Did anyone else notice that 2020 was a really weird year?
OK, yes, you probably noticed. Lunatic wannabe despots trying to subvert elections; overwhelmed professors desperately struggling to move entire curricula online on a moment’s notice; idiots insisting that a scrap of cloth covering their mouth and nose is a fundamental infringement on their freedom. It was that kind of a year – thank goodness there’s now light at the end of the tunnel.
But you don’t want to read about that serious stuff, not this week, and not when you’d rather be enjoying that glimpse of the light. So instead: 2020 was weird for blogging, too. I mean, what on earth do you people want?
Perhaps I should explain. I’ve mentioned before that I have no idea which posts here at Scientist Sees Squirrel will strike a chord, and which will slip soundlessly into the ether, read by almost nobody and lamented by fewer. So maybe I should stop being surprised. But in 2020, two posts seized people’s attention – and both were, arguably, trivial. The first was “Court: ‘Spiders are insects.’ Biologists: ‘Say what?’” – a piece about a court case in Alabama that turned on a (surprisingly lucid) legal analysis establishing that, at least for insurance law, spiders are insects. This basically silly post got 15,000 views in three days.* The second was “A new (and unfortunate) record: the longest Latin name” – a piece about the really terrible decision to name a newly discovered soil bacterium Myxococcus llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogochensis. At 6,000 views in the first week, it’s by FAR more popular than anything else I’ve ever posted about scientific naming. And yes, I wrote a book about that – but no, M. llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogochensis isn’t in it.
Some years back I wrote about my most overcited paper. I can now point you, analogously, to my most overread blog posts. I also wrote about my most undercited paper, and that raises an obvious question: if I think people paid too much attention to spiders being insects and bacteria being foolishly named, what do I wish people had paid more attention to? Well, at least for the year 2020, may I suggest these three?
“Pizza dough, knowledge, and the problem of authority” makes what I think is a useful point about the way scientific knowledge is built, and how that turns up in the way we write scientific papers.
“Lessons from a little fish” uses scientific naming to make a point about rejection and persistence, told through the story of a lake-endemic cisco and a 19th-century German novelist. Unlike M. llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogochensis, I think Coregonus fontanae has something positive to teach us.
Got a moment this week? Pick one of those three and give it a read. You’ll be keeping about six other people*** company – but you’ll be reading something that I think actually matters.
I know, in perspective this is all trivial. “People paid more attention to some silly posts than to some posts I like” is so far down the list of 2020’s sins that you can’t even see it from here. But it’s the time of year when every media outlet indulges in some retrospective navel-gazing, and I feel enabled. At least I haven’t inflicted my Spotify 2020 Wrapped on you.****
Thanks for reading Scientist Sees Squirrel in 2020; and may 2021 bring us all something a little better.
© Stephen Heard January 4 2021
Image: Seems to capture the zeitgeist. © Toddst1 via Wikimedia.org CC BY-SA 4.0
*^Partly, I think, because it ended up mysteriously selected by whatever algorithm puts suggested links as tiles in the empty window when you launch a browser or open a new tab. At least, that’s my best theory.
**^Although at the risk of undercutting my own point, some internet judgment-and-piling-on is well deserved. Yes, I’m looking at you, Joseph Epstein and your puerile and moronic take on Dr. Jill Biden’s title.
***^I exaggerate slightly. Each was read a few hundred times. Well, clicked on a few hundred times; I have the distinct feeling some of those clicks may have been instantly regretted.
****^OK, OK, you insisted. In new music, American Aquarium’s Lamentations is absolutely terrific, as is (unexpectedly, for an old fogey like me) Taylor Swift’s Folklore. In older things I’ve discovered, Lauderdale’s Moving On is fantastic, and Nick Cave’s Ghosteen blows me away. Now you know just a little about my strange taste in music.