Doing the Work, part three.

You may have seen this recent profile of my Ph.D. advisor, Jonathan Losos. If you scan the quotes, most from his former grad students and postdocs, you can tell that many of us like and admire him quite a bit. There’s a line from me in there, but I wrote a lot more for the interview that didn’t make it into the piece, and there are parts I want to share (edited from original quite a bit; thanks Elizabeth Pennisi for asking thought-provoking questions!).

Specifically, I’m writing this post as part of my Doing the Work series (see parts one and two here) because what Jonathan and I learnt in our interactions was how to disagree well about difficult things, which is a key component of shifting academic culture towards equity and justice. None of what I write here is to suggest that Jonathan is perfect in this realm. Far from it. Indeed, the most revealing moments were moments of imperfection, and by talking about them I hope to illustrate that “getting things perfect” is mostly irrelevant for making culture change in academia. I hope that white professors who lead diverse labs and research groups (and all the rest of us too, of course) will use this piece as a way to reflect a bit—honestly, and with a mind and heart oriented towards growth and not self-congratulation—on how you show up for your people.

(What made you decide to join the Losos lab?)

My decision to join the Losos lab was made easy because I had a great feeling about it. Part of this great feeling came from the fact that the lab was racially diverse and included many women scientists. During my visit, I had a pretty frank conversation about racial dynamics in the department with the lab’s grad students, and I was encouraged that there were folks willing to speak openly and honestly.

One thing I remember from when I visited the lab after being offered a place in it gives a nice insight into the kind of person Jonathan is. I visited along with another future grad student, and Jonathan had planned to give us each a copy of his 2009 book on anoles. But I had already bought and read his book, and it would have been silly for him to give me another one. So the next day, just before I left, he coordinated with the grad student we were staying with to come over with a different gift—a stuffed toy anole (you should ask him why he had a box of 50 of these in his office, it’s a great and ridiculous story). He didn’t want me to go home empty handed or feel less valued than the other prospective grad student, and I noticed and really appreciated this gesture of care and consideration (and the other student got their stuffed toy anole when they joined the lab in the fall, I’m pretty sure). I was 95% sure I wanted to join the lab before that, but that sealed the deal.

(What challenges did you, he or the lab face while you were there?)

In the second year of my Ph.D., I started to feel like I wasn’t getting enough guidance. Jonathan was traveling a lot that semester, which probably contributed to it, and I had my qualifying exams coming up, and so was nervous. I remember building up the nerve to have a phone conversation with him in which I told him I needed more advising from him, more concrete advice. He was slightly taken aback, I think. But from our very next meeting, he changed how he showed up to our meetings. He was more present, more proactive. I learned that I could ask him for things I needed, and he would do his best. I think I learnt how to have difficult conversations in a healthy and respectful way from my interactions with Jonathan, which has turned out to be an invaluable life skill.

Another place in which we struggled in the lab was with the culture of our lab meetings. I’m not sure everyone in the lab felt this way, but there was a period in which I found lab meetings to be sort of hostile, and difficult to ask questions in. Not too many of us talked. And there were definitely times when Jonathan was part of the problem, contributing to the creation of hostility. But a bit later, after some turnover in personnel and when Jonathan was on sabbatical, a couple of us who remained made a proactive effort to turn things around, to be friendlier and more relaxed. To Jonathan’s credit, he was completely accepting of this changed culture that he encountered on his return.

I also think the lab faced challenges surrounding creating a welcoming environment for people from different backgrounds. The lab was remarkably diverse for our field, especially for herpetology, especially for a lab headed by a white man at a place like Harvard, which institutionally has, at best, only a surface level commitment to diversity. And we certainly had challenging moments in the lab around this—comments were made that would have been par for the course if the lab were an “old boys’ club” but that weren’t acceptable to many of us. And again, there were certainly moments in which Jonathan was part of the problem.

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Losos Lab Meeting (Losos + Revell labs) in 2016.

