Thursday, August 11, 2011


As I recently noticed, the majority of my posts here are unconsciously driven by the courses that I am preparing. The couple of posts on natural history and science are basically an illustration to my field course that I will be teaching next week (hopefully I will get some time to blog from the field). And in the fall, I will be teaching a grad stats course for the first time. As a transition between these two courses, here is a recent discovery: the blog "Datatelling", where the author defines herself as datateller: "explorer of data, a creator of information, a person who loves to look at numbers".

Here is an example of her latest post on Wind Flow:

Wind Flow from Jen Lowe on Vimeo.

Interestingly, there seems to be a concurrent debate in these circles between data tellers and statisticians. And don't we love a good discussion with pointed arguments? Here are two starting points (for me, not aware at all with this debate):

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Marina's Vanier Award

It is finally official, Marina's Vanier Award has been made public, and I can finally boast about it. 1 out of the top 167 PhD students across natural, social, and medical sciences at the Canadian level is very impressive. Congratulations, Marina.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Trying to read an article...

Karl recently cited this PNAS article in his blog post about the link between environment and society. I started reading it but could not get past the third sentence in the abstract; just those three sentences gave me plenty to think about.

Sentence 1: "...the human condition is tightly linked to environmental condition."
  • I absolutely agree!
  • E.g. The Forsaken Garden by Nancy Ryley - I just started reading this book, about a CBC documentary filmmaker who got struck with "environmental illness" in the 70's at the height of her career. She eventually had to move from Toronto to the mountains in Western Canada to escape the environmental contaminants that made her sick. During her recovery process, she got deep into environmental issues and environmental philosophy, and started seeing her own illness as a reflection of "the soul-sickness of the planet"
  • Lots of other examples that back up the old adage "We are what we eat (and drink, and breathe, ...)"
  • Beyond the individual human condition, is the collective human condition. Lots of examples and ideas in the fields of ecofeminism and environmental justice that examine this link, between human populations and the environment
Sentence 2: "...conservation and development projects should be able to achieve both ecological and social progress without detracting from their primary objectives."
  • I agree with the underlying sentiment (that the wellbeing of humans and other-than-human can go hand-in-hand), but I think buried in some of these words ("development" and "social progress") are assumptions that need to be unpacked
  • "Development" - I have a couple of friends with undergraduate degrees in International Development, and from conversations with them, I have begun to see the problem with this term. "Development" implies that there is a course of growth that countries are supposed to follow--that "underdeveloped" or "developing" nations are sub-par, and that they need to improve and change to reach the "developed" standard (i.e. us). It implies that they have not reached that standard yet, and we can help them reach it. While it is true that we have easy access to basic necessities and abundant luxuries and they don't, and we should be equalizing the distribution of resources and power, what messages do we perpetuate when we operate with the mindframe that we are developed, and they are not? I think we need to critically examine the positionality and assumptions underpinning the term "development", as well as the nature of the development projects themselves. To paraphrase one friend: "Development" assumes that we have a lot to teach them, to develop them, when really, we could do well to stop and listen and learn from them
  • "Social progress" - what does this mean? When I read this sentence, I gather that social progress is an outcome of development projects. So, the assumption here is that developed nations are socially more progressive than developing nations. While this may be true in some important ways (democracy, freedom of speech, etc.), it may also be false in other important ways (the way we treat our elders, our bodies, view death, etc.). Those are just some examples, and I'm not saying that "developing" nations do those things perfectly--actually, I have no idea, probably some do it better than others--but I am saying that it is dangerous to assume that the "developed" society is the more mature, or in better condition, or more conducive to human well-being, than the "less developed" society
  • I am sure that these words are used with the best of intentions--I believe that most people who use these words have the genuine desire and compassion to change the inequalities that exist. But we need to use them critically. The glaring assumption I see in this text is: we have it better than they do, and we have to help them progress into us. While this is true in basic ways (we have clean water, food, shelter, rights, etc. and it is not fair that they don't and we should work to make things fair), it is an attitude that can lead to a kind of arrogance and perpetuation of the power difference that caused the inequality in the first place. What does it mean to "help the less fortunate"? Though used with well meaning, what preconceptions and assumptions are carried by that phrase? Is there a better way to talk about the injustices that exist, and the genuine efforts to reveal and dissolve them?
Sentence 3: "Whereas 'win-win' projects that achieve both conservation and economic gains are a commendable goal, they are not easy to attain."
  • I recognize that abstracts don't tell the whole story; many abstracts are constrained by word limits and hence stripped of nuance. But how did "win-win" between the human condition and environmental condition (from the 1st sentence) suddenly become "win-win" between conservation and economic gains? Specifically, how did the human condition (from the 1st sentence) become equated with development and social progress (2nd sentence), and finally with economic gains (3rd sentence)?
  • It may well be that monetary stability is an important component of human well-being, but aren't there other priorities too? Happiness, good relationships, a sense of belonging, a sense of self, to name a few...
  • Maybe in some cases it is appropriate to use monetary wealth as a measure of human well-being, but this proxy should not be used a priori. What messages are perpetuated when we do so? What kind of citizenry is produced when we continue to automatically and unquestioningly equate "economic gain" with "the human condition"?
Well now that I've got this out, maybe I can proceed to Sentence 4...

