A dark day

My feelings last night and into this morning include: anger, resentment, sadness, isolation, and existential fear. I doubt this post will be very eloquent or really express my feelings and thoughts well, but I wanted to write something down. Sadly, I am physically far from any of my loved ones today, which only adds to the black mood.

I have two points to make: (1) to remind everyone that the Trump win can’t be easily slotted into a media narrative, and much of the current narrative is wrong, and (2) that I am hoping this moment will be a motivator for myself, and other compassionate people, to leave my enclave of privilege and work harder to positively impact this broken nation and world.

(1) Commentators on the election are describing Trump’s win as a “rebuke to the elites” and a populist victory. We cannot lose sight of the fact that the “popul-” in that particular brand of populism is an incredibly narrowly defined demographic, one that defines huge swaths of the American population as other, as an outgroup to be despised. The implication in calling someone like Trump a populist is that he is appealing to the “real” people rather than minority or niche groups. Needless to say, that is ludicrous. Trump’s success comes from his appeal to a very narrow segment of the population, and we cannot lose sight of that. Not to mention the supreme irony that Trump’s status as an elite and his shameless pandering were seen as genuine by many voters, but Clinton’s less nakedly hypocritical behavior was seen as lying fakery. If anyone thought they were delivering a rebuke to the elites by voting Trump, I have to flatly say they were misguided and wrong.

(2) Speaking from my position as a privileged person, I am pretty insulated from some of the worst potential consequences of the upcoming Trump presidency. At this point, we can only hope that some of the gravest fears and predictions people have made will not come true (though it’s hard to hold out too much hope for healthcare, climate policy, etc.). I want to express my empathy for those I know who aren’t quite so privileged, and hope that things will not change too much for the worse in their lives. I also hope this horrible disaster will be a linchpin that will motivate compassionate people to work harder to make the world the way we want it, rather than relying on electoral politics to do the trick. I reserve the next day or two for moping, but if you see me wallowing in bitterness and cynicism, rather than working to effect change, any time in the next four years, remind me of these words I wrote. Engagement at the local level is what we need now–we’re in this together.

Women in science, and science studies

I know that it is a little bit tone-deaf for a man such as myself to opine on topics like this, but I really would like to express myself and I hope it is not interpreted as mansplaining. I just finished reading an article on The Atlantic, provocatively titled “The Constellations are Sexist.” The article itself was more or less forgettable clickbait, but it raised a number of issues that made me want to formulate my thoughts and respond. The article, linked here, correctly points out misogynistic and sexist aspects of Greek mythology, the historical scientific establishment that excluded and minimized the accomplishments of female astronomers, and the macho culture of space exploration. Unfortunately, it does so in a superficial, flippant way that makes some sweeping claims, claims which were immediately pounced upon by all kinds of trolls, but also more legitimate members of the internet commentariat. With regard to the article itself, there are two main points that I want to bring up: first, my personal experience as a card-carrying member of the (male-dominated, and particularly white-male-dominated) scientific establishment, and second, my opinion on science studies and the humanistic critique of the scientific enterprise.

My personal experience as a scientist: I work as a scientist and collaborate every day with brilliant people—currently most of my collaborators happen to be women. I am grateful to be part of a culture that acknowledges and values contributions from both women and men. I can really only speak specifically about ecologists; I don’t know the situation in the physical sciences that well. It’s too bad that ecologists are not a more racially diverse group, but I hope that will change with time. However, I have personally experienced the darker side of the “collegiality” of academic culture: male scientists who exploit power dynamics, especially over women, for their own gain. Worse yet, supervisors often turned a blind eye to what these men were doing until things got too serious to ignore, and women’s voices often weren’t heard. I would also say that while the machismo culture of ecology is (luckily) not quite to the level of the Mercury astronauts in The Right Stuff, it certainly is something I’ve noticed, especially when it comes to outdoing one another in fieldwork, or even one-upmanship about putting in long hours at the office. So, I certainly have empathy for those who critique the scientific establishment as being harmful to women. In my perspective, things are slowly improving, but a lot of issues still need to be addressed.

