Academic Moneyball


Over the past week, I’ve been reading Moneyball, by Michael Lewis.moneyball cover

I’m not a baseball person (though I do keep tabs on football soccer). I found Moneyball to be interesting in its own right, but particularly when considering how its lessons may be applied to academic culture.

Lewis tells the story of Billy Beane, the manager of a small-budget major league baseball team, who assembled a crew that was better than most big-budget competitors. How did Beane pull this off?

According to Moneyball, Beane saw through the intellectually inbred and reality-challenged worldview that permeated the baseball community at the time. Scouts were picking players — and offering them humongous salaries — on the basis of athletic traits that didn’t help teams win games.

Players were highly valued for certain traits, such as speed, fielding ability and throwing distance. The physique of a player also had a huge influence on the opinion of scouts, even though this trait offered only a marginal increase in performance. Beane was the first person in the baseball world to embrace the fact that things like speed, fielding, and outward appearance had a relatively small effect on the ability of a player to help a team win. By playing attention to numbers — and rejecting the universally accepted common wisdom — he saw that the single most valuable characteristic of a player is the ability to get on base. But this statistic — on base percentage — was being ignored by managers and scouts over less useful measures. There’s a more depth and nuance to the story, of course, but you get the idea.

Beane ignored what everybody else was thinking and built a team based on the notion that players have to work together to score runs. He assembled a complementary set of players that had characteristics that increased the probability of scoring runs. To Beane, what mattered was the ability to score runs, and as a result, players who had a history of demonstrating the numbers that increased the probability of runs were valuable. And he was the only guy with actual power in the industry who chose to see the world that way, which resulted in a very effective team run by picking players that were undervalued by the community.

This book kinda rocked my world, by helping me think about how academia also has a conventional wisdom that is mostly independent of reality. The traits that are valued within academia aren’t necessarily the ones that result in substantial academic progress. How is it that we size up academics? The number of publications, grant money, citations, institutional prestige, an impressive demeanor?

What constitutes a successful outcome of the academic enterprise? Sure I would hope you agree it that publication frequency and grant revenue don’t matter in the big picture. Think about the academics that have most greatly transformed your academic fields in the past hundred years. Are their successes the result of the these kind of traits, or are they successful because of other characteristics. What kind of science do we want to support and encourage?

As we pick graduate students, hire postdocs, conduct faculty searches, grant tenure, and select honorees, what are we measuring? We are essentially serving as the talent scouts of academia. Are we selecting for the traits that matter? What kinds of great progress do we want to see, and how do we measure the traits that get us there? I think the traits that we tend to focus on obscure the matter rather than promote real advancement. For example, quality mentorship is valued, but not as much as it is worth to our scientific community. Teaching gets little genuine respect. Publication quality is only measured in terms of journal prestige and number of citations, but these measures really have little to nothing to do with quality or the prospect for real impact.

If we use value measures that do not result in genuine scientific success, than we are causing scientists to chase the wrong parameters. If we actually valued things that build a vigorous and rigorous scientific community that produced innovative work on a regular basis, then we’d get more people pursuing this kind of work. We are all familiar with the publish-or-perish mantra, the demand for grant funding, and the need to be associated with a prestigious pedigree. We are also familiar with people who do great science in our midst without cranking out a ton of papers or without bringing in lots of money, but most of these people are undervalued.

Recommended Reads #47


Gain a rare look into the brain trust at Nature to understand how they pick manuscripts for review.

Quiz: North Korean Slogan or TED Talk Sound Bite?

One journal bans null hypothesis significance testing. That’s right, they’ve banned the P value.

A look back on the time when a columnist for Parade magazine (the celebrity rag that comes with the Sunday paper) understood and explained math and probability better than university professors, who were proud to trumpet their own ignorance: “Maybe women look at math problems differently than men.”

We don’t need more STEM majors. We need more STEM majors with liberal arts training.

There are probably a number of reasons that have contributed to the decline in field biology. These include the rise of molecular biology, the loss of staff competent and comfortable in the field, and the general decline in children getting outdoor experience. However, a key factor has to be that the skills involved have been distinctly unappreciated. In fact, we would argue that, in educational circles, this lack of appreciation goes much deeper. Educationalists have been guilty of formalising a gross undervaluing of the complexities involved in field biology. This has occurred through a naive adherence to an incredibly damaging dogma that has influenced so much of modern educational practice. Ironically, the dogma that has been so detrimental to field taxonomy is known as Bloom’s taxonomy.

