Narcissism, OCD, and sloppy writing

It’s pretty well established in my household that I have a kind of low-level obsessive compulsive disorder.  I count the steps in a stairwell, I reorganize dishes in the dishwasher, and I drive Allison crazy in a myriad of other related ways.  One of my more narcissistic obsessions is to check Google Scholar to see whether my papers have been cited recently.  Kind of a yucky thing to do, but I am new enough to this profession to get a kick out of knowing that people read our work and find it worthy of including it in their own.  Lately I’ve begun to wonder whether there is any correlation between our papers being cited and being read, however.  A few examples pulled from papers that cited us:

In the Midwest, for example, cowbird parasitism increased as forest cover increased and in landscapes with relatively less forest, parasitism decreased while songbird productivity increased (Cox et al. 2012).

This is not quite what we said.  Actually, the first clause is exactly wrong – we observed increased parasitism as forest cover declined.

Although the direction of this association was counter to what has generally been found, our study is not the first to find a positive association between habitat amount and nest predation (Cox et al. 2012).

This is from a different paper than the quote above, and is citing a different paper of ours, but again it is exactly wrong.  What we wrote:

 …overall rates of predation were invariant across the gradient of forest cover.

The regression line that showed the relationship between habitat amount and overall predation rates looked like this:

horizontal_A

One more:

Because this was a short-term study, we could not expend the effort necessary to color-band a large proportion of breeding pairs, which is the case for most studies of songbird–habitat relationships (e.g., Bonifait et al. 2006, Cooper et al. 2009, Cox and Martin 2009)

This one is really odd.  If I were to hazard a guess I’d say they threw this sentence in to assuage some reviewer remark about not knowing enough about individual birds.   But why not pick a paper to cite that actually does investigate songbird habitat relationships?  The word “habitat” appears  zero times in the body of our manuscript.

I guess my point is this.  You design a study. You somehow find money to pay for the study.  You collect data, which may take years and thousands of dollars.  You put yourself through the horror show that is peer review, rejection, and rewrites.  You do all that!  Why not actually read the papers you cite?  It’s basically the easiest part of the whole process and it’s kind of an important component of good scholarship.

Also, get off my lawn!

P.S.  Any miscitations in my work are solely and exclusively the fault of my coauthors.

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I should have been an economist

So it turns out that the primary economic research paper cited by conservative politicians as the case for austerity in the face of the recent economic crisis is rife with errors.  As is usually the case with macroeconomic news, John Cassidy has the most entertaining and informative summary of this story.

Essentially, two Harvard economists misrepresented the relationship between historical debt loads and economic growth because of three errors.

  1. They mislabeled a field in Excel so it read the wrong group of columns.
  2. They didn’t weight their averages, so 1 year of data from country A was treated as equally important as 20 years of data from country B.
  3. They omitted some years of data for some countries for reasons that aren’t clear to me but that seemed to help their case.

Thoughts that immediately come to mind:

  1. What is it with economists and Excel?  The $6 billion(!) lost by JP Morgan in bad trades last year was due in part to a faulty risk assessment model caused by, you guessed it, a bad formula in Excel.
  2. Weighting the averages from each country is only a marginally better way to deal with those, what shall we call them, repeated measures.  Surely economists know this?
  3. It appears that ecologists are, quantitatively speaking, leaps and bounds ahead of a field that is essentially the study of numbers.

Okay, okay, we can’t judge an entire field by this one terrible paper, and in reality macroeconomic data are just as messy and complex as ecological data.  But lately I’ve been reading quite a bit about the role of mathematics in the ecological studies (thanks to E.O. Wilson, Jeremy Fox, and others) and while I am sometimes frustrated with how much time I spend thinking about analyses and how little time I spend thinking about the natural history, ecology, and conservation of birds, the statistical tools we use have been developed because they help us make better sense of a complex world.  Given the dispiriting competition for jobs in my field, I’m starting to wonder if I shouldn’t go back to school and become an economist.  JP Morgan can hire me for the low, low fee of $1 billion – I’d be worth it at twice the price.

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Guilt and the Galápagos

Last year Allison’s father asked us to join him on a trip to the Galápagos Islands on his dime.  We said yes (shocking!).  Between the invite and the trip, which is just around the corner, I have 1) flown to see friends in Orlando, 2) flown to visit my sister in Los Angeles, 3) flown to Puerto Rico for some field work, and 4) flown to New York for a job interview.  Oh, and I bought a compact pickup truck.  An oilman’s delight, I am.

In stark contrast with my profligate personal lifestyle, my professional interests lie in the conservation of wildlife and how birds in particular respond to anthropogenic changes to the planet.  I delved through some of my unpublished data to provide a diagrammatic representation of the typical findings in my field:

Conservation biology, in a nutshell

Conservation biology, in a nutshell

Prognosis of what?  Anything really.  Ecosystem function, demographic rates, population viability.  What’s more, and we all know this, such findings extend far beyond the realm of the little ketchup-packet sized birds I study.  It is also common knowledge that the push toward “fucked” is a consequence of increased resource consumption by my own species.  And by extension, me.  The disconnect between my professional interests and personal lifestyle can rightly be considered to be profoundly hypocritical.

So should I feel guilty? Or perhaps the question can be more honestly phrased as, “Why don’t I feel guilty enough to stop participating in activities that are demonstrably bad for this planet?”  I often wonder how my environmentally minded friends and fellow ecologists reconcile the conflict between what we know is right and how we live their lives.  Does tossing our cans in a blue bin forgive us our trespasses?  Do we buy a Prius and sleep with a clear conscience henceforth?  Food for thought as I jet across the clear blue sky towards boobies and tortoises and finches and everything else that makes the symbolic epicenter of the unifying theory of biology such a fascinating place to visit.

Honestly, I can't wait.

Honestly, I can’t wait.

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Dark Ecology

A few months before I left the University of Missouri, Emma Marris visited and gave a lecture based on her new book, “Rambunctious Garden.”  She and the book received quite a bit of press – Allison and I heard it reviewed on NPR as we drove to Colorado to celebrate the death of our graduate school experience.  I found Emma to be a bright and personable speaker, but her message broke my heart.  It seemed she was asking ecologists and conservation biologists to embrace the homogenization of nature, to drop our discriminatory attitude towards weedy species, to trust in nature’s capacity to heal herself.  This last part, at least, she was right about, but not on a time-span that will benefit my nieces or their children.  She seemed a victim of generational information loss – not capable of seeing what the planet looked like a few hundred years ago and unwilling or unable to visualize what this continued rate of change will bring in the next 200 years.

This morning I ran into this longish essay that starts off a bit unsettling (see: sympathy with the Unabomber) but that I recommend to anyone interested in ecology and/or the future of this planet.  We are indeed in the midst of a series of progress traps:

Dark Ecology, by Paul Kingsnorth

 

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“Blog”

“Blog” must be in the running for the least attractive word in the English language. It is a chimera of guttural, nearly scatological sounds (“blah”, “ugh”) that for me is vaguely reminiscent of dusty, bleating, farm animals (“Baa!”). Which is appropriate if you consider that some bloggers and sheep are strikingly similar both in their style of communication and the depth of their content. Until recently, when I heard “blog” all I could think of was Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons.

So then, here I am, setting up a page on a blogging website. It’s either ironic, or hypocritical, or both, right? Probably! But I’ve begun reading the blogs of some friends and other people who have shared interesting thoughts on the process and outcome of science. By setting up shop here at WordPress I can easily follow those blogs and maybe even write down my own thoughts from time to time.  Plus, it was really easy to put together a slick looking website.

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