Tuesday, January 31, 2012

collaborative learning: two sides of a coin

Collaboration is on my mind these days. Ingrid pointed out this article to me, about, among other things, the potential pitfalls of group work. The author, Susan Cain frames this in the presence or importance of introverts, and how negating introverts has a negative effect on the performance of group work. Choice quote from the interview:
"Forty years of research shows that brainstorming in groups is a terrible way to produce creative ideas."
(After I blogged this, I found a similar article were Susan Cain explains it in her own words: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/15/opinion/sunday/the-rise-of-the-new-groupthink.html)

And guess what, serendipity strikes again: I had flagged this recent article in PNAS for a closer look and a potential blog article. It actually explores this tension between individual versus group learning. The outset of the paper is the experimental result that in networks of learners (i.e., collaborators), reducing the speed of information exchange between learners (or network efficiency) actually leads to higher performance of the network as a whole. Or translated into the Cain framework: introverts can be introverts, do not have to adjust to group thinking, and can thus lead to higher performing networks (note: this is not necessarily the 40 years of research that Cain refers to). The mechanism provided in the PNAS article puts this in more scientific terms:
"[T]he explanation is that slowing down the rate at which individuals learn, either from the “organizational code” (3) or from each other (8, 11, 13), forces them to undertake more of their own exploration, which, in turn, reduces the likelihood that the collective will converge prematurely on a suboptimal solution."
The problem with this mechanism is that it is mainly based on computer simulations. The novelty of the article is that they tested it with real, human, players using a large sample size. And they found the opposite results:
  • network efficiency was positively correlated with performance
Average points earned by players in the different networks over rounds (error bars are ±1 SE) in sessions where the peak is found. Graphs with high clustering and long path lengths are shown in dark gray; those with low clustering and low path lengths are shown in light gray.
  • players copied less in more efficient networks
(A) In contrast to theoretical expectations, less efficient networks displayed a higher tendency to copy; hence, they explored less than more efficient networks [numbers and colors (orange is shorter and green is longer) both indicate clustering coefficient]. (B) Probability of finding the peak is not reliably different between efficient and inefficient networks.
These results indicate that in networks with efficient information exchange, individual behaviour (of for instance introverts) is valued, and this individual behaviour helps to increase the performance of the group. Or the apparent contradiction between collaboration and introverts is saved!

This blog post provides some real-world evidence for this. It is a book review of Steven Johnsons's Where good ideas come from. John Batelle extracts this nice figure (which of course appeals to myself as a scientist), illustrating that major ideas arise more frequently in a networked environment:
Johnson's chart of major ideas emerging during the 19th century, categorized by commercial and networked properties

The two sides of the collaboration coin are thus individuality and efficient information exchange.

It is not that simple, of course, but at least it provides a mechanism to for instance increase the efficiency of collaborations in a class room setting:
  • it is important that everyone participates
  • it is important that everyone thinks about the issue by themselves, before sharing it with the group
  • it is important to listen to everyone
  • the flow of information between participants should be as efficient as possible

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Making the story whole again

Ingrid is featured in the At Guelph!  I repeat, Ingrid is featured in the At Guelph! It is not her whole story, of course, but it does provide key aspects of her story.

Sunday, January 22, 2012


There is a time of arriving, and a time of leaving, and the time of leaving has arrived. Thiago and his family is going back to Brazil, after a very successful, productive, and fun 6 month visit. Now I have to find a way to visit Brazil, somehow, sometime. The lab will be a little bit quieter, again.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

"You don't have to be neutral to talk"

Ingrid and I are currently teaching a first year seminar course on "Environmental healing and deep community". Designing the course, let alone actually doing it, has been an eye opener. One of the issues and I always need to have a conversation about, often very long ones, is the notion of "bias". This can have so many different meanings, and it trips me up every time. I started watching this TED video below, since it deals with dialogue and collaboration as a means for conflict resolution. However, I was really struck by something the presenter said:
"You don't have to be neutral to talk."
And then I have to try and reconcile this with one of Tom Nudds more spiffy quotes:
"Science takes part; it doesn't take sides."
How do I get out of this conundrum?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Going down the statistics rabbit hole

It all started with this post:

which led to this post:

which led to this post:

which let to this post:

And finally to this hilarious, submitted, manuscript:

Reading them in this sequence will explain why the author, William M. Briggs, writes things like:
"When supplicants approach us for wisdom about uncertainty, because of our ardent love of computation we have developed the unfortunate habit of insisting first on the memorization of mathematical incantations, such as figuring chi-squares (by hand), or we require students look to up values in obscure tables in the backs of textbooks. In pursuit of our love, we forget why civilians come to us. Even we statisticians can forget why the math is there. Because of this, short shrift is paid to interpretation and to the limitations of the methods, to what it all means, which is all that civilians care about."
or something like this (and this is only on page 4 of the manuscript):
"This state of affairs is odd because frequentist theory tells us that the p-value is as silent as the tomb about the truth of the theory at hand. Yet when a civilian cocks his ear towards a wee p-value, he hears music. Angels sing."
Where is Brian Ripley when you need him? He has the same confidence of mind and writing style to potentially provide a valid counterpoint to the issue brought up by  William Briggs, and watching these 2 alpha males take a go at each other would be very entertaining and informative.