Would it have been better if these sorts of comments had never been made, if the culture had been different right from the start? Of course, but that wasn’t the reality. Change can only happen if we first accept the place that we are in. Jonathan and I began having explicit conversations about diversity in the lab in my third year in grad school, and I was so surprised at how he was always open to listening to my views, always open to learning. I came to understand that no matter how much our opinions diverged, no matter how uncomfortable I made him feel, he wouldn’t lose respect for me. To be able to learn how to speak truth to power in this relatively safe, relatively sheltered context was tremendously important to me. And equally, Jonathan was supportive of my activism outside of lab, my public outreach in the form of writing. He never told me, as so many advisors tell their students, to just focus on the science, even when I challenged other powerful people in the department and in the field. He’d sometimes advise me against speaking up in particular contexts, but always also reminded me that, ultimately, I could make my own decisions about how to use my voice. I was confident I wouldn’t face repercussions from him for being true to myself. Being able to reassure students who have come after me of this has, I hope, made a difference to their relationships with Jonathan too, and of course they know they have an ally in me always—in this way, the work is made communal. Jonathan made it a point to mention my activism as an achievement when introducing me publicly at my Ph.D defence, which, I think, speaks volumes.

(How do you feel about your time in that lab?)

 I loved my time in the Losos lab. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t struggle, or even that I was happy in grad school. I faced mental health challenges that were exacerbated by departmental and institutional culture, and by the capitalist culture of academia itself. I have since learnt  that an environment in which people feel safety, connection, and agency is an environment in which they can bring forth their most creative selves (I learnt this from Joyce Dorado at UCSF; I’m in the process of building a mentoring framework that is trauma-informed for my own lab, stay tuned for more!). I am tremendously lucky that I felt safety, connection, and agency in the Losos lab, and it makes me so sad to recognize that the combination of safety, connection, and agency is rare in academic workplaces. I don’t think individual people have the power to change the course of science except insofar as they nurture a scientific community, and it really helps when that community is founded on kindness and generosity, on unconditional respect for one another’s humanity across lines of power, identity, and privilege. There’s quite a bit that I intend to do differently from Jonathan as a PI, but in this way, I hope to emulate him always.

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Jonathan and me at my Ph.D. graduation. You can read about how he made me go to this event here.

A seven-step authorship plan for scientific papers

N.B. This is a do-as-I-say, not a do-as-I-have-done plan. This is the plan I intend to implement explicitly from here on out. I’d love to hear your thoughts and feelings on this! 

  1. At the start of the project, have a list of things that feel like substantive contributions for your project (idea generation, data collection, statistical analysis, context and interpretation, writing, funding, etc). Allow this list to evolve as the project evolves.
  2. Any time you invite anyone to work on any aspect of the project, explain this method of authorship assignation to them.
  3. At the point when you are ready to start WRITING THE PAPER, make a list of everyone who has contributed to the project by seeing which substantive contribution boxes they check.
  4. Anyone who checks two boxes is an author. Offer them the chance to contribute to the writing because they might enjoy it, might learn, and may make your paper better.
  5. To anyone who checks one box, OFFER THEM A CHANCE TO CONTRIBUTE TO THE WRITING. If they take it and do any non-zero amount of work, they’ll have checked two boxes, so make them an author. If they don’t take it or agree but contribute zero work, they’ll understand that they had this opportunity and chose not to take it. You can tailor what it means to “contribute to writing” as appropriate for your constraints but be as clear and as generous as you can.
  6. Get really good at wrangling contradictory comments :p.
  7. Ultimately you are first author, you get to decide what goes in the paper. Embrace that responsibility, deferring to the expert authors for sections where you lack expertise.

On the flip side, sometimes we find ourselves being offered authorship as collaborators and not being entirely sure of whether to accept or not, of whether we’ve done enough work to warrant authorship. A rule-of-thumb that I learnt from Ben de Bivort that works for me also is to ask myself the question: have I done one full day’s worth of work on this project on my own and beyond that which my role asks of me? (e.g. in Ben’s case, he was on my dissertation committee, and chose not to count the time he spent advising me in one-on-one or committee meetings, deduced that he had not spent a full day working on the project outside of those meetings, and therefore declined my offer of authorship).

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Picture of a Cape Glossy Starling because posts without pictures look so sad 😦

What’s Next?

I’m just emerging from what turns out to have been a years-long existential crisis about the work that I do and why I do it. Why did I choose to become a scientist? Why, as a young person, did I seek refuge in the calm, often cold, realm of mathematics and science? What led me to embrace watching animals as a form of healing? After months of feeling and writing through it all, I know the answers to these questions, but those answers are not what this essay is about. This essay is asking, what next?

