Monthly Archives: October 2019

The empty bottles in my office

Images: The bottles in question (© S Heard CC BY 4.0); and the video screen that sparked the question (© Alex Smith).

 Warning: might be considered navel-gazing.

If you’ve ever seen my office, you’ll know that it’s a disaster zone.  Piles of books, unruly sheaves of paper, empty binders and full ones, cases and boxes of pinned insects, and sometimes my lunch – all strewn wildly across every horizontal surface. I’ve long since stopped pretending this is a temporary condition (except, of course, for the lunch).  I do still find myself apologizing for it – most recently two weeks ago when I skyped into a class at the University of Guelph to talk with the students about scientific writing.  Turns out they didn’t even notice the heaping mounds of detritus (or at least, they were polite enough to pretend they didn’t); but they were curious about the long row of empty champagne bottles above my bookshelves, just at the top edge of the video frame.  So I explained. Continue reading

Teaching writing through the curriculum

Image: Writing, CC 0

I teach a scientific writing course, and I think I’m doing it wrong.

I don’t mean that I’m teaching my course wrong.  It might not be the course you’d teach, but I’m happy enough with it, and my students seem to be too.  What I mean, I guess, is that we’re doing it wrong, as a department.  That’s because I’m teaching my course to grad students and 4th year (Honours-by-thesis) undergrads – and it’s pretty easy to argue that that’s way too late.

I’ve come to understand that writing is one of the most important things we teach our undergraduates.*  And while I teach scientific writing, I think writing is also one of the most transferable things we teach. Continue reading

Science, social media, and my fear of corporate puppetry

Image: Marionette, © Thomas Quine CC BY 2.0 via

When we do science, we presumably want that science to have both impact and reach.  By “impact”, I mean more than citation counts: I mean that what we’ve done adds to human knowledge and changes how we think about, and interact with, our world.  By “reach”, I mean that the impact happens broadly: not just with the six other people in the world who do research on the same questions and systems I do, but with scientists more broadly, with journalists, with policymakers, and with the general public.

Do I want my science (and my science commentary here at Scientist Sees Squirrel) to have impact and reach?  Of course I do.  It would be rather peculiar to publish science, and write a blog, and hope that nobody ever heard about it or was influenced by it.  So yes, I want my science, and my commentary, to have impact and reach.  But I’m also afraid of that impact and reach.  And while that seems very strange, even to me, I think it’s not uncommon and it distorts our scientific message.  Let me explain. Continue reading

Quotation marks in scientific writing: seemingly simple, yet terribly troublesome

This is a joint post by Scott Ramsay and Steve.  The topic was Scott’s idea, and Scott (mostly) wrote the part about scare quotes.  The boring stuff at the beginning is (mostly) Steve’s.

Photo: scare quotes by Scazon via, CC BY 2.0.

Quotation marks seem, on the face of it, the simplest of the punctuation marks.  Commas are rampantly misused; semicolons drive us to distraction; hyphens, en-dashes, and em-dashes are cryptic to all but the cognoscenti.  But quotation marks?  Nothing to it, right?  Ah, not so fast…

The rarity of direct quotation

The most obvious function of quotation marks is (and hence their name) to mark a direct quotation.  Issues of typography aside*, it’s pretty hard to get that wrong.  Except in one way: should you use a direct quotation?  Continue reading

Three billion lost birds, and what else don’t I know?

Image: Blackpoll warbler (one of the declining species), © Simon Barrette CC BY-SA 3.0 via

You saw the headline (and maybe you read the study): three billion lost birds.  Three billion fewer birds in North America than there were in 1970.  It’s eye-catching, isn’t it?  There are (as is usually true) some reasons to interpret the result with nuance, but that isn’t my point today – Brian McGill has covered that with admirable thoroughness over on Dynamic Ecology. Instead, I’ll dig briefly into what the study told me about my own ignorance. Three billion is the change.  How many birds remain – and could I have answered that question before seeing the study? Continue reading