However, talking about flaws in the way the scientific establishment treats women and other groups outside of the inner circle of power brings me to another point, the humanistic critique of the enterprise of science. I will issue a disclaimer that I haven’t read most of the primary literature in this field, but lately I have read some about it, and have been thinking about it from the perspective of a scientist. The author of the piece on the sexism of the constellations is very invested in this critique, constantly pointing out in that piece and in other pieces (see her website) that science isn’t necessarily objective, tied up as it is with power dynamics of the society that creates it. (She is especially interested in gender dynamics but that point could easily apply to other types of power dynamic.) I agree with this point, and I would say that a rigid view of science as always shining the harsh light of truth and objectivity upon nature is a false and probably harmful view. After all, who can reasonably deny that science and technology have expedited the gutting and destruction of the environment, and have been a vehicle for capitalists to make off with boatloads of money at the expense of marginalized groups? However, I think the obsession with critiquing the practice of science can go too far. For one thing, it can be, and has been, used as ammunition by people with a vested interest in undermining science, such as evolution and climate change deniers. For another thing, the obsession with critiquing downplays the wonderful accomplishments that women scientists have made and are making. For example, the article about sexism in the constellations only mentioned two female scientists/engineers. One was an 18th-19th-century female astronomer (now largely forgotten, but what casual science fan can name any 18th-century astronomers of any description?). The other was in a derisive footnote that a female “Mission Operations Manager” for NASA is nicknamed “MOM,” which I don’t really think smacks of misogyny. I generally see the validity of the postmodern critique, but when it is delivered in such an echo chamber, stripped of any dialogue with currently practicing scientists, women or men, it’s pretty useless.

I would like to end by saying that I deeply admire the women scientists I know, and that I think my field of ecology, and the sciences in general, would benefit from two things. First, white men need to relinquish some of their grip on the power structure to allow greater diversity in identities and modes of thinking. Second, there does need to be an improved dialogue with the humanities and with science studies. When we step outside our narrow focus and think about the paradigms within which we operate, it can really lead to great insights. As it stands now, a critique of science by the humanities can’t be effective unless scientists both are aware of it and know what can be done to improve the way science is done. That requires positive suggestions in addition to negative criticism. As I’ve said in previous entries on this blog, a little humility, open-mindedness, and compassion (not the most macho of traits) can go a long way!


Midwest livin’

I’ve been living in the Upper Midwest for a total of about a year now, off and on, including a few stints with Mary in South Bend/Mishawaka, Indiana, and now in East Lansing, Michigan. I can’t say I have fully experienced the place, since I’ve mostly made myself scarce by the time winter rolls around. However, I think I have been here long enough to have developed some impression of the character of this area. Of course, Michigan is probably most known for being the buckle of the Rust Belt, with cities blighted by abandoned factories, run-down houses, crumbling infrastructure, and decay. That’s sadly what happens when we hitch our fortunes to globalized capital. Lured by the short-term prosperity it brings, local governments abase themselves before corporations, allowing them to loot the public coffers with tax breaks. But the moment that shareholder profits would be maximized by offshoring all the manufacturing, the capitalists peace out. It is the capitalists’ responsibility and their duty to do that, in this broken system—their responsibility is to their shareholders, and that’s that. However, the government has been way too lax in its responsibility to the citizens who can no longer survive without steady employment, instead vilifying and shaming people who need to use the (dwindling) social safety net. As a government-funded postdoc, I’m pretty insulated from all that, but it is sad to see these forgotten citizens trying to get by when both the “free market” (sarcastic quotes) and the government have screwed them over.