What’s next is a job as a tenure track assistant professor in animal behavior and behavioral ecology. I have been hired to teach animal behavior (and herpetology!), and to do research on animal behavior, mentor students and researchers studying animal behavior, publish journal articles in the field and otherwise contribute to the scientific and academic community. These goals will guide the day-to-day of my work for the next six years, but I’m coming to realize that these goals are not a purpose. Goals are not an identity. Goals are not the whole of what’s next.

In determining what’s next, I’ve had to ask the bigger questions of who I am when I do this work, and why I do it. Jerry Colonna, an advocate for bringing your whole self to the workplace, writes about work as “an opportunity for a daily realignment of the inner and the outer, a daily do-over of life expressed with integrity.” And it is in contemplating his words that I struggle to make sense of myself as a scientist. Yes, I want to understand the natural world but what does understanding mean, exactly? I know now that understanding nature involves thinking deeply about how and why we think about nature in the ways that we do. Which means thinking about the human condition, about politics and poetry and psychology. It means taking the time to really watch animals and also taking the time to write beautifully about them. It means recognizing that collecting and analyzing and communicating data on animal behavior can be radical, in a way that floors me.

We argue that a question is meaningful if what we do or feel is changed by the answer.

Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin, The Dialectical Biologist.

Animal behavior is radical because it lives so close to the center of us. Understanding how other animals live their lives shows us the littlest and the biggest forces that shape what we do and who we can be. We see ourselves reflected in how animals behave and in how we think about animals behaving. Animal behavior is about action, connection, and context—all of the most complex things. Equally, animal behavior grounds us in a reality outside of ourselves—action, connection, and context other than our own is the clay we mold to make meaning. And so animal behavior is the perfect playground in which to explore how scientists can bring their full selves to their work, with all of the weighty consequences and all the room for delight that that entails. And this, thankfully, feels like purpose to me.

Cicada Emergence

Notes on “Listening Well: The Art of Empathic Understanding” by William R. Miller.

I love this book. I came upon it thanks to a recommendation from a dear friend, someone who is so similar to me in growth trajectory that we joke (but not really) about how they just give me all the advice they give themselves and it is always exactly the thing I need to hear. So when they suggested this book to me, part of me knew I needed to read it. But another part of me was wounded at the suggestion that I wasn’t a good listener already! Thankfully, the book is written for exactly those of us that think this.

The week that I decided to read this book was the week I finally—finally—took an honest-to-goodness break from work, possibly for the first time ever. I don’t mean just that I didn’t work. I mean that I stopped working and also, miraculously, stopped thinking about the work I wasn’t doing. It wasn’t easy getting to this point, but it was necessary. It was a moment of throwing my hands up, because every aspect of plodding along and working, working, working felt unmanageable. Every bit of doing work had been bleeding joy for months, years, and what remained was exhaustion. Stopping felt like the only thing I could do. (Thank a strong union for hard-won paid time off. Stand in solidarity with those of us who don’t yet have that.)

Because work has long been my coping mechanism for dealing with stress, dysfunction, and more, not working has felt like an acknowledgement of all the ways in which I’m healthier now—I no longer need to work to feel okay. But the question remained—what do you do with a coping mechanism that grew in dysfunction but that has been rewarded by the world you live in, those rewards in turn proving necessary (but definitely not sufficient; the rest is privilege) for building the safety and security in which I could heal? When I stopped working, I did not know what the answer would be. How am I going to work when I run out of time off?

Into this void of possibility came “Listening Well.” I found myself well-poised to make the changes the author was suggesting. (Not perfectly! That’s the work of a lifetime. But with consciousness and intention). Moreover, I agreed with the author that learning to listen well is more than just a set of skills worth developing. It changes how I exist in the world. And crucially, it gives the overworked part of my mind a foundation from which to engage with the world again, but healthily this time. It gives my logic part something to do, a calm and stable fixed point to return to as it works to unlearn longstanding patterns of obsession, rumination, and single-mindedness.

Because at the heart of listening well, according to Miller, is both noticing and connecting. It is meditative and communal. It’s about taking risks in engaging with another, where being wrong is beside the point. It is all about vulnerability without self-centeredness. These are all the directions in which I want to grow, as a person.

And so I have no doubt that these practices are going to shift how I am in my relationships (slowly! imperfectly!). I’m loving all the chances I get to practice them, in person within my social-distancing bubble, on the phone, by text. I’ve realized, of course, that I don’t always want to listen well—sometimes, I want to talk about me, lean into weird banter, distract from the conversation because I noticed or remembered something unrelated, or not engage at all. Nevertheless, this book has crystallized something very powerful for me.

