Recommended reads #27

  • A worthwhile manifesto: “Why I teach Plato to plumbers.”

  • An exceptionally well-told story, of a too-uncommon interaction, by Valéria M. Souza, “Can you get me into college?” You really will have appreciated having read this story. Seriously.

  • If you liked stories as good as the one in the link above, try picking up a copy of one of the back issues of The Best Nonrequired Reading series. For several years, it was edited by Dave Eggers with a bunch of high school students in San Francisco who found amazing pieces of writing and compiled a volume. (The most recent, and final, volume apparently had Michael Chabon’s kid in the group.) But I don’t think all of the participants came from such a background, given the mission of the 826 Valencia writing center where the work was done.

  • Have you wondered exactly how corrupt football coaches always get away with funneling money under the table to their players without getting caught by the NCAA? This long-form article explains the intricate scheme in great detail, and is fascinating.

  • Students totally love it when we distribute lecture powerpoint files to help them study. Here is a particularly cogent argument by Chris Buddle about why this is inadvisable.

  • Measured thoughts on how we share links. David Perry suggests if you choose to share links with others via social media (facebook, twitter, pinterest, and all the others), it is more thoughtful to share original content from the little guys, instead of that one link that everybody sees over and over again. For example, in the last two days, I would wager that you’ve probably already seen at least one link to that cat who saved the toddler who was being attacked by the dog. Which is why I’m not linking to it here. Even though it was interesting. I’d rather do everything I can to get you to read that story by Dr. Souza that I linked to up above.

  • There was what I thought was a great post in Dynamic Ecology this week by Angela Moles and Jeff Ollerton, about the oft-assumed but unsupported notion that the tropics have stronger and more specialized interactions than in the temperate zone. The discussion in the comments is worthwhile, too. One of the commenters who works on this topic, Carina Baskett, took exception to not just calling this topic a Zombie Idea, but also to any claims that there are Zombie Ideas. She wrote a rebuttal on another site. Baskett presents a very different vision about what scientific debate should look like on the internet. She wrote that Moles and Ollerton were “irresponsible and polarizing” and used “inflammatory language.”  Whereas, I just didn’t see that in a case of Rashomon. Baskett saw that Moles and Ollerton were trying to quash debate and suppress ideas from people such as herself, whereas I saw the whole point of their post was to generate ongoing discussion in the scientific community. Of course if authors are taking a stand on one side of a scientific issue, they argue for that point with the best arguments they can muster. Baskett doesn’t think she was outargued on the science, but rather that the authority of the blog has the ability to unfairly prejudice the scientific populace against her work. Without using the phrase, she essentially argued that academic blogs are bully pulpits, and implied that the authors held a claim to “the final authority on how to define, test, and interpret an area of science.” In other words, science bloggers should refrain from certain forms of argumentation because they are unproductive. I never would have anticipated that Moles and Ollerton post would drive a researcher on the topic to “cry foul,” as Baskett wrote. So, it seems I have a blind spot about certain ways in which people can get touchy about academic discussions in blogs, even when written in a collegial and professional manner. Which makes me wonder how often others think I’m being adversarial — or even working to squash discussion — on the occasions when I’m actually trying to engender discussion and be inclusive. I’ve written a lot of opinions about how I think science should be done, how I teach,  what approaches to teaching are more efficient or more effective, and on scads of other things. I clearly come from a certain point of view, but on any academic or pedagogical topic, I mean to convince others with argument rather than shut down the arguments of others. And I readily see that what works for me can’t work for everybody. Looking at Baskett’s response to Moles and Ollerton, which I never would have anticipated, makes me wonder if there is anybody out there who thinks that I use this site as a bully pulpit, when it is intended as a town square. If I need to shape up and be more aggressive in inclusive language, I’d appreciate the input. Also, please share any other interesting links you wish, just in case you feel compelled to share that cat-saving-the-toddler-from-the-dog video.

For links, thanks to HK Choi and Cedar Reiner.

17 thoughts on “Recommended reads #27

  1. Thanks for the write up Terry. I was also surprised by the response, clearly we hit a nerve. Not for a moment did I anticipate that we’d be accused of trying to close down debate: there was an “Is” at the start of the title and a question mark at the end!