The rail station in Niles, Michigan (built 1892)

While that’s a pretty bleak take on life in the Upper Midwest, I have also really been enjoying living in a different part of the USA than I am familiar with. Even though media and pop culture have been steadily homogenizing this country (linguistically and culturally), it is fun to notice little regional differences. For example, the other day I took the Amtrak train from East Lansing to Niles, Michigan (just across the state line from South Bend), where Mary picked me up. I sat in front of an old farmer couple. As we rolled by the fertile farmlands of southwest Michigan, patches of different truck crops whipped past the window, to me appearing like a green blur. The husband, however, identified each type of vegetable for his wife: “Those’re potatoes.” “Looks like an asparagus patch.” “Huh, that’s a lotta cukes.” “Don’t know what those are, probably green beans.” I was very edified by his descriptions of the different soil types in different parts of the state, with their different glaciation histories leading to different sand and organic matter content. We passed right by the athletic complex of Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo (imagine a very nasal and flat Midwestern accent): “That’s Western Micheegan. Real good haakey team. Great haakey there.” Not something you’d hear much in North Carolina or Tennessee. They showed me the location of their hometown, Lapeer, in the time-honored Michigan method of pointing to its location on the outstretched palm, in this case around the base of the thumb. Call me a silly newbie, but I think that’s cute. When I arrived in Niles and met Mary, I enthused over the historic railroad station and said I wanted to go in and look around. A bystander interjected, “It’s nothing special.” I disagree, as you can see from the picture. And of course, I had to try some Faygo root beer the other day to fully consummate the Michigan experience. That definitely was nothing special, but I would still probably rather drink it than get sprayed by it at an Insane Clown Posse show.

A (possibly futile) plug for civil discourse

I would like to briefly comment on an issue that is causing me a good deal of personal anguish at the moment. Recently, I have seen a lot of posts on social media deriding “progressives” who are threatening to withhold their vote from Hillary Clinton as some sort of protest for what they see as corruption. Of course, the personal vendetta that some people seem to have against Hillary Clinton is misguided and pointless. I have taken up residence in an important swing state for the 2016 election (Michigan)—here it would be especially moronic for a reasonable person to vote for anyone except Hillary Clinton. However, what bothers me about the things I have been seeing on social media is that it is now fashionable to cruelly deride anyone who is uneasy with the constant rightward drift of the Democratic Party as an out-of-touch, privileged elitist who is so insulated from hardship that he or she would not even mind if Donald Trump were elected president to “prove a point.” I agree with this point to some extent, although I am not entirely sure that there’s not some “straw man” element to it.

However, on the other hand, I find it very unsatisfying that the Democratic Party has been relying on the good will of left-wing voters by simply staying a little to the left of the insane, reactionary, regressive, dehumanizing conglomeration that is the Republican Party. Of course all progressives would prefer Hillary Clinton’s Supreme Court nominations to Trump’s, and her appointees to head federal agencies, the list goes on . . . That said, when I vote for Hillary Clinton in a few months, my vote will be accompanied by feelings of sadness that the Democrats don’t fully live up to my ideals when it comes to equal distribution of wealth, reducing corporate influence in all aspects of society, and taking aggressive action to rectify environmental problems. However, those feelings can’t be conveyed in the ballot box and my vote will count the same as a voter who is delivering an enthusiastic mandate for every policy that Hillary Clinton embodies. I would be sad if I were thought of as a privileged elitist for saying this, because my political ideology is motivated by empathy for all people, privileged or not. I wanted to take the opportunity to write this and encourage people to discuss things civilly, avoid exaggeration and misrepresentation of others’ views, and actively seek points of agreement. I’m fully aware that social media doesn’t well reflect the way people interact face to face, and many interactions on social media are like traps that compel people to say the worst thing that pops into their heads. However, I think the only possibility for any part of the progressive agenda to be enacted is for people with different ideologies to cooperate with one another. At least, people who generally agree on most policy points should be able to find some common ground.

If you have read to this point, hopefully you have an opinion on my statement, and I would love for you to share it with me.