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Three words, a world of difference

I am teaching a field course in Algonquin this summer, and I "stress", i.e. grade, two components of field work during this course: a group science project, and an individual natural history project. So the distinction (and similarities) between qualitative and quantitative are on the forefront of mind. This if, of course, compounded by Ingrid who will bring the qualitative approach into the hypothetico-deductive, quantitative, bastion that Integrative Biology is, after years of being exposed to Tom Nudds's beating the bush ;-)

I recently wrote about a discussion with Ingrid on this subject, and I ended with the question:
"So now I have these two pieces of information dealing with the same issue, one qualitative, on quantitative. Which one is the most memorable, most true, most relevant?"
Since I have no background at all in the study of this distinction between quantitative and qualitative evidence, I am slowly re-discovering the literature on this subject, in my own, rather passively, Google Reader driven, way. There is probably some great literature on this, both quantitative and qualitative, but given my personal preferences, this article that recently appeared in PNAS (Motivating voter turnout by invoking the self by Bryan et al.), has a clue to answering one of these three questions. In a real experiment, they asked potential voters how importing voting is for them, but with two experimental conditions:
"In each experiment, participants completed one of two versions of a brief survey. In one version, a short series of questions referred to voting using a self-relevant noun (e.g., “How important is it to you to be a voter in the upcoming election?”); in the other, questions that were otherwise identical referred to voting using a verb (e.g., “How important is it to you to vote in the upcoming election?”)."
Based on previous research:
"So we hypothesized that using a predicate noun (e.g., “to be a voter”) as opposed to a verb (e.g., “to vote”) to refer to participation in an upcoming election would create a greater interest in and likelihood of performing that behavior—registering to vote and voting. If this hypothesis were confirmed, it would be evidence for the more general theoretical idea that simply framing a future behavior as a way to claim a desired identity can motivate that behavior."
 This simple difference in three words ("to be voter" versus "to vote") increased the actual, measured, voting by more than 10%! Now if we combine this amazing result with an assumption that it is easier for somebody to self-identify with a story about somebody else versus a graph or a statistic, I think that the starting hypothesis to the question "Which one is the most memorable?", is the qualitative piece of information. Whether this makes it also more true, and consequently more relevant, is still a completely different matter.

The results of this study also have other implications, though. One of the basic tenets in course design are learning objectives (see for instance this document from the University of Guelph). I advocates SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely) verbs. The document already stresses the importance of writing them from the student's perspective, which makes it easier for the students to self-identify with them, but how about a study that randomly divides a class in two, and one half of the students get the learning objectives with action verbs, the other half with action nouns. Would this also result in a 10% increase in learner outcomes?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Google Scholar profile

Nature has a news article on 2 free alternatives to Web of Science, including your personal citation library. Another example of serendipity, because I created one a couple of days before the nature publication, and planned to wanted to dedicate a short blog to it, i.e., this one. 

  • For reference, here is screen capture of the "official" Web of Science summary:
Very similar, if you ask me, although the Google Scholar obviously includes more items. For instance, conference abstracts are included, and also the individual chapters of my PhD thesis! My past will haunt me forever.


