Ecology: the most important science of our times

12 07 2013

rocket-scienceThe title of this post is deliberately intended to be provocative, but stay with me – I do have an important point to make.

I’m sure most every scientist in almost any discipline feels that her or his particular knowledge quest is “the most important”. Admittedly, there are some branches of science that are more applied than others – I have yet to be convinced, for example, that string theory has an immediate human application, whereas medical science certainly does provide answers to useful questions regarding human health. But the passion for one’s own particular science discipline likely engenders a sort of tunnel vision about its intrinsic importance.

So it comes down to how one defines ‘important’. I’m not advocating in any way that application or practicality should be the only yardstick to ascertain importance. I think superficially impractical, ‘blue-skies’ theoretical endeavours are essential precursors to all so-called applied sciences. I’ll even go so far as to say that there is fundamentally no such thing as a completely unapplied science discipline or question. As I’ve said many times before, ‘science’ is a brick wall of evidence, where individual studies increase the strength of the wall to a point where we can call it a ‘theory’. Occasionally a study comes along and smashes the wall (paradigm shift), at which point we begin to build a new one. Read the rest of this entry »





Learning how to fail

6 06 2013

On the way to work yesterday I was listening to ABC Radio National‘s Life Matters program hosted by Natasha Mitchell about how school children are now apparently being given so much positive praise and encouragement that they can no longer handle failure. Poor, wee dears. Maybe that’s why we have such a high attrition rate once they get up to postgraduate level, because that’s when they REALLY experience failure.

Jokes and whinges aside, there is a hard truth in that message that applies to all scientists, and especially the early-career ones. I’m talking about having your paper rejected from a journal.

Even the terms we use to describe the peer-review gauntlet appear designed to instil fear and inadequacy: reject or accept. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen a PhD student’s face figuratively melt off the skull as they shuffle into my office to show me the journal’s rejection letter (now just usually forwarded in an email accompanied by implied stooped shoulders – is there an emoticon for that?). As I’ve mentioned before, we scientists can be real bastards to each other, and it comes out in spades during peer review.

While neophytes tend to take these hits the hardest, I want to impart a little wisdom from some of my very well-established and successful colleagues. Rejection should be viewed as an asset, not a mark of failure. Let me explain. Read the rest of this entry »





Why every scientist needs an online profile

31 01 2013
hide

Don’t be guilty of this.

It astounds me every time I hear about a scientist who is reluctant to place her or his track record on the internet. Now, I may be a little over-the-top when it comes to my own web-presence (some have labelled me a ‘media tart’, but I don’t mind), but I am convinced that without a strong, regularly updated web presence, you’re doing yourself a horrible disservice.

Let’s go through the regularly raised objections that some academics make for avoiding the investment in a strong web presence:

  1. My employer will get angry
  2. My track record isn’t good enough (i.e., I’m embarrassed)
  3. What I do is no one else’s business
  4. I couldn’t be bothered; it’s too much work
  5. No one reads it anyway

While there might be some truth to items 1 & 2 (although the justification is weak or often plainly untrue), the last three are pure bullshit.

Let’s start by analysing the bullshit (rolls up sleeves, starts digging…).

Read the rest of this entry »





Rocking the scientific boat

14 12 2012
© C. Simpson

© C. Simpson

One thing that has simultaneously amused, disheartened, angered and outraged me over the past decade or so is how anyone in their right mind could even suggest that scientists band together into some sort of conspiracy to dupe the masses. While this tired accusation is most commonly made about climate scientists, it applies across nearly every facet of the environmental sciences whenever someone doesn’t like what one of us says.

First, it is essential to recognise that we’re just not that organised. While I have yet to forget to wear my trousers to work (I’m inclined to think that it will happen eventually), I’m still far, far away from anything that could be described as ‘efficient’ and ‘organised’. I can barely keep it together as it is. Such is the life of the academic.

More importantly, the idea that a conspiracy could form among scientists ignores one of the most fundamental components of scientific progress – dissension. And hell, can we dissent!

Yes, the scientific approach is one where successive lines of evidence testing hypotheses are eventually amassed into a concept, then perhaps a rule of thumb. If the rule of thumb stands against the scrutiny of countless studies (i.e., ‘challenges’ in the form of poison-tipped, flaming literary arrows), then it might eventually become a ‘theory’. Some theories even make it to become the hallowed ‘law’, but that is very rare indeed. In the environmental sciences (I’m including ecology here), one could argue that there is no such thing as a ‘law’.

Well-informed non-scientists might understand, or at least, appreciate that process. But few people outside the sciences have even the remotest clue about what a real pack of bastards we can be to each other. Use any cliché or descriptor you want – it applies: dog-eat-dog, survival of the fittest, jugular-slicing ninjas, or brain-eating zombies in lab coats.

Read the rest of this entry »








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