This piece of writing has really made the rounds, but for good reason, so if you haven’t read this, now is the time to click through. Oliver Sacks discovered that he has terminal cancer, and this is his reflection on this discovery.

Shut Up & Write Tuesdays, a virtual writing workshop for academic folk.

Who is to blame for poor science communication?

How do you recruit new students into your lab?

Yet another gorgeous animation from the folks who brought you the stunning one about Alfred Russell Wallace. This is one is about Alfred Wegener.

Across disciplines, we find that faculty hiring follows a common and steeply hierarchical structure that reflects profound social inequality. Furthermore, doctoral prestige alone better predicts ultimate placement than a U.S. News & World Report rank, women generally place worse than men, and increased institutional prestige leads to increased faculty production, better faculty placement, and a more influential position within the discipline.

In praise of slow science.

The evolution catechism.

The first rule for teaching ecology: “Get them outside; early and often”.

Current university courses on ecology often fail to persuade students that ecological science provides important tools for environmental problem solving. We propose problem-based learning to improve the understanding of ecological science and its usefulness for real-world environmental issues that professionals in careers as diverse as engineering, public health, architecture, social sciences, or management will address.

A Century After Being Cast into the River Thames, a Celebrated Typeface Reemerges.


For links, thanks to Allison Chapman, Lee Dyer, Karen Kapheim, and Steven Whitfield.


Academia and friendships


At one point I thought about writing a post about the difficulties that academia wreaks on friendships. All that moving about means picking up, making new friends and leaving behind the old. It is tough in many respects and it is easy to see the negatives of that part of the career. Check out #academicnomad for the joys and sorrows of traveling/moving so much. Needless to say the post slipped by and I never quite got around to writing it. Continue reading

Poll: What is your risk/reward preference in science funding?


Continue reading

Should ecologists teach writing?


I could start this post with a back-in-my-day story and bemoan the state of student writing today but I think you can probably fill in the blanks without me hashing out a familiar tale*. Sufficed to say for a ecological methods course I team teach, we’re finding that the quality of writing from the students is poor. The course includes a major project where the students design and execute a survey for insects, birds or plants and culminates in a written report in scientific paper style. Continue reading

The importance of storytelling


Much of my time lately has been consumed with two seemingly unrelated activities: reading job applications and reviewing conference papers.

Reading job applications requires me to evaluate a person’s credentials, teaching and research experience, letters of recommendation, and countless other intangibles—all on paper—to determine whether this person might “fit” what we are looking for in a colleague.

Reviewing conference papers requires me to evaluate the validity and importance of the research question, the soundness of the science, the relevance of the results, and the correctness of the interpretation of the results, to determine whether this paper “fits” the definition of “good science” as well as the scope of the conference.

There is one key commonality between them: in both cases, it’s very important that the author tells a good story. Continue reading

Recommended reads #46


What happens when you get paid 18 grand from NASA to stay in bed for two and a half months?

Ever wonder what it’s like to remove your own appendix?

How should we be selecting our grad students? This study indicates that we shouldn’t be looking at stuff like general GRE scores, GPA, and the fanciness of the undergraduate institution. Well, duh. But it’s nice to have numbers to point to your graduate committee when you go to bat for a great student that they don’t want to pick.

Undergraduate tokenism at its finest, from the good people of Nature.

From Black Geoscientists (tagline: Geology isn’t just for crazy white people!), “What’s with all the blackity-black blackness all the time?!

Building insect manipulators for working with museum collections, made of LEGOs.

A guide to Bayesian model selection for ecologists. “Our aim with this guide is to condense the large body of literature on Bayesian approaches to model selection and multimodel inference and present it specifically for quantitative ecologists as neutrally as possible.” Another interesting this about this paper is that it has just two authors, but six institutional affiliations. Huh?

The story of the non-tenure-track faculty member did some great research, and leaves people stunned because adjuncts aren’t supposed to do stuff like that.

Here is a very short and very forcefully on-point argument about why academics need to spend time engaging the public to shape policy.