And what I’m most excited about is what this practice of listening well could do for my work as a behavioral ecologist and soon-to-be-professor. Many aspects of being an academic— writing, editing, teaching, and mentorship, most obviously—are in no small part about listening well and creating from a place of responsive empathy. But so is the work of science itself—I want to observe the world, read papers, and understand ideas from this same place of generosity and curiosity that “Listening Well” centers. Science is the work of noticing, distilling, and extending ideas a little further, which is exactly the work of listening well. I want the science I do to make the room for both nature and my community of scientists to prolong the conversation.

With this approach as my bedrock, I’m starting to feel excited about getting back to work. I’ll let you know how it goes!

Listening Well

Statement regarding recent retractions.

On January 17 2020, a paper by Kate L. Laskowski, Pierre-Olivier Montiglio, and Jonathan N. Pruitt was retracted for “irregularities in the raw data.” Today, another paper by Kate Laskowski and Jonathan Pruitt has been retracted. In the last two weeks, since learning about these retractions and the reasons underlying them (detailed by Kate Laskowski here), we past students, postdocs, and collaborators* of Jonathan Pruitt have been grappling with this professionally and emotionally fraught situation. We have all been engaged in a close examination of every piece of data we’ve ever been handed by Jonathan Pruitt. We have been working day and night to uncover all irregularities and communicate with the relevant journal editors;  issues that appear similar to those described here have already been identified in several datasets. Many of us have also published papers co-authored with Jonathan Pruitt for which we collected the data ourselves–we stand by the veracity of these data that we have collected ourselves, and the resultant papers. 

We would like to assure the scientific community that we are committed to setting the scientific record straight. This will take time but the right thing will be done. If the data and results of a paper are found to be untrustworthy or un-reproducible, it will be retracted. In the meantime, we ask for your patience and understanding as we navigate the difficult situation that we are now faced with. 

We welcome the entire community to alert us to findings that would help set the scientific record straight by approaching the paper authors directly, so that the situation can be processed through the proper channels at our respective institutions and with the journals.

Respectfully, 

Noa Pinter-Wollman

Nicholas DiRienzo

Colin M. Wright

James L. L. Lichtenstein

Ambika Kamath

*Several co-authors who have been fully engaged in this process are unable to comment publicly at this time. 

#WorldMentalHealthDay

Note: this post was written by an academic peer of mine, and I’m hosting it here anonymously because (1) I agree with it completely and (2) I want these powerful words to exist in a place where they can help others feel some solidarity, as we fight against a system that diminishes our mental health struggles. And if you’re struggling in the here and now, reach out for help and support–it’s so difficult, I know, but trust me, it will be worth it. 

It’s #MentalHealthAwarenessDay. Twitter is abuzz with talk of self-care, and work-life balance. And I’m furious. Because implicit to so many messages that I’ve seen, messages that are ostensibly advocating for mental health, is the idea that if you are suffering, it is YOUR fault. You are not engaging in enough self-care. You are not managing your time well enough. You are not mindful enough. You do not have enough gratitude. And in the case of mental illness – be it major depression, or generalized anxiety, or whatever else may be plaguing one’s mind—this narrative is so, so damaging.

I’m LIVID that in the face of rampant systematic barriers to equity, amid omnipresent stigma, those who are supposed to be advocating for mental health are merely proposing the 2010’s equivalent of “get over it”. Call it “mindfulness”, call it “self-care”, call it whatever you want. If you say that solving a mental health challenge is up to the sufferer alone, you are telling them to “get over it”. Advocating for self care in the absence of calls for systemic change is nothing if not virtue signaling.

You know what people with mental health difficulties need? The systems around us to change. We need things like leave policies that provide time off for dealing with crisis, and for seeing a therapist or a psychiatrist. We need the people we work with to learn how to interact with us, to appreciate the difference between illness and perceived laziness, to know what to do if we need help. We need there to be support for mental health infrastructure, so that we don’t need to wait for months to get an appointment if something is going wrong now. We need to know that coming out as mentally ill won’t destroy our chances of getting a job, or finding a mentor.

