Monthly Archives: December 2018

Latin names that amuse my inner 9-year-old: Onopordum acanthium

Image: Scotch thistle, Onopordum acanthium via wikimedia.org, © Net-breuer CC BY-SA 3.0.

I have a paper cut-out Nativity scene that comes out every year around Christmas (it’s a childhood tradition that’s stuck with me despite my lack of religious conviction to give it meaning).  There’s a donkey near the manger, of course, and seeing it reminded me I’ve been meaning to mention the wonderful (?) etyomology of the Scotch thistle’s Latin name.  Scotch thistle is native to Europe and western Asia, although it’s become invasive in many dryish places around the world.  And it has a Latin name with a certain je-ne-sais-quoi.

Quite a while back, I wrote about the black-billed thrush, saddled with the quite unfortunate name Turdus ignobilisIt doesn’t quite mean “the ignoble turd”, but my inner 9-year-old would like it if it did.  But Scotch thistle – ah, my inner 9-year-old can go to town. Continue reading

How (as an editor) I choose lists of reviewers

Image: The reviewer-selection screen at one journal I edit for.

Warning: more detail than you may care for. 

Every manuscript submitted to a (peer-reviewed) journal needs reviewers, and it’s the editor’s job to choose appropriate ones.  How does that happen?  Have you wondered? Well, I can’t tell you how it happens in general; but I can tell you how I do it. Continue reading

My most important work is not what I’ve always thought

Image: This mobile, hanging in my office, was given to me by my friend Mary Harris when I got tenure.  It’s driftwood from the Skunk River in Iowa.  I’d just gotten tenure, and it’s made of dead wood – get it?

A rather poorly-executed and very poorly-communicated study made a big splash last week, with the claim that half of all ecologists “drop out” of the field within just 5 years.  The many, many flaws in this way of measuring and communicating people’s career trajectories have been thrashed out in other places, so I’ll just note for the record that by the paper’s critera, I myself have “dropped out” of the field.*  Continue reading

Lemon zest, theory of mind, and the hazards of localized advice

Image: Lemon zest, © Didriks via flickr.com CC BY 2.0

I hate lemon zest.  Yes, that’s trivial; but I’m going to turn it into a point that (I think) matters.

I hated lemon zest even more when I was growing up.  My mother, on the other hand, loved the stuff.  She put it in everything (well, it seemed that way to me), and she was perpetually amazed when I’d sample something new and – after my first nibble – say in an injured tone of voice “Mum, this has lemon zest in it!”.

What mystified me about the lemon zest was the stance my mother was taking.  Continue reading

Becoming a science writer: a musical in three acts (guest post)

This is a guest post by Greg Crowther, of Everett Community College, in Everett, Washington, and it’s the latest installment in my “How I learned to write” series. Image: Greg performing “Have Yourself a Healthy Little Kidney” for the University of Washington Division of Nephrology (2017).

Take it away, Greg:

As a reader of this blog, I’ve enjoyed its guest posts on the development of scientific writing skills (entry 1, entry 2, entry 3).  I’d now like to add my own perspective, but with a twist. The writing I most enjoy doing is musical in nature — so, at the risk of seeming completely self-absorbed, I’m going to sketch out my development as a science songwriter, using seasonally appropriate examples.*

Act 1: Student, aiming for humor (1987-2002) Continue reading

15th century technology and our disdain for “nearly significant”

Image: William Caxton showing his printing press to King Edward IV and Queen Elizabeth (public domain)

It’s a phrase that gets no respect: “nearly significant”.  Horrified tweets, tittering, and all the rest – a remarkably large number of people are convinced that when someone finds P = 0.06 and utters the phrase “nearly significant”, it betrays that person’s complete lack of statistical knowledge.  Or maybe of ethics.  It’s not true, of course.  It’s a perfectly reasonable philosophy to interpret P-values as continuous metrics of evidence* rather than as lines in the sand that are either crossed or not.  But today I’m not concerned with the philosophical justification for the two interpretations of P values – if you want more about that, there’s my older post, or for a broader and much more authoritative treatment, there’s Deborah Mayo’s recent book (well worth reading for this and other reasons).  Instead, I’m going to offer a non-philosophical explanation for how we came to think “nearly significant” is wrongheaded.  I’m going to suggest that it has a lot to do with our continued reliance on a piece of 15th-century technology: the printing press. Continue reading