Applied vs. Pure: it’s all ecology at the end of the day

I’m what other ecologists would call an ‘applied ecologist’. I collect most of my data outdoors in the field, rather than in labs or microcosms. I work predominantly in human-modified landscapes (agroecosystems). My overall research theme (ecosystem services) is considered more relevant to management than theory. And most of my papers have been published in applied and interdisciplinary journals. And, like most applied ecologists, my ability to understand and contribute to theoretical, or ‘pure’, ecology has been questioned by other ecologists.

There are plenty of logical flaws in this argument, so why does it persist? Continue reading

Do scientists need Twitter verification to be credible?

A recent blog post by Andrew Kurjata asks some questions that many people have considered. Why does Twitter’s explanation of the sort of people who can be ‘verified’ not include scientists or knowledge brokers? Are politicians, singers and actors more worthy of public interest than scientists? No, of course they’re not. So why are we putting so much faith in the blue tick in the first place?

When I joined Twitter a few years ago individuals couldn’t ask to be verified. Instead, Twitter would “reach out” to eligible accounts when the time was right. I distinctly remember the words used. How snobby, I thought. The implicit assumption was that “reaching out” would occur when the account was deemed famous enough.

Now, the policy has changed, probably because Twitter employees got sick of spending all day reaching out to famous people on Twitter. Now anyone can ask for a blue tick of approval (but not everyone gets it).

Does this change the distribution of people that get verified? As with most awards and honours, women, minorities, or introverts are less likely to self-nominate for prestige, even if they righteously deserve it. Continue reading

Why repetition is good for science

‘Avoid repetition’. Most scientists had this command drummed into their heads early in their career. Science writing should be devoid of repetitive words and sentences. I had to include a preface in my PhD thesis to warn examiners of impending repetition…because my thesis chapters were published/submitted studies from the same system and with somewhat similar sampling methods.

Sure, thoughtless repetition of words and sentences does not make enjoyable reading in any discipline. But repetition of ideas and concepts is essential to storytelling and building memories. So when it comes to science communication, repetition is key. Continue reading

What the ‘venomous bees’ story tells us about science communication

Last week, most of the mainstream Australian news media reported on a University of Melbourne press release about a new study from researchers in the Department of Pharmacology. The study analysed data from Australian public hospital admissions and death records from venomous bites and stings over the period 2001-2013.

All the media stories sent the same message, launching off the popular international myth that Australia has the most venomous creatures on Earth. Finally, this study had evidence to prove that Australia’s bees and wasps were more deadly than our snakes or spiders!

Native spider-hunting wasp (Pompilidae) dragging a paralysed spider across our dirty floor.
Native Australian spider-hunting wasp (Pompilidae) dragging a paralysed spider across our dirty floor.

Technically, the media stories were accurate, and the data in the study did show such a trend (in simplified terms). But this is another great example of how using the generic term for a whole taxonomic group, e.g. ‘bees’, can be seriously misleading. Continue reading

Informal language isn’t the key to better engagement

A recent editorial in Nature magazine claims that scientific language is becoming more informal. The editorial discusses a new linguistics study, includes a subtle plug for the Active Voice dogma, and ends with the interpretation that modern biologists are now keener to build a connection with their readers, compared to our academic ancestors. Hooray for science communication!

But before we get too carried away, let’s look at the paper and the context.

Lost in translation. The Nature editorial is titled “Scientific language is becoming more informal”. The editorial talks about a linguistics study published in the academic journal English for Specific Purposes by linguists Ken Hyland & Feng Jiang titled “Is academic writing becoming more informal?”. And the author’s actual answer to this question in the first sentence of the Discussion is “it depends”.

The paper is a great read and provides some useful food for thought. But it would be misleading to claim that it provides a convincing argument for informality across all scientific writing. Continue reading

On 7 years of Ecology Blogging

I have been blogging here at Ecology is Not a Dirty Word for 7 years this month! Thank you to everyone who has read and shared my posts over the years!

I remember registering this site, keeping it private and then sitting on it until I decided if it was a good idea. Eventually I gave up deciding and wrote my first post…and I’m glad I did.

Here are a few things I’ve learned about ecology blogging over the years:

What is an Ecology blog? Ecology blogs weren’t really a ‘thing’ when I started, so I had no baseline to work off. And not much has changed, according to a Google trends search for “ecology blogs” vs. “science blogs”. The red line is ‘ecology blogs’ (i.e. no data):

If you ask bloggers and readers, everyone has different opinions on what an ecology blog is. Some ecology blogs are academics writing about doing ecology for their peers; some explain ecological science or application to a general audience; some do both. I prefer audience diversity so I aim for both. But I get far more engagement from non-academic audiences, which I love (see my top posts below). I think it really helps to start blogging with a particular audience in mind, but it’s also okay if that changes over time. Continue reading

Ecosystem services vs. disservices: it’s really not that simple

A key argument against the ecosystem services concept is that it doesn’t account for most of the ecological complexity around us. This is a valid criticism. The ecosystem services concept is based on an idealised economic stock–flow model, which is pretty simplistic and unrealistic when you apply it to a real social-ecological system (i.e. any system based on human and nature interactions).

Identifying a particular ecological process as a ‘service’ because it benefits humans in one time and place overlooks the principles of basic ecology: outcomes of interactions between species and environments change across space and time.

Recently, some scientists have argued that quantifying ecosystem disservices is the best way to account for this complexity. Disservices are essentially the opposite of services, outcomes of natural processes that affect humans negatively, like disease spread, or pest damage to crops.

But this could be just another wild goose chase. Continue reading