Yes, I’m angry. I’m frustrated. I’m sick of being an academic with mental illness surrounded by institutions who think the solution to the mental health crisis is to run another workshop on mindfulness or time management. I’m sick of having my institutions tell me to get over it. I’m resentful that I’m so afraid of the backlash to this paragraph that I’m publishing this anonymously. I should not have to be afraid. But in a world where my suffering is seen as my own fault, I don’t have much choice. Change needs to come from the top down—because I guarantee you, those of us suffering from mental illness are already doing the most we can.

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Impostor Syndrome and a Sense of Self

I’ve been puzzling over this for years—what does it mean to be me, when me is a scientist and also a woman and also Indian? I cannot conform to all of the stereotypes of each of these identities, or the sub-identities they contain—they are, in totality, mutually exclusive. But I also cannot resist all of these stereotypes—that would leave no room to be a person.

I tried, for years, to resist all the stereotypes—don’t be nurturing, be more passionate, you can be a leader, be more of a nerd, be more sexy, you’ll never be a leader, why bother being sexy, be less of a nerd, be less passionate, be more caring…I kept maneuvering myself into smaller and smaller crevices between huge rocks, and suddenly found myself without room to breathe. But when you recognize the impossibility of fitting you—all of you—into such little space, into negative space even, you have no choice but to break the rocks down.

The impossibility I was living in became apparent when I saw women ahead of me on the academic ladder who managed to be their whole selves. They seemed to have fought off the weight of contradictions that I thought their identities must have imposed on them. There had to be a tunnel out from where I was, because these women seemed to exist in sunshine beyond it.

And so I began carving, claiming for myself the parts of my identity as a woman, as Indian, as a scientist, that felt truly mine, picking up so many shards of other identities along the way, some of which fit into the mosaic that is now mine. With the guidance of two therapists, I broke myself down and put myself back together, and still I arrange and rearrange. My sense of self, which had lived earlier in interstitial spaces, moves closer my center and gains strength.

Somewhere along the way, my academic impostor syndrome mostly disappeared. Its departure came on the heels of success-of-sorts, in the form of a paper rejection from a great journal, with thoughtful, considered reviews. Sure, they didn’t want my work, but being taken seriously felt better than I thought it could.

I found that while I enjoyed my newfound confidence, I didn’t know how to talk about it. I was a senior grad student with a postdoc lined up, about to enter the most uncertain phase of academia but also far along enough that junior scientists had started asking me for advice, mostly on being a woman of colour in academia. People like me are meant to be the definition of impostor syndrome. So in talking about my lack of impostor syndrome, suddenly the weight of identity came tumbling back. We are told that feeling like an impostor is what is holding us back, not that we are actually treated like impostors because of how our identities are perceived. We are told constantly that we need to battle impostor syndrome, but then we’re also told that if you don’t suffer at its hands then surely you are clouded by arrogance. This feels an awful lot like being shoved back into an impossibly small crevice, the sort I am working so hard to escape. Now that I know what that escape can feel like, I refuse to climb back in.

As advice goes, my take isn’t particularly useful—do the work of uncovering yourself from within the pile of stereotypes you’re expected to conform to, and maybe your impostor syndrome will disappear along the way. And it’s presumptuous—who on earth am I to say you haven’t discovered your sense of self already? And it’s definitely premature—what if my impostor syndrome comes raging back in a month or year or three? But for now, it feels like the truest thing I can say about a subject that comes up in my conversations with academics again and again and again. As always, I’m writing about it in the hope that perhaps it’ll resonate with a few of you.

I did not like “The Evolution of Beauty”

Richard Prum has written a book in which he claims that female mate choice for arbitrary male traits, “beautiful” traits, is an underappreciated, revolutionary force in evolution. On the face of it, I should love this book. It appears to challenge standard sexual selection narratives, it emphasizes the importance of natural history, it even tries to be feminist! Why, then, do I dislike it? Because it is disingenuous.

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How do you write a book on sexual selection and not even consider the idea that ornaments may signal environmentally-determined condition and not just “good genes”? How do you manage to not cite Doug Emlen? How, as I’ve mentioned before, do you claim that Fisherian runaway selection is “ignored” by biologists and then not discuss research on sensory drive in fish or frogs or lizards? How do you write a book on sexual selection in birds and not even mention Hamilton and Zuk’s classic work on ornamentation and parasite load?  Why, across your whole book, would you not distinguish between claims that are supported by the literature (you know, with a numbered footnote or endnote leading to a reference) and provocative statements pulled from thin air, making the reader repeatedly do the work of flipping to the end of the book to figure out which is which? After all this, how do you expect a reader to believe you when you say things like this:

Aesthetic evolution by mate choice is an idea so dangerous that it had to be laundered out of Darwinism itself in order to preserve the omnipotence of the explanatory power of natural selection.