    OK, later we set out our stall as to why we think that the idea that the notion that tropical interactions, on average, are always more ecologically specialized and stronger than temperate interactions, is a zombie idea. But I think there’s currently enough evidence to support our assertion.

    We did get accused in the comments of setting up a straw man by use “always”, but I really do think that that’s how it’s perceived by some ecologists and by the public who watch documentaries about the “intense struggle for existence” between species in tropical rainforests. Sure we need nuanced arguments, but we also need to point out when preconceived and widely held notions are false.

  2. I already replied to Carina at length over on the blog, so I won’t repeat it here. I’ll just say that, like you, I’m surprised by the strength of her reaction. Particularly because she went on to participate quite productively in the comment thread, discussing both the substantive scientific issues and issues of rhetoric in scientific writing. And that thread is typical–many of our best comment threads on DE are on posts using rhetoric like “zombie ideas”, “statistical machismo”, “ANOVA is an insidious evil”, etc. If that sort of rhetoric is intended to intimidate and shut down debate, well, on the evidence of the comment threads we get on DE, it’s an utter failure.

    I suspect the strength of Carina’s reaction is based at least in part on false premises. In comments, she indicated that she was worried that the post would cause others to reject her science out of hand, and prevent future employers from hiring her. I and several other folks on the thread indicated that she needn’t worry on that score. But it sounds like she wasn’t reassured.

    Like you, I do wonder how often people see me as trying to browbeat or bully readers. But on the evidence of anonymous reader surveys we’ve done and conversations with colleagues, reactions as strongly negative as Carina’s are rare. Which isn’t to say she’s wrong to react as negatively she did. She’s perfectly entitled to her own reaction. And I’m mindful of it–I really don’t want people thinking of me (or people who write like me) as a jerk who’s trying to shut down debate. Because I don’t think of myself as a jerk, and because I’m trying to start debate, not stop it! But while I’m mindful of reactions like hers, I’m also mindful of the far larger number of people who react differently to things like the “zombie ideas” meme. I’ve found that you really can’t please everyone when it comes to online writing, especially not if you say non-anodyne things and try to write in a non-boring style. So while I absolutely do regret reactions like hers, I’ve learned to live with it, and I’ve made my piece with it. It’s not going to change how I write.

  3. “Not for a moment did I anticipate that we’d be accused of trying to close down debate: there was an “Is” at the start of the title and a question mark at the end!”

    You did indeed, but you also ended up concluding that there is no need for this debate because the data is in, and that’s where you went wrong, according to Carina.

    “Is the biotic interactions idea a zombie? Well, it certainly seems to be getting around a lot for a dead thing.”

    I find it ironic that you are accusing Carina of wanting to shut down the debate given that she is the one who thinks more data is needed, whereas you are stating that the idea is dead.

  4. Bjorn, it appears you are responding to Jeff’s comments up above, as you’re quoting him. But, I don’t see anywhere that he — or myself or anybody else — accused Carina of wanting down to shut down the debate. I did write point out the fact that in her post, she thought labeling something as a Zombie was an attempt to close debate rather than open it, which I thought to be rather peculiar.

  5. Ok, you’re right. I misread something. Apologies. No one said that Carina wants to shut down debate.

    I will make an accusation myself, though. I do not believe that anyone involved has the explicit goal of ending this debate. However, I posit that calling an idea dead is a first to stifle that debate. Arguably there is now a lot of arguing going on, but it’s not really over the data as much as the debate. And I repeat, saying that an idea is a zombie and dead equates to saying that there is no good reason for continuing research into it.

    At the end of the day, we should be arguing over the science. The issue here is a disagreement over what the available data show, and Carina’s view, contrary to Moles and Ollerton, is that we cannot yet conclude that the hypothesis is falsified.

  6. Bjorn – as I’ve indicated above – if the hypothesis is that “species interactions are always stronger and more ecologically specialized in the tropics than in the temperate zone” then, yes, it’s been falsified. Not only by mine and Angela’s work, but also by others.

    If on the other hand the hypothesis is that “some types of species interactions are stronger and/or more ecologically specialized in the tropics than in the temperate zone” then clearly that has not been falsified because (a) there are data from some systems that support it; and (b) we’ve not assessed all types of interactions (ecologically or taxonomically).

    Would you disagree with this?

  7. @Bjorn:

    “I do not believe that anyone involved has the explicit goal of ending this debate. However, I posit that calling an idea dead is a first to stifle that debate. Arguably there is now a lot of arguing going on, but it’s not really over the data as much as the debate.”

    Afraid I don’t follow. The discussion that’s going on seems to me to be a good, substantive scientific discussion. I assumed you must’ve looked at the comment thread on DE–a large majority of comments are about hypotheses, data, and their interpretation. Are you suggesting that Angela and Jeff’s post somehow failed to start a substantive scientific debate over what the data show?

    As for what sort of rhetoric starts vs. stifles scientific debates, well, all I can say is that my experience is that the sort of writing Dynamic Ecology publishes–which includes but isn’t limited to rhetoric like “zombie ideas” and “statistical machismo”–seems to be pretty effective at starting scientific debates. Such rhetoric has the virtue of honesty. If a writer really does believe that some widely-believed idea has now been shown to be incorrect and not worthy of further research, then isn’t it honest of them to say as much, and choose their rhetoric accordingly? Such rhetoric isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, of course, which is perfectly fair. I do not claim that such rhetoric has no downside–only that it also has upside, sufficient to justify its use in some circumstances. But different strokes for different folks–anyone who doesn’t like such rhetoric should simply avoid reading or writing blog posts that contain it.

  8. “species interactions are always stronger and more ecologically specialized in the tropics than in the temperate zone”

    “Always”?! Where in the world does this come from?

    Who in their right mind phrases a hypothesis like this? Notably, in the OP on DE you do not phrase it like that. In the first paragraph you succinctly say “In this post, we’re going to argue that the idea that species interactions are stronger and more specialized in the tropics is a zombie idea that needs to be slain.” – Nothing about “always”. One could disprove that by inspection (and I believe you have), but that is neither here nor there – the larger trend is what is important. I am also not sure what “tropical interactions, on average, are always more ecologically specialized and stronger than temperate interactions” means. Always on average?

    I am not an ecologist and this is not my specialty, but from what I can see you have misconstrued the hypothesis into something useless and declared victory. Whether that is done in the published papers too, I do not know.

  9. Jeremy, the scientific debate may rage on your blog, and congratz to you for that. Do you think that will stick in the heads of the people on search committees and funding review boards, or will it more likely be the zombie name-calling? Probably the name-calling. Not even probably.

    However, personally I am myself totally fine with polarizing issues in the blogosphere. I merely find it disingenuous when you’re all taken aback by someone objecting when a viable hypothesis is straw-manned and presented as resolved and dead. I don’t want to state anything about what people should and should not do, but I am glad we’re free to say when the posts are asinine.

  10. Bjorn, I’m very surprised to hear that you think that the phrase “zombie ideas” being included in a blog post will affect anyone’s job or funding prospects! With respect, that is not all the way scientific influence works. Nobody with any power over anyone’s job prospects or funding decisions sees the words “zombie idea” in a blog post and on that basis decides who to hire or what grants to fund or whatever.

    I note that in the post a number of different people reassured Carina on precisely this point. Sounds like you need similar reassurance?

  11. Bjorn, I didn’t think it would have to come to this, but I guess it’s necessary.
    I’m sharing that cat video with you.

  12. I have two things to add regarding Terry’s query about the blog posting by Angela Moles and Jeff Ollerton on the myth of more biotic interactions with increasing termperature. First, blogging is liberating. Second, while free markets are anything but free in economics, free markets of ideas really are free and worthwhile on the blagosphere. Well done everybody!

  13. Bjorn,

    You say: “I merely find it disingenuous when you’re all taken aback by someone objecting when a viable hypothesis is straw-manned and presented as resolved and dead.”

    You need to re-read the comments; we’re not taken aback by someone objecting to our treatment of the hypothesis, we’re taken aback by someone thinking that our post and the ongoing discussion is going to damage their future career: THAT is what surprises us.

    Regarding the other points you raise:

    There’s no real semantic difference between those two phrases and, if you read the discussion thread beneath the post, you’ll see that they are used interchangeably.

    The “always on average” relates to the way we assess these kinds of data. For example, as a pollination ecologist, I would ask the question “do plants in all tropical communities, on average, have fewer pollinators than plants in temperate communities?” Or to rephrase, is the “average” plant more specialized in the tropics. I’d do this because, in general, there are more plants in tropical communities so the chances of finding a more specialized species is higher. But what I’m interested in is how we can compare trends. If that’s not clear from the post it’s because we had a limited amount of space in which to talk about such issues, which is why we referred to the published literature.

    Yes, that hypothesis is blunt, but it’s not “misconstrued”, it’s what some ecologists believe. As we said in the comment on Dynamic Ecology, anecdotally we know that there are ecologists who object to work being published that shows no latitudinal trend in species interactions because they “know” that the tropics are more specialized and have stronger interactions, ergo data to the contrary MUST be wrong. Angela’s come up against it; so have I; and we’re not the only ones. It also underpins assumptions being made in published models and ideas, for example the Coley & Kursar piece in Science that we cite, where they state: “Herbivore….host specificity, as well as rates of herbivory, are generally thought to be higher in the tropics. Conversely temperate plants experience stronger abiotic selection due to a more severe and variable climate”. Note that they don’t cite any studies to back up these assertions.

    The “zombie” is a simplistic interpretation of the theory and the ignoring of contrary data. Why is arguing against this, and opening up a debate, so wrong?

  14. You all are so convinced that the zombie is good for engendering discussion of science, but not one of you has commented on the science that I laid out in my post! I’d really like to hear Jeff and Angela’s take on it. The way I present the hypothesis is very different than their presentation.

    I (and many fellow students) truly believe that using powerful, sensational language to invalidate what we study could cause real-world harm to the jobless, but if you refuse to admit that’s possible, then we’re at an impasse, and this discussion is going nowhere fast. So let’s move on to discuss the science, shall we?

  15. Carina – give us a break, it was the weekend! I wanted to spend time with my family and had limited time in which to work, which I devoted to pointing out to your colleague that he’d misunderstood what we were saying (for the second time in these comments) and that our post was not as “asinine” as he believes.

    When I get time I’ll comment but I want to take my time over it and do it in clear language that does not get misunderstood.

  16. Hi Carina,

    People comment on what they feel like commenting on. I’m sorry that commenters here and on your post aren’t talking about what you’d like them to talk about, but I wouldn’t read anything into that. People choose whether or not to comment, and what to comment on, for all sorts of reasons. Mostly mundane reasons like having other things to do, or feeling like they’ve already said what they have to say (quite possible given how long the thread over on Dynamic Ecology was), or all sorts of other reasons. On Dynamic Ecology, I often find that comment threads on my posts peter out just when I thought they were getting good, or that they go in different directions than I hoped they would.

    Sometimes I deal with that by revisiting the same topic again in a new post at a later date. I also make sure that I don’t even mention in passing any issue that I don’t want commenters talking about. Or else I’ll mention a related issue but then say “But I’m only mentioning this issue for completeness, I don’t want to talk about it, so please don’t comment on it in this thread.” And if a commenter raises an issue I don’t want to talk about, I just ignore them. But none of these approaches is anywhere close to foolproof, of course–you mostly can’t control what other people say on the internet and it’s mostly futile to try.

    Re: discussing the science, I’m planning a future post that will address some broader scientific issues that I think came up in the comment thread over at Dynamic Ecology. About how broad-but-vague verbal hypotheses get converted into concrete testable ideas, and the pitfalls of that conversion process. So keep an eye out for that, hopefully you and many others will find it interesting and relevant to this discussion, even though it won’t be specifically focused on tropical ecology.

  17. Carina,

    You definitely started a discussion. It, apparently, ended up not being about the topic you wished for.

    It turns out that accusations of inflammatory rhetoric threatening the careers of junior scientists was higher priority prompt for discussion, compared to some disagreement about whether or not there is a general latitudinal pattern or mechanism for decreased specialization in the temperate zone.

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