On another note, I wished ecological manuscripts were sometimes as personal in writing style, although I would not know what to do with a similarly written manuscript as an associated editor. I would definitely smile more when reviewing papers, that is for sure. Now we ecologists seem so boring.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Science and uncertainty

I just started teaching Community Ecology with Tom Nudds again, and one of the main themes of this course is exposing students to the importance of uncertainty in science (or Science, if you want). Today another insightful article by John Timmer in Ars Technica appeared, and provides a real-life example of this uncertainty.

It tells the story of Peter Duesburg, a scientist with an impressive academic history:
"He did pioneering work in the characterization of retroviruses (viruses that are transmitted using RNA as a genetic material, but then copied into DNA and inserted into their hosts' genome), helping to show that they could pick up genes from their host that enabled them to induce cancer. That work, extended by others, ultimately led to the oncogene hypothesis, which suggests that cancer is caused by mutations in a limited number of host genes that control cell growth. The work got Duesberg a tenured position at Berkeley and election to the National Academies of Science."
 He also has a history of challenging the status quo. He was co-signer of a lettre in Science that questioned the link between HIV and AIDS. Other co-signers did not have the same scientific credentials:
 "But one signatory is an actuary; another wrote a biography of Duesberg; two are journalists. One of the journalists was the author of the Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, which also criticized the science of climate change and evolution. The biggest surprise was the presence of Phillip Johnson, the Berkeley Law professor who had by this point founded the Discovery Institute and helped develop its wedge strategy, a plan to replace science as it's currently practiced with something he found more theologically palatable."
 The reason for this article was his contribution to another peer-reviewed publication on the potential absence of this link. It provides an interesting read, but the real scientific discussion only starts with this publication. I am pretty sure that this manuscript got rejected by several other publications, and not only the journal Medical Hypotheses. So now it is just waiting for those arguments to form part of the debate to show up in the scientific literature and/or blogosphere.

In the mean time, this controversy can maybe form a starting point for a discussion on the importance of uncertainty in science for undergraduate students?

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Cottenie commandments - illustrated

It's been a long time since I focused on this, but I found some nice illustrations for some of them. The illustrations in this post by Maria Popova reminded my of the 10 Commandments. I looked through the other posters on the original website Advice to Sink in Slowly, and actually found an illustration for every commandment:

1. reveal curiosity/passion
Andy J Miller
2. tell a story
Mathew Isherwood

3. great dream
Lee Basford

4. fun
Dave Bain

5. vulnerability
Rebecca Cobb

6. connection
Simon Vince

7. concept map
Ryan Morgan
8. no usual shtick
Lily Trotter
9. metadata
Ellie Cryer

10. Intuition
Carys Williams

Sugarcoating the poisonous dagger

Philosophers have a way with words. Since they work with the exploration of ideas, describing those ideas in words is essential. I have now collaborated with several philosophers, and I am continuously in awe of their mastery of language. It makes me question everything I write myself, what words I use, why I use them, definitions, meanings, ...
Here is another example in the ecological literature of an exchange between an scientist, Root Gorlick, and a philosopher, Mark Colyvan (and immediately I start thinking whether I should use "scientist", because does this imply that a philosopher is not a scientist, should it be better to use biologist, but then Root Gorlick is also affiliated with Math&Stats, you see the rabbit hole you quickly fall into?). Gorlick tries to define "theory" in the interesting journal Ideasin Ecology and Evolution. Colyvan responds in the same journal, with some sugarcoating ...
 What is theory? Gorelick brings his scientific experience to this question and makes a great deal of progress on trying to distinguish theoretical science from the rest. To philosophers of science, this is gold. Philosophers take such philosophical reflections from scientists very seriously. After all, philosophy of science, as I see it, is in the business of understanding and systematising science as it is practiced. When the opportunity arises to read a thoughtful and clearly articulated account of what a working scientist considers to be the distinguishing features of theoretical science, I for one sit up and take notice. 
... and poisonous dagger stabs.
Modern accounts of scientific theories place less emphasis on the demarcation problem that Popper was interested in and focus more on what a theory is. Here the semantic account currently enjoys widespread (but not unanimous) support. According to this account, a theory is a collection of models (Suppes 1960, Van Fraassen 1980, Suppe 1989, Chakravartty 2001). I would suggest that looking at recent work in philosophy of science on the nature of scientific theories (e.g. Godfrey-Smith 2006) would be a fruitful place to start in answering Gorelick’s question. 
 Translated: "Do your homework on the current literature before writing something. We philosophers had this discussion a long time ago, and we have moved on. We suggest you do to."

This brought a smile to my face, especially since I am probably guilty of this as well.