I wanted to take this book seriously, but if it doesn’t engage with the literature it is seeking to critique, it does not deserve serious engagement. If, by failing to engage with others’ work on organisms that may not be birds, Prum ends up repeatedly reinventing all the wheels of our current understanding of sexual selection, it is not worth our time or effort to discern if he has in fact come up with something new. If, by setting out to prove himself an iconoclast, Prum mischaracterizes all of us who study sexual selection, he gains no credibility. Ironically, even as something of an adaptationist, I actually begrudgingly agreed with one of this book’s central claims–that we’d be better off considering runaway selection as a null model for ornament evolution–long before learning about any of Prum’s work. I don’t know what that says about Prum’s decision to be quite so combative in this book, and quite so dismissive of huge contributions from a large number of his colleagues.

Full disclosure: once this book started talking about feminism, I couldn’t bring myself to go on (I stopped after Chapter 5, a very mixed-bag chapter about Patricia Brennan’s wonderful work on duck sex). However, I made the mistake of skipping to the end, to see this paragraph:

On the other hand, feminists themselves have often expressed discomfort with standards of beauty, sexual aesthetics, and discussions of desire. Beauty has been viewed as a punishing male standard that treats women and girls as sexual objects and persuades women to adopt the same self-destructive standard to judge themselves. Desire has been viewed as another route to fining themselves under the power of men. Yet aesthetic evolutionary theory reminds us that women are not only sexual objects but also sexual subjects with their own desires and the evolved agency to pursue them. Sexual desire and attraction are not just tools of subjugation but individual and collective instruments of social empowerment that can contribute to the expansion of sexual autonomy itself. Normative aesthetic agreement about what is desirable in a mate can be a powerful force to effect cultural change.

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No. We do not need “aesthetic evolutionary theory” to patronizingly inform us women that we have sexual agency. And women’s sexual agency is not going to save the world–men, get your act together and learn about systemic power imbalances.

I firmly believe that how we study sexual selection needs to be shaken up, but Prum’s approach is most definitely not the way. Maybe there’s something profound in here that I’m completely missing. Maybe it’ll hit me in a few weeks or months or years and I’ll come back and finish this book. Until then, I’ll continue to hold in high esteem the women who have been pushing boundaries and asking difficult questions of the evolutionary biology establishment, women like Marlene Zuk and Sarah Blaffer Hrdy and Patricia Gowaty and Patricia Brennan and Holly Dunsworth and Joan Roughgarden and Erika Milam and Zuleyma Tang-Martinez. I recommend you do the same.

How do we know what we know? Sexual selection, in humans and in lizards.

Over the last few months, there’s been a slow-boiling battle underway between Holly Dunsworth and Jerry Coyne about the evolution of sexual dimorphism in humans, surrounding the question of why male and female humans, on average, differ in size. The battlefield ranged from blogposts to twitter to magazine articles. In a nutshell, Coyne argued that “sexual dimorphism for body size (difference between men and women) in humans is most likely explained by sexual selection” because “males compete for females, and greater size and strength give males an advantage.” His whole argument was motivated by this notion that certain Leftists ignore facts about the biology of sex differences because of their ideological fears, and are therefore being unscientific.

Dunsworth’s response to Coyne’s position was that “it’s not that Jerry Coyne’s facts aren’t necessarily facts, or whatever. It’s that this point of view is too simple and is obviously biased toward some stories, ignoring others. And this particular one he shares…has been the same old story for a long long time.” Dunsworth went on to propose, seemingly off the cuff, alternative hypotheses for sexual dimorphism in body size in humans that were focussed not on men but on women, as examples of the kind of hypothesis that is relatively rarely considered or tested in this field.

Though on the surface this battle may seem to be about specific biological facts (Coyne certainly tries to win by treating it that way), in reality this disagreement is, as Dunsworth argues, about the process by which hypotheses are tested and about how knowledge comes into existence. About which hypotheses are considered for testing in the first place. As a result, the two ended up arguing past each other quite a bit.

As I followed this whole exchange, I shook my head at the timing–I had a paper in preparation that was SO RELEVