Bad science

10 02 2016

Head in HandsIn addition to the surpassing coolness of reconstructing long-gone ecosystems, my new-found enthusiasm for palaeo-ecology has another advantage — most of the species under investigation are already extinct.

That might not sound like an ‘advantage, but let’s face it, modern conservation ecology can be bloody depressing, so much so that one sometimes wonders if it’s worth it. It is, of course, but there’s something marvellously relieving about studying extinct systems for the simple reason that there are no political repercussions. No self-serving, plutotheocratic politician can bugger up these systems any more. That’s a refreshing change from the doom and gloom of modern environmental science!

But it’s not all sweetness and light, of course; there are still people involved, and people sometimes make bad decisions in an attempt to modify the facts to suit their creed. The problem is when these people are the actual scientists involved in the generation of the ‘facts’.

As I alluded to a few weeks ago with the publication of our paper in Nature Communications describing the lack of evidence for a climate effect on the continental-scale extinctions of Australia’s megafauna, we have a follow-up paper that has just been published online in Proceedings of the Royal Society B — What caused extinction of the Pleistocene megafauna of Sahul? led by Chris Johnson of the University of Tasmania.

After our paper published earlier this month, this title might seem a bit rhetorical, so I want to highlight some of the reasons why we wrote the review. Read the rest of this entry »

No evidence climate change is to blame for Australian megafauna extinctions

29 01 2016

bw spear throwingLast July I wrote about a Science paper of ours demonstrating that there was a climate-change signal in the overall extinction pattern of megafauna across the Northern Hemisphere between about 50,000 and 10,000 years ago. In that case, it didn’t have anything to do with ice ages (sorry, Blue Sky Studios); rather, it was abrupt warming periods that exacerbated the extinction pulse instigated by human hunting.

Contrary to some appallingly researched media reports, we never claimed that these extinctions arose only from warming, because the evidence is more than clear that humans were the dominant drivers across North America, Europe and northern Asia; we simply demonstrated that warming periods had a role to play too.

A cursory glance at the title of this post without appreciating the complexity of how extinctions happen might lead you to think that we’re all over the shop with the role of climate change. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Instead, we report what the evidence actually says, instead of making up stories to suit our preconceptions.

So it is with great pleasure that I report our new paper just out in Nature Communications, led by my affable French postdoc, Dr Frédérik SaltréClimate change not to blame for late Quaternary megafauna extinctions in Australia.

Of course, it was a huge collaborative effort by a crack team of ecologists, palaeontologists, geochronologists, paleo-climatologists, archaeologists and geneticists. Only by combining the efforts of this diverse and transdisciplinary team could we have hoped to achieve what we did. Read the rest of this entry »

Getting your conservation science to the right people

22 01 2016

argument-cartoon-yellingA perennial lament of nearly every conservation scientist — at least at some point (often later in one’s career) — is that the years of blood, sweat and tears spent to obtain those precious results count for nought in terms of improving real biodiversity conservation.

Conservation scientists often claim, especially in the first and last paragraphs of their papers and research proposals, that by collecting such-and-such data and doing such-and-such analyses they will transform how we manage landscapes and species to the overall betterment of biodiversity. Unfortunately, most of these claims are hollow (or just plain bullshit) because the results are either: (i) never read by people who actually make conservation decisions, (ii) not understood by them even if they read the work, or (iii) never implemented because they are too vague or too unrealistic to translate into a tangible, positive shift in policy.

A depressing state of being, I know.

This isn’t any sort of novel revelation, for we’ve been discussing the divide between policy makers and scientists for donkey’s years. Regardless, the whinges can be summarised succinctly: Read the rest of this entry »

Science is beautiful

10 12 2015

Maybe I’ve had a couple of glasses of champagne; maybe I’ve enjoyed tonight’s meal just a little too much and I am now feeling sated and content; maybe my fleeting, blissful state of mind has precipitated a temporary penchant for the poetic. Just maybe.

It is a rare thing indeed to be content, and so I implore you to indulge me a little tonight because I am in particularly high spirits about my chosen profession. Despite the bullshit of the daily grind (bad reviewsprofiteering of academic publishers, shitty university administration, the constant pressure to beg for money, poor pay, feelings of futility, et cetera ad nauseam), there’s nothing quite as comforting as being aware that science is the only human endeavour that regularly attempts to reduce subjectivity. Being human means that even scientists have all of our weaknesses and limitations of perception, but science allows us to get as close to objectivity as is possible; science is not the pursuit of objectivity per se, but it is the pursuit of subjectivity reduction.

In the face of all posturing, manipulation, deceit, ulterior motives and fanatical beliefs that go on every day, science remains the bedrock of society, and so despite most human beings being ignorant of its1 importance, or actively pursuing its demise, all human beings have benefitted from science. Read the rest of this entry »

Could we colonise another planet to save this one?

27 10 2015

© Auston Habershaw

Let’s do a little thought experiment, shall we? The late, great Douglas Adams wrote about a planet (Golgafrincham) that decided to ship all its undesirables (it was not made clear to them that they were in fact considered ‘undesirable’) to another planet to cut their population by a third. As it turns out, it wasn’t such a great idea.

This idea — shipping people to another planet — is a common theme in the sci-fi genre when there is an impending disaster, such as the planet becoming unsustainable, too many humans over-consuming, or because some great natural calamity is about to occur. Many think Mars is the most likely possible place to get the first sustainable human colony going, but it’s going to be a logistical nightmare to put together even a small colony.

Could moving to a planet like Mars stem the inexorable increase in the human population and save planet Earth? Not likely, and here’s why.

Let’s throw caution to the wind and make some outlandish assumptions just to make this point even stronger.

Read the rest of this entry »

Scientific conspiracies are impossible

9 06 2015

madscientistWe’ve all heard it somewhere before: “It’s all just a big conspiracy and those bloody scientists are just trying to protect their funding sources.”

Whether it’s about climate change, pharmacology, genetically modified organisms or down-to-earth environmentalism, people who don’t want to agree with a particular scientific finding often invoke the conspiracy argument.

There are three main reasons why conspiracies among scientists are impossible. First, most scientists are just not that organised, nor do they have the time to get together to plan such elaborate practical jokes on the public. We can barely keep our own shit together than try to construct a water-tight conspiracy. I’ve never met a scientist who would be capable of doing this, let alone who would want to.

But this doesn’t necessarily prove my claim that it is ‘impossible’. Most importantly, the idea that a conspiracy could form among scientists ignores one of the most fundamental components of scientific progress — dissension; and bloody hell, can we dissent! The scientific approach is one where successive lines of evidence testing hypotheses are eventually amassed into a concept, then perhaps a rule of thumb. Read the rest of this entry »

Twenty tips for writing a research proposal

4 05 2015

Proposal FormatThis post’s title might promise a lot, but it would be disingenuous of me to imply that I could cover all of the essential components of this massive topic in one blog post. Many people (my wife included) have made careers out of teaching people how to write successful grant proposals, so I won’t pretend to be comprehensive and insult their expertise. That said, I’ve been reasonably successful on the grants’ side of the science game, and I’ve assessed a fair few grant proposals in my day, so I think I can offer at least a few pointers. As usual, each person probably has her or his own way of doing things, so there’s unlikely to be a single, winning method. Approaches will also vary by funding agency and country of origin. I am therefore targeting the earlier-career people who have yet to get fully indoctrinated into the funding cycle, with generalities that should apply to most grant proposals.

1. A proposal is not an article, so don’t try to write it as one.

In the huge list of things ‘they never taught you as a student, but need to know to be a successful scientist’, this has got to be one of the biggies. Now I’m mainly talking about science here, but grant proposals cannot and should not follow the standard format of peer-reviewed articles. Articles tend to put an elaborate background up front, a complex description of hypotheses followed by an even more complex description of methods and results. Do not do this for a proposal. A proposal should be viewed more as a ‘pitch’ that hooks the assessor’s attention from the get-go. More on this aspect below.

2. Understand what the funder actually fundsRead the rest of this entry »


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