Monthly Archives: November 2015

Science fiction, stone plants, and the certainty of improbable things

Image: Lithops stone plant, UNB greenhouse, © Stephen Heard

I love used-book sales. A little while ago I went to one at a local church, where I was amused to find all the science fiction on the children’s table*. I didn’t ask why they’d sorted it there, but I can guess, because I’ve always read a lot of science fiction and I’ve gotten used to it being routinely dismissed as beneath the dignity of serious readers. The knock is frequently that it’s just not believable: methane-breathing aliens, intelligent gas clouds, galactic civilizations, and planet-sized toroidal starships are all so improbable that they’re for childish play, not adult attention.

But I’m a biologist, and that means I know a bit about improbability. Let me tell you, as improbability goes, science fiction has nothing on nature. Continue reading


Good jargon and bad jargon

Image: Word cloud based on selections from Oke, Heard, and Lundholm 2014

I posted last month about the etymology of the life-history term semelparity (it’s more interesting than it sounds), and that got me thinking about jargon.   Our scientific literature has a reputation for being turgid, tedious, and difficult to read. There are many reasons for this (I’ve written about some, and see a recent Atlantic essay here), but our technical terminology is part of it. We use lots of technical words, newly coined words, and long words (and also lots of condensed “words” that serve as shorthand for longer things*). We have allosteric, baryon, disconformity, fractal, metalloid, and on and on and on. I work in part with the gall-forming moth Gnorimoschema gallaesolidiginis. Good grief.

By “technical terminology”, you might think I mean “jargon”, but not quite, and that’s my point today. Continue reading

Is “nearly significant” ridiculous?

Graphic: Parasitoid emergence from aphids on peppers, as a function of soil fertilization. Analysis courtesy of Chandra Moffat (but data revisualized for clarity).

“Every time you say ‘trending towards significance’, a statistician somewhere trips and falls down.” This little joke came to me via Twitter last month. I won’t say who tweeted it, but they aren’t alone: similar swipes are very common. I’ve seen them from reviewers of papers, audiences of conference talks, faculty colleagues in lab meetings, and many others. The butt of the joke is usually someone who executes a statistical test, finds a P value slightly greater than 0.05, and has the temerity to say something about the trend anyway. Sometimes the related sin is declaring a P value much smaller than 0.05 “highly significant”. Either way, it’s a sin of committing statistics with nuance.

Why do people think the joke is funny? Continue reading

Should impact factor matter?

Impact factors* are getting lots of use, and (perhaps as a direct result) it’s fashionable to argue that this use should be abhorred. Some days it seems like the impact factor can join the P value, the lecture, the paywalled journal, and bellbottom jeans in the lineup of innovations widely claimed to be obsolete and, perhaps, to have been bad ideas in the first place. And yet, just last week I was talking with a collaborator about where to send a manuscript, and when she mentioned a journal I didn’t know, my first question was “What’s its impact factor?” So: am I guilty of perpetuating the horror that is the impact factor, or was my question a reasonable one? Continue reading


Two things caught my eye last week that got me thinking about praise. First, I realized I’d been on Twitter for exactly a year; and second, I saw (HT Friday Links at Dynamic Ecology) this commentary on the rarity of “negative” citations in immunology*.

I can draw a connection**. Scientists are encouraged to be skeptical and critical, but in each case I see evidence that we’re often very (surprisingly?) nice to each other. One of my greatest fears joining Twitter was that it would turn out to be one of those cesspools of internet trash-talk. And that does happen (of course), but overall my impression is that science users of Twitter, at least, are phenomenally positive and supportive. People are “excited” to visit each other and “honoured” to give talks, blog posts are “thoughtful”, and collaborators and students are “fantastic” – which can even seem a little cringe-worthily mushy and sycophantic until you get used to it. And the rarity of negative citations? Because we’re told science makes progress by overturning previous results, and because we’re trained to be critical of published papers, and because everyone has a Reviewer #3 story they love to tell, you’d think we’d be tearing each other to shreds at every opportunity. Apparently we don’t. Continue reading

What if we flip the students instead of the classroom?

Image: via Pixabay CC0 1.0

The lecture has had a rough ride lately. It’s widely derided as outmoded and ineffective. It’s held up as unfair to students and as the work of lazy instructors. In the most recent defence of the lecture to make the rounds*, Molly Worthen even withdraws to a corner of the battlefield, willing to concede the uselessness of the lecture in the sciences even as she argues that it has a role to play in the humanities. Instead of lecturing, we’re told, we should be running group discussions, facilitating problem-based learning, asking students to think-pair-share, and (recently in vogue) flipping the classroom. Actually, I think all those things are good ideas. But the dismissal of instructors who give lecture waltzes right past a really important point about students who experience lectures. Continue reading