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.