Every year we invite readers to ask us anything. So, here you go!
Leave your questions in the comments below, and we’ll do our best to reply as soon as we’re able. Past questions have concerned everything from the design of the perfect intro biostats course, to our darkest professional moments, to whether there’s a place for “hot takes” in ecology, to the most interesting ecological claim that we’d bet our lives on.
Note that Meghan rarely answers AUAs; her blogging muse finds inspiration elsewhere. So the “us” in “ask us anything” is “me and Brian”.
Here is a Science news article on the recent retraction of high-profile papers on COVID-19 treatment. The retractions are for dodgy data that came from dodgy doctor Sepan Desai (see here for further background). I was struck by this comment on the situation in the Science news article from former NEJM EiC Jerome Kassirer:
Desai, Mehra, and Patel had never before published together, and that should have been a red flag to any journal, says Jerome Kassirer, editor-in-chief of NEJM during the 1990s. Co-authors of high-profile papers normally share subject area expertise or have clear professional ties, he says, calling the collaboration of the apparently disparate individuals “completely bizarre.”
The trend in ecology and evolution is towards double-blind peer review. But Kassirer’s comments suggest that there are rare circumstances in which it might be informative for reviewers to know the authors’ identities. Or that there are rare circumstances in which editors should take author identities into account in their decision-making, even if the author identities aren’t revealed to the reviewers.
What do others think of this? I’ve only just started to think about it myself, so here are my tentative thoughts:
On a notorious fall day in 1987, a British weather forecaster named Michael Fish told viewers not to worry about an incoming storm. The storm hit South East England, and was one of the worst ever recorded there. At least 19 people died. While Fish did in fact forecast strong winds that day, and while he also had a long and successful forecasting career, he is largely remembered though terms like “Michael Fish Moment”, where a forecaster makes an embarrassingly bad prediction
Two decades later, in 2009, the “L’Aquila Earthquake” struck Abruzzo, devastating the region and killing at least 308 people. In the aftermath of the quake, six Italian scientists were tried and convicted of involuntary manslaughter for failing to predict the earthquake based on preceding tremors. Though they were eventually acquitted after a lengthy appeal, the story highlights how precarious the job of forecasting is, and how serious the ramifications of a Michael Fish Moment can be.
History abounds with cautionary examples like these—an important lesson for aspiring forecasters. Forecasting has even been outlawed at various times in the past (cf Hindman & Athanasopoulos 2018). But today, as the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the planet, there has perhaps never been such a thirst for forecasts. In fact, grim forecasts played a key role in convincing the US administration to take the pandemic seriously. From elections to sports, people have come to expect complex, information-rich forecasts at their fingertips. With the stakes so high, forecasters are rushing to fill this demand. The CDC has even issued an open call for COVID-19 forecasts through a forecasting challenge. While it’s great to have so many minds working towards this admirable goal, we should be wary of our own Michael Fish Moment.
Enter the ecological forecaster. The quantitative skills ecologists have acquired to model complex ecosystems can also be applied to disease forecasting. There has been a flood of armchair forecasts from the far corners of the internet (often betrayed by their excel-style graphs). Such forecasts are often produced with little to no training in disease dynamics or forecasting but possessing a belief that their expertise at something else (e.g. physics, statistics) makes them qualified to wade into the problem (see Dunning-Kruger effect). Should ecologists lend their expertise to pressing problems like COVID-19? Or should we “stay in our lane”? Just because you can build a forecast model does not always mean you should. To be able to answer this question it is critical to explore ethical considerations about how to create, communicate, and interpret forecasts. Recently, Hobday et al. (2019) outlined some of the ethical considerations involved in ecological forecasting. A few of these, highlighted here, are particularly relevant to the rush to produce COVID-19 forecasts, and should be considered before entering the fray.
Blogging about ecology feels rather pointless and trivial right now. There’s nothing I can say about bigger issues that others aren’t already saying much better. But right now, in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, it doesn’t feel right for this blog to stick to its usual narrow beat. So here are some things I read this week, from academics and others, that informed and inspired me to do what I can. I hope some of you find them helpful too.
Political theorist Jacob Levy on “folk theory as ideology“–the danger of assuming that what governments should do is what they normally do. From years ago, but more relevant today than ever. Helps explain why governments–but not protestors–tend to get the benefit of the doubt when they act in ways they shouldn’t.
The WHO, prominent scientists, and several national governments appear to have been scammed by a dodgy US doctor who claimed to have assembled a huge database of data on coronavirus patients. The dodgy data (which sounds like it may not even be real data…) formed the basis of multiple high-profile papers in top medical journals. Here is further coverage of this story from Science.
John Burn-Murdoch on how Spain’s data on new Covid-19 deaths are junk, in a way that (intentionally or not) makes the situation there appear much better than it actually is. Criticizes data aggregators like Johns Hopkins and the ECDC for republishing Spain’s numbers.
Sweden’s top epidemiologist admits that, in retrospect, Sweden’s approach to the coronavirus outbreak was wrong and resulted in too many deaths.
Dan Bolnick’s advice on giving a good recorded video lecture for a virtual scientific conference.
NY Times obituary for icthyologist John Randall. I hadn’t known about him until I read the obituary, icthyology being far from my field. But wow, what an amazing career!
I’m sure that you, like me, have seen somemany infinity articles on how the coronavirus outbreak will forever change, well, everything (example).
I’ve linked to a couple of these in recent linkfests (for instance), noting a couple of problems that many of these articles share (and I’m not the only one to notice). One is recency bias: assuming that whatever changes have happened recently are going to be permanent. As Kieran Healy pointed out on Twitter, that’s like somebody in WW II London predicting that everyone will keep living in Underground tunnels after the Blitz ends. The other is wishful thinking: many “predictions” about how the coronavirus will change the world just so happen to line up precisely with how the author has long been predicting, or hoping, that the world will change. “Now more than ever…”, etc.
But it would surely be incorrect to assume that everything will go back to being exactly how it would have been in the absence of the pandemic.* And it can be fun, interesting, and sometimes even useful to speculate about the future. Hence my question for you: how, if at all, do you think the coronavirus pandemic will permanently change science and academia?
To kick things off, here are a few of my own tentative thoughts:
The 2020 ESA annual meeting is going to be entirely virtual. Here is a FAQ about how it it will work. The short version is that presenters will upload recorded talks, and images of posters, in advance. The presentations will be accessible on demand to registered attendees during the meeting, and for some period of time afterwards. There will be a system for asynchronous Q&A with presenters. There will also be a few live synchronous virtual panels and plenary sessions, live synchronous video networking sessions, and a few other things. There are registration fees to cover the costs (just to cover the costs, not make a profit). And the ESA will spend $20,000 providing registration fee grants for prospective registrants with financial need.
First of all, I want to emphasize that the ESA meeting organizers are doing their absolute best in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. The ESA, and the organizers, deserve a ton of credit for merely attempting a virtual meeting rather than just cancelling the meeting. I love, love, love the ESA meeting. So I’m both very sad that an in-person meeting can’t happen, and very appreciative that the ESA is doing the best it can to come up with a substitute. To the organizers, who work very hard even in a normal year and I’m sure never get thanked enough: thank you so much for your efforts! You do an outstanding job. I’m sure I’m far from alone in really looking forward to the time when you get to do your job normally again, and organize an in-person ESA meeting.
As appreciative as I am of the organizers’ efforts, I’m also torn about whether to register for the virtual meeting. That’s no criticism of the organizers, it’s just the reality of the world right now.
On the one hand, I’m fortunate enough to be able to afford the registration fee. And the ESA is the scientific society to which I have the longest-standing and strongest professional attachment. I think the ESA is a Good Thing and I want to support the society however I can. And I love attending the ESA meeting, so there’s a part of me that just wants to attend whatever ESA meeting simulacrum is on offer. Like most everyone, I’m currently making do with poor substitutes for lots of things I value. That sucks, but there’s nothing for it. So why not make due with a virtual ESA meeting? It’s better than no ESA meeting.
On the other hand, how many recorded talks am I really going to want to watch? I ask that as someone who probably attends more ESA talks than the average ecologist of my seniority level.* I like attending talks! (and posters, if I’m into the topic and want to chat with the presenter.) But I find that sitting as part of an audience watching live, in-person talks is much more enjoyable than watching recorded talks. Even talks recorded with more sophisticated technology, or more creative presentation, than most recorded ESA talks are likely to have.
And when it comes to my own planned talk, it’s not clear to me that there’s any particular advantage to me to recording it for the ESA meeting. YMMV, obviously. But for me, I could just record my talk, post it on YouTube, and link to it from this blog, and it’d probably get at least as many views it would if I posted it to the ESA meeting site. It likely wouldn’t get much substantive feedback if I just posted it on YouTube and linked to it from this blog. But I suspect it wouldn’t get much feedback from the ESA’s asynchronous Q&A system either.
And if I want an inferior-but-better-than-nothing substitute for the social interactions that I enjoy so much at an ordinary ESA meeting, I can just arrange to zoom privately with my friends. I don’t need to register for the ESA meeting for that.
So I dunno. Right now I’m leaning towards registering, purely to support the ESA. But that’s just me, and obviously different people are different. So what are you thinking of doing? And is it different than what you’d ordinarily do? Take our two-question poll, and share your thinking in the comments.
*During an ordinary in-person ESA meeting, I spend most of each day attending talks. Because I can meet all my friends, and anyone else who wants to talk to me, over meals and during poster sessions, at least usually. I don’t have nearly enough friends, collaborators, and other people who want to talk to me to be able to spend the entire meeting talking to people. 🙂 😦
Review papers (including but not limited to meta-analyses) grow in importance as the scientific literature grows. Nobody can read everything, and so everybody needs summaries.
But just as with primary research papers, not all review papers are created equal. Some are more important and influential than others, for all sorts of reasons. They might identify a surprising new empirical pattern in need of explanation. Identify fruitful new directions for for future research. Refute or confirm some important theory. Etc.
Question: what are the most important, influential review papers in the history of ecology?