This obituary for Colleen McCullough, neurophysiologist and author, tells a fascinating life story.

Here is a blog about people in R1 universities who are teaching at teaching-centered institutions to learn how to teach better.  It’s been around for six months, but I just caught wind of it. It’s really mighty awesome stuff. Here’s hoping for more of the same for good long while, and lots of great work coming from that end.

Here is a short article in Scientific American that explains the details of the absolutely horrific, and totally avoidable, disaster of the Nicaraguan Canal that is in progress. The article doesn’t mention how this is a Chinese canal, and how this is one piece of a big overall strategy of the Chinese government to become the primary economic force in Central America. I’m not saying the Monroe Doctrine is a good thing, but it’s interesting that people don’t seem to be noticing that it’s no longer in operation.

Can a tenured professor lose his job because of what he says on his blog? Apparently, yes. I’m not shedding any tears for him, though I am concerned about the effects of his actions on others. Something that hasn’t cropped up in this conversation, as far as I am aware, is the fact that he was tenured at a private religious institution, in which there is little to no transparency about retention and tenure policies. If he was unionized, I wonder if he’d be able to keep his job despite his horrible behavior. The mechanism that allowed the university to strip his tenure could also allow the university to do the same thing to a professor who did precisely the right thing but pissed off the wrong person. That he lost his job? Not a bad thing. The specific policy that allowed it? Hmmm.

this is what p-hacking looks like. (Beware: Don’t click through unless you are equipped to travel paragraph after paragraph through a desert bereft of capitalization.)

In defense of the p-value. This comes to you from Scientist Sees Squirrel, Stephen Heard’s new blog which has lots of good insights on perennial topics, brings up new important ones, and is really interesting and entertaining and deserves a big start.

In the last 15 years, ecologists have shifted from simple ANOVA models with a couple independent variables to models with 5-8 terms. Is this messed up, is it helping us discover new things? What should you be doing? A very interesting read, and, as always at Dynamic Ecology, don’t forget overlook the comments.

Swirl. “swirl teaches you R programming and data science interactively, at your own pace, and right in the R console!” I haven’t used it, it just looks interesting and user-friendly. Just passing word along. And like everything related to R, it’s free and open, of course.

If you’re interviewing for jobs, have you ever wondered or worried whether the order of interviews reflects initial rankings or final outcomes? Well, it probably doesn’t.

Last month, the groundbreaking Leopold Leadership Foundation picked 20 researchers as 2015 Leopold Leadership Fellows. Congratulations to them! I have no doubt that all of the Fellows are deserving of the honor and opportunity. I mentioned in November that they had a history of failing to include scientists from teaching-centered institutions. This year, the pattern remains, as just one new Fellow comes from a teaching-centered institution. (I didn’t apply, so I don’t have sour grapes about this.) I don’t know if they are failing to recruit applications from excellent environmental researchers at teaching-centered institutions, or if they are actively choosing against them. I do hope they make an effort next time around. It’s hard to lead from a position of exclusivity.

Important and Valid Point: Vilifying Parents Who Don’t Vaccinate Their Kids Is Counterproductive

Counterpoint: The Anti-Vaccine Movement Should Be Ridiculed, Because Shame Works, with a dissection of the difference between guilt and shame.

A grimly hilarious illustration: I’m an Anti-Braker

A study in Harvard used GoPros to track actual lecture attendance in nine different courses, and finds that students skip class a lot. Here’s a presentation with the data.

Scientists need more non-scientist friends. This, so much.

Claussen pickles are crazy good. I attempted this facsimile, which comes close enough for me. Who would have thought they have fennel, cinnamon and allspice among everything else in there?

for links, thanks to Darren Boehning, Amelia Chapman, David Clark, Meg Duffy, Tugrul Giray, Karen Lips, Loreall Pooler, Neil Tsutsui.

Two years of Small Pond Science


Small Pond is exactly two years old. Here’s a reflection on how this site has affected me. Some might call this navel-gazing. I look into that navel infrequently, so after two years I might as well remove this lint.

It takes a few moments to set up a blog. I’m more sheepish about divulging how much time I’ve spent on Small Pond Science over the last two years. I try to give as much attention to this site as I would to a class that I’m teaching, no less and no more. Continue reading