic of, “Advice I’d give to a young ecologist considering a career in government science, in light of the ongoing shutdown.”

I think that rather than give a long narrative, I will try to offer some nuggets for folks to consider. I will point out that this is challenging for me because I respect that there can be many exceptions to any generalization. To narrow things a bit, I will admit that my advice is aimed towards folks considering US Federal positions, since this is the domain I know the most about. Also, very relevant to what I say below, I am confining my thoughts for people in permanent positions. The business of being in a non-permanent position comes with a whole different set of concerns that can override the points I make below (as true in academic positions as in non-academic ones). As the reader who sticks with the post will find out, my advice is not heavily focused on the current shutdown, but is intended as a more general set of points.

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Great-but-uninfluential scientists?

In the comments on a recent post over at Crooked Timber, John Holbo remarks that Dr. Seuss hasn’t had much influence as an illustrator. His visual style is instantly recognizable, but hasn’t been much imitated. At least, according to Holbo, but I’m happy to take Holbo’s word for that since I don’t know anything about the history of illustration and he does. Assuming he’s right, it’s very surprising, given Dr. Seuss’ massive popular success. How can someone so successful and widely admired be uninfluential?

Which got me to wondering: are there great uninfluential ecologists? Or uninfluential scientists more broadly? By “great” I don’t mean undiscovered or underappreciated people. And I don’t mean people who were influential for a time but aren’t any more. I mean people who are/were very widely known in their field and have/had massive professional success–but yet no one ever followed in their footsteps.

My first instinct is that we’re looking for geniuses famous for unusual, “one-off” ideas or discoveries. Discoveries that are both famous, and hard to follow up, because something about the discovery, or the approach that led to it, places it far outside the mainstream. For instance, Solomon Feferman refers to Philip Davis’ “Paradox of Irrelevance”: many of the most famous mathematical theorems of the 20th century led to little if any subsequent research building on them. Feferman cites Gödel’s incompleteness theorems as prime examples of the paradox of irrelevance. Thus arguably making Gödel himself an example of a great-but-uninfluential mathematician, at least within pure mathematics itself.

I guess Lynn Margulis might be a candidate from evolutionary biology? Her hypothesis of endosymbiosis made her famous after it was confirmed by the endosymbiotic origins of chloroplasts and mitochondria. But as far as I know no other organelles have been shown to be of endosymbiotic origin, and there’s not much research pursuing her broader claim that “symbiogenesis”, not evolution by natural selection, is the “creative” force in evolution.

Comparison of ways of visualizing individual-level Likert data: line plots and heat maps and mosaic plots, oh my!

Last week, I wrote a post where I talked about how my training in evolutionary ecology led me to try reaction norms (that is, paired line plots) for plotting paired Likert data. I had already tried a few other options, but didn’t include them in that post, and I got some feedback on that post that gave me more ideas. There was also a request for code on how to actually generate those plots. So, this post shows four different ways of visualizing individual-level responses to paired Likert-scale questions (paired line plots, dot plots, mosaic plots, and heat maps). It does that for two different comparisons, leading me to the conclusion that the type of plot that works best will depend on your data. I’d love to hear which ones you think work best — there are polls where you can vote for your favorite! And, if you’re working on similar data and want to see code, there’s an associated Github repo, but it comes with the disclaimer that my code is good enough, but definitely not elegant.

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As a grad student, I didn’t challenge the idea that one should be willing to move wherever for a TT job. Now I do.

Two things recently came across my twitter feed that relate to academics moving. First, there’s this piece by Dan Hirschman noting that academics often make multiple long-distance moves (in contrast to most Americans, who live close to family as adults), and asking what effect all this dislocation has on the research people produce. Second, there’s this piece in Nature on how academics navigate tenure denial, which includes advice to seek job offers from other universities while one is up for tenure.

At some point in an Ask Us Anything post, someone asked about things where our views have changed a lot over our careers. As usual, I didn’t manage to answer it, because, for some unknown reason, I stink at AUAs. But here is my very belated response: as an undergrad and a grad student, I bought the idea that I should be willing to move anywhere if I wanted a career in academia. Now I don’t.

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What’s the biggest change of mind any ecologist has ever had about any ecological idea?

In a pair of old posts I asked, what’s the biggest ecological idea you’ve ever changed your mind about?

Here I’ll pose a slightly different question: What’s the biggest change of mind any ecologist has ever had about any ecological idea?

For instance, imagine if AJ Nicholson had said “On reflection, Andrewartha and Birch were right, density dependence is irrelevant for population dynamics.” Imagine Robert MacArthur saying, “I’ve changed my mind, simple mathematical models can’t teach us anything useful about ecology.” Or imagine me saying, “Whoops, sorry everybody, the intermediate disturbance hypothesis is right after all, my bad.”*

Has any ecologist ever done anything like this? I can’t think of anyone off the top of my head, which may well just illustrate the limitations of the top of my head.

Meghan suggested Dan Simberloff for having changed his mind about island biogeography theory. Are there other examples from ecology?

The only example I can think of is from philosophy. Ludwig Wittgenstein famously developed two opposing philosophies of language, the second of which (ordinary language philosophy) refutes the first (logical atomism).

I’m curious about this because it feeds into our long-running discussions of issues like how fast ecology is progressing, why some ecological ideas seem so persistent, and why the people who know the most about an ecological idea often seem to disagree most about it.

*I find this last one both amusing and worrisome to imagine.