Since I started reading a lot of long-form articles on the internet, I have been exposed to a lot of great ideas, and great writing. The latest is an article by Steven Shapin in the London Review of Books, The Darwin Show. He synthesized 14 (fourteen!) books that appeared around the celebration of his 200th birthday in 2009. In it, he explores a lot of interesting themes, and one of the main ones revolves around why this is such a big deal. Summarizing his synthesis would do injustice to his tour-de-force, but I want to focus on one argument Shapin makes, and this is related to the distinction people normally make between natural history and scientific method, artists versus scientists, qualitative versus quantitative:
"Artists create; scientists discover. That’s our usual understanding of the thing, and scientists – together with some of their philosophical allies – have been in the van of insisting so. (That’s one way in which ‘relativism’ and ‘social constructivism’ are commonly opposed.) If science is discovery and not invention, then it follows that discoverers’ relation to what they reveal is different in both intellectual texture and moral resonance from Mozart’s relation to his operas, Shakespeare’s to his plays, and even Bush’s to his wars. You couldn’t say of Figaro or Lear or the Iraq war that they were waiting there to be ‘discovered’. ‘Something of that sort’ may well have come into being, but an example of ‘something like’ Figaro is Salieri’s Axur, Re d’Ormus or even Abba’s ‘Waterloo’. "
 Shapin argues that this is only true to a certain extent:
"You can still say, with perfect accuracy, that the Origin is much more than its ‘essential’ theory of natural selection: it is a book, a magnificent theatre of persuasion, ‘one long argument’ (as Darwin called it), supported by masses of arduously compiled evidence, ingeniously organised and vouched for by a special individual, with known special virtues and capacities. [...] Wallace himself was well aware that it was one thing to come up with a theory but a much greater thing to make it credible: he thought of himself as a mere ‘guerrilla chief’ of evolution while Darwin was ‘the great general’, mapping out the grand literary and political strategy to make natural selection stick in the culture."
 No matter what we "discover", we also always have to present this discovery, and this aspect is also creative, and one of the the reasons why we celebrate Darwin and not Wallace. This "presentation" or "creation" has several important consequences, though. The article looks at some personality influences on his theoretical exploration of evolution and the writing of his books, and also on how his ideas have been used in very different contexts to further agendas of scientists and social movements (maybe something that Ingrid will explore to a certain extent in her PhD work).

One other consequence of this presentation of discovery is that it shapes, implicitly or explicitly, the discoveries we are trying to make. Take for instance our "new" definition of rareness of a species in a community.

Another example of how presentation can shape a discovery is the discussion I am having with Ingrid on a figure that can form the basis of some of her PhD ideas. Ingrid started it by presenting this figure (details are not important, yet):

I transformed it because I think there is not enough structure in the figure: the actors (bubbles) are differentiated from each other, the influences (arrows) are different depending on the actors they connect, and there is not a real focal point. So I transformed it into this:
Ingrid's main problems with this presentation are the hierarchical nature, focusing on the differences and not the similarities, elimination of certain influences. Our discussion than drifted to feminism versus patriarchal dominance structures, which are always fun discussions to have. But the main point is that these two presentation are related to the same "discovery", but have very different meanings to the creator and to the reader. You could argue that me shoehorning Ingrid's general picture into a specific structure will prevent me from finding potentially key influences, I can argue that Ingrid's general picture does not provide the reader an explicit guide through her thinking. 

The importance is not who is correct, but 1) finding arguments to justify a presentation, and 2) to be very aware of the consequences (advantages and limitations) of a certain presentation, as is illustrated by the synthesis of Shapin and our new definition of rareness.

ps: we finally solved Ingrid's problem with my hierarchical concept map by ... making the concept go from left to right instead of bottom to top! Little things make a hugh difference.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Athena, the nerd god.

Robin Sloan wrote a beautiful short story (The truth about the east wind), with a very interesting format. It looks at the tension between religion and science, from a Greek tragedy perspective (you should really read it).
"Zeus formed it into a girl and set her free to walk the earth. This was Athena. Pure curiosity. The spark made flesh. 
From the day she was formed, Athena was an omnivorous observer, a kind of super Galileo/Darwin long before either was born. She made measurements and formed hypotheses. She classified plants and bent down to watch bugs up close. She counted the seconds between her father’s lightning strikes and the thunder that followed
.Zeus had formed her well: her eyes were like microscopes, her feet like seismographs. She could taste numbers (even, sweet; odd, sour; prime, umami). She could smell questions. She could hear gravity.
Athena was the nerd god."
Eurus, the East Wind ("He became a mercenary hunter-killer, serving man and god alike. He was the original smart bomb. He was the invisible hand. He was the dagger that came down the chimney. He was the plague a la carte."), tries to kill her, but she escapes because of her scientific knowledge. She ultimately disappears, but is she completely gone? Read the rest of the story, and do not forget that it is our job to blow like the wind!