Fieldwork and some thoughts on what motivates science

I recently returned from a week or so in Colorado with what I am now calling my “old lab,” a.k.a. the Sanders-Classen lab group. I’m still certainly very much a part of what’s going on in that lab group, but nevertheless it was strange to be deposited back in the midst of the lab dynamic after a couple of months elsewhere. It resembled nothing so much as briefly visiting family and taking a detached, objective look at drama that was once a daily part of your life. An academic lab is like a family, though: while we only jokingly refer to Aimée and Nate as “Mom and Dad,” the German dictionary word for a PhD supervisor is Doktorvater or Doktormutter depending on gender. Of course, the Germans invented that paternalistic, hierarchical relationship. I really enjoyed catching up with the lab and chatting about the projects we have been working on.


An illustrious colleague conducting a field experiment; Almont, Colorado

Being out there and working on our field projects again inspired me to think about my philosophy of science. At the time that I began grad school, I was a convinced experimentalist who believed that the best means of ecological inquiry is to determine the mechanisms underlying patterns in nature using experiments. By manipulating organisms’ environment, we can figure out how they will respond to changing environments, and more importantly, why. While I still think this type of inquiry is extremely important, I am not sure that my personal niche as an ecologist is to carry out these types of experiments. To me, the main benefit of experiments is that you can use them to infer why things happen instead of just looking at the relationships between phenomena. Observational studies can only suggest causal relationships However, I think that ecological field experiments are so prone to artifacts, limitations of scale, and caveats that often their results are little better than a suggestion either. To find a good counterexample to this, you have to refer to one of the few classic and elegant ecological experiments—their rarity attests to the difficulty of getting good inference about mechanism from the complicated, contingent reality of the ecological world. I was reminded of this by reading Bob Paine’s obituary. Paine was an ecologist who conducted a path-breaking experiment that showed how a single keystone species (a predatory starfish) could structure an entire natural system, with consequences for all the organisms and cycles of matter and energy in it. See the original paper here.


Examining the ecosystem consequences of a keystone species, the ant Formica podzolica

While the “Big Data” revolution is totally overhyped, I think that there is some truth to the idea that individual investigators acting on their own curiosity to test a hypothesis, gathering all the data from the ground up, cannot do as much world-changing science as a huge collaborative enterprise in which data are shared and the individual scale is transcended. With the increasing availability of global data that span huge scales of space and time, we really do seem to be entering a new paradigm of scientific inquiry, if we haven’t already entered it a few decades ago. Of course, it is tougher for individual scientists to get individual acclaim and recognition in such a socialistic, top-down system, Too much cooperation, if it overshadows individual achievement, is anathema in the market-driven way science is currently being done. I think that ultimately, that perspective may impede science. The solutions that will drive policy and that will make a positive impact on the problems facing society can only come out of large cooperative enterprises. There is still a place for manipulative experiments within this framework. In fact, the Sanders-Classen lab group is working on an experiment that is exploring the effect of global change and changes to plant species communities, replicated identically across many sites with the help of collaborators around the world. I admit this isn’t perfect, and it still has its problems, but those are the types of experiments that can make a real contribution.

A disclaimer to what I’ve just written: I am speaking from a very early-career perspective, and I still haven’t figured out the best way for me to use my skills and knowledge in a way that will benefit society (which is my ultimate goal). I don’t think my future is in doing fieldwork or in manipulative experiments, but working on them in grad school has taught me a lot and I would not give that experience up. For now, I will just end this by saying that fieldwork makes for much better photo opportunities than me sitting here at my computer desk analyzing data . . . so I’ve provided you, dear readers, with some fun pictures from this past week.


Piloting a drone, the latest and greatest in tools for field data collection


Ground-truthing for the drone flight at Almont


A drone photographing our field site


Field experiment in Maxfield Meadow, Gothic, Colorado


Not fieldwork but a snapshot from a birthday hike I took

A brief, unsolicited opinion

I am dismayed, heartbroken, and saddened at the recent events going on in the world. Part of me feels that it is a little pointless and self-serving to add to the general social media knee-jerk reaction of posting something heartfelt right after a tragedy to solidify my credentials as “someone who cares,” but I also have to express myself somehow. So I decided to just write this on this blog, which very few people will read anyhow.

I want to express grief for the human tragedies that the Black population in the United States have experienced, and continue to experience. This also goes for Muslim and immigrant populations in other parts ofthe world. In a way, it is hypocritical for me, as a White male who is in some way complicit in, and benefits from, the “plunder” (as Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it) of black people by white people in this country. What good is it to complain about inequality when I’m sitting here parked on top of the pinnacle of society, with all the unequal benefits and resources that entails? It’s still important to me that I put this in writing. I don’t want to spend too much time going over the problems in society, or the sad fact that many people, in the USA, Europe and the Middle East, are grappling with these problems by resorting to violent, divisive tribalism.

Instead, I wanted to talk about a conversation my friend Tom and I just had. We were discussing ways that deep-seated problems like inequality and environmental degradation could be solved. We decided that it is pointless to focus on the biggest problems head-on, which would only lead to fatalism. The solution, in my opinion, is first to tackle smaller issues that can work towards the bigger goal piecemeal (this is why people who speak out against microaggressions and small manifestations of privilege are doing the right thing). The other part of the solution is to exploit people’s tendency to want to identify with a group—the trick is to make the group encompass as much of humanity as possible. If the use of social media and smartphones spread around the world in a few years, boosted by the increased social status that users gain, shouldn’t it be possible to enact positive changes in the same way? I would welcome anyone’s opinion on this.

Pies On A Map

Pie charts get a lot of hate. They are often associated with mass-market journalism that intends to obfuscate and trick the reader rather than to accurately convey information. The knock on them is that they make it difficult to compare proportions by not placing them side-by-side and by turning one-dimensional quantities into two-dimensional ones. However, there is one case in which I think pie charts have a place. On maps, if you want to associate a variety of numbers with a single point location, the conveniently circular form of the pie chart lends itself to being centered on the point of interest, more so than a histogram or stacked-bar chart. I wanted to make a map with pie charts at different points to show the land cover proportions of some of the sites in the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON).

Here are a blank state map, the pies, and the two combined together:


Map, including a legend for the pies


The pies plotted individually with no formatting


Pies placed in their proper locations on the map!

Below, I present the R code that I used to make the map, using the ggplot2 , plyr, and grid packages.

# Pies On A Map
# Demonstration script
# By QDR

# Uses NLCD land cover data for different sites in the National Ecological Observatory Network.
# Each site consists of a number of different plots, and each plot has its own land cover classification.
# On a US map, plot a pie chart at the location of each site with the proportion of plots at that site within each land cover class.

# For this demo script, I've hard coded in the color scale, and included the data as a CSV linked from dropbox.

# Custom color scale (taken from the official NLCD legend)
nlcdcolors <- structure(c("#7F7F7F", "#FFB3CC", "#00B200", "#00FFFF", "#006600", "#E5CC99", "#00B2B2", "#FFFF00", "#B2B200", "#80FFCC"), .Names = c("unknown", "cultivatedCrops", "deciduousForest", "emergentHerbaceousWetlands", "evergreenForest", "grasslandHerbaceous", "mixedForest", "pastureHay", "shrubScrub", "woodyWetlands"))

# NLCD data for the NEON plots
nlcdtable_long <- read.csv(file='https://www.dropbox.com/s/x95p4dvoegfspax/demo_nlcdneon.csv?raw=1', row.names=NULL, stringsAsFactors=FALSE)


# Create a blank state map. The geom_tile() is included because it allows a legend for all the pie charts to be printed, although it does not
statemap <- ggplot(nlcdtable_long, aes(decimalLongitude,decimalLatitude,fill=nlcdClass)) +
geom_tile() +
borders('state', fill='beige') + coord_map() +
scale_x_continuous(limits=c(-125,-65), expand=c(0,0), name = 'Longitude') +
scale_y_continuous(limits=c(25, 50), expand=c(0,0), name = 'Latitude') +
scale_fill_manual(values = nlcdcolors, name = 'NLCD Classification')

# Create a list of ggplot objects. Each one is the pie chart for each site with all labels removed.
pies <- dlply(nlcdtable_long, .(siteID), function(z)
ggplot(z, aes(x=factor(1), y=prop_plots, fill=nlcdClass)) +
geom_bar(stat='identity', width=1) +
coord_polar(theta='y') +
scale_fill_manual(values = nlcdcolors) +

# Use the latitude and longitude maxima and minima from the map to calculate the coordinates of each site location on a scale of 0 to 1, within the map panel.
piecoords <- ddply(nlcdtable_long, .(siteID), function(x) with(x, data.frame(
siteID = siteID[1],
x = (decimalLongitude[1]+125)/60,
y = (decimalLatitude[1]-25)/25

# Print the state map.

# Use a function from the grid package to move into the viewport that contains the plot panel, so that we can plot the individual pies in their correct locations on the map.

# Here is the fun part: loop through the pies list. At each iteration, print the ggplot object at the correct location on the viewport. The y coordinate is shifted by half the height of the pie (set at 10% of the height of the map) so that the pie will be centered at the correct coordinate.
for (i in 1:length(pies)) print(pies[[i]], vp=dataViewport(xData=c(-125,-65), yData=c(25,50), clip='off',xscale = c(-125,-65), yscale=c(25,50), x=piecoords$x[i], y=piecoords$y[i]-.06, height=.12, width=.12))

Si quaeris peninsulam amœnam, circumspice

Switching gears to lighter fare . . . the title of this post is the delightfully unique and corny state motto of Michigan. In English, it reads “If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you.” I’ve been in East Lansing for about a month now, and so far things have been relatively pleasant. On my first week working as a postdoc in the forestry department, I helped my labmate do some sampling at a pond near the Kellogg Biological Station in southwestern Michigan. The land used to belong to the famed cereal magnate, who established a health resort nearby, coining the word “sanitarium” in the process. Despite a disturbingly high emphasis on enemas, the rich and famous of the day flocked there until the stock market crash put an end to the business.


The Kellogg Manor

It’s ironic that the Kellogg name is now associated with products like Frosted Flakes that you should probably steer clear of if you care about your health, digestive or otherwise. But Kellogg certainly knew how to build a nice pad for himself, as you can see in the photo I took of his manor. Now, the manor and surrounding land belong to Michigan State and are the site of the Kellogg Biological Station.

We spent a fun afternoon sampling the aquatic vegetation in a pond at a site a few miles down the road from the biological station. The research project involves interactions between damselflies and their prey (the blue insect in the photo below). We floated a PVC quadrat at different locations along a transect at the pond’s edge, estimated the relative abundance of different functional groups of aquatic plants, and collected them for biomass. It was a fun day of participating in fieldwork, though my current position will involve precious little getting out in the field. Mostly, I’m happy about that but spending a beautiful early June day outside in southern Michigan certainly makes you appreciate the “pleasant” side of fieldwork!

Thoughts on the Orlando massacre

This is a little late in coming (13 days after the event, which already seems to be slipping out of the public consciousness), and also my first try at writing up anything resembling an original opinion in blog post format, so I apologize for both those things.

I first heard about the Orlando massacre by word of mouth–I was attending a cousin’s wedding and cut off from news. After catching a couple of fragmentary details here and there, Mary and I decided to willfully ignore the news until the weekend was over. Once the celebratory mood had subsided, I sat and absorbed the awful news. The brutality of the massacre, and the predictable denouement that has followed so many of these events recently in the USA, was not unique, but for some reason felt rawer and more painful than ever.

The rush to dub the assailant a terrorist reminded me of a similar, though much less charged, debate that followed an event that took place when I was a freshman at UNC. To retell the story: One day, a friend and I were walking through a big lunchtime crowd in the “Pit,” a brick courtyard centrally located on campus where there is heavy pedestrian traffic during the day. After passing through the crowd and heading out toward the street, we heard screams from the crowd. At first, I mistook them for cheers that usually heralded the arrival of a UNC basketball player for a photo op. As it turned out, however, someone was driving an SUV through the crowd, flooring the accelerator and trying to hit as many people as he could. Most people leapt out of the way, but some unlucky ones were struck and bodies flew off the hood and into the air. I was 20 or 30 yards away and separated from the main crowd, but I caught a glimpse of the driver’s impassive face just before the car ran over the foot of an older professor who had not been able to escape in time, causing him to crumple to the ground in pain. The driver whipped the SUV around a corner on two wheels and drove off. During those decisive few seconds, I was transfixed with indecision–by the time I realized I should run, the danger was already over. I imagine I would react similarly in a more perilous situation, unfortunately.

Fortunately, no one was killed that day. Later, it turned out that the driver had been an Iranian-American man. Naturally, many people were quick to brand him a terrorist because of his professed anti-American views, despite him not belonging to any type of organization and likely suffering from mental illness. We were extremely lucky to have avoided anything worse–as we later learned, he had flirted with the idea of shooting into the crowd rather than trying to run people over. Imagining the same scene but substituting a semiautomatic rifle for the car makes the “guns don’t kill people” slogan ring hollow.

Learning about the horrible events in Orlando and remembering the incident in Chapel Hill makes me feel sad and worried about the future of humanity (in both senses of the word). I personally feel sometimes that pessimism and cynicism are holding me back from working harder to contribute meaningfully to society, and working to help create the world I want to live in. The events in Orlando, in some sense, have affirmed my pessimistic attitude: the kneejerk xenophobia, the stranglehold that capital and its lobbyists have on discourse (here specifically thinking of gun manufacturers), and of course the marginalization of LGBT people are all on display. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity,” a line we first read in 10th-grade English class, comes to my mind. I hope that after the initial shock and sadness fade, this horrible tragedy will spur me (and others) not to indulge pessimism and negative attitudes but to make positive changes in society.

Evolution, linguistic determinism, and economics

As I mentioned in the post below, this was originally written in early 2014 shortly after the article in question came out. However I wanted to christen this blog with this old content.

A paper by an economist came out recently in the American Economic Review that made some seemingly outlandish claims and got a ton of press. The paper claimed that the way your native language conceptualizes the future tense influences your outlook on the future so strongly that it leaves a detectable signal in country-wide consumption data. Linguists, with tongues somewhat in cheek, have dubbed this “Whorfian economics” after the famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of the early twentieth century that language determines thought by limiting how categories are conceptualized in the mind. In my opinion, the claims made in the paper are not supported by valid evidence, because the models do not account for relatedness among languages and therefore overestimate the variation explained by future tense structure. Here’s why:

Some languages are obligated to mark the future tense with an inflection or particle (for example, English “I will go shopping tomorrow,” Italian “Domani faro’ le spese”). In contrast other languages either have no explicit future tense marker (Mandarin for “I will go shopping tomorrow”) or often simply express future events in the present tense (German “Morgen gehe ich einkaufen”). Languages like English and Italian are classified by Chen as “strong-future” languages, while languages like Mandarin and German are “weak-future” languages. According to Chen’s hypothesis, the “strong-future” distinction between present and future causes speakers to conceptualize the future as more distinct from the present — less tangible and less real. Therefore, they supposedly find concerns about the future less urgent and are less likely to save money. However, the correlation Chen found among future tense type and saving rate was largely driven by a single clade: the Germanic languages. They are all classified by Chen as weak-future, except for English which subsequently evolved an obligatory future marker — the verb-turned-grammatical particle “will.” Additionally, they are spoken in rich, financially conservative nations. Their shared recent common ancestor (about 2500 years ago) and contiguous geographical distribution confound any relationship between tense and saving rate.
Above is a phylogeny I made of the languages in Chen’s dataset, with the saving rate shown by the length of the colored bar (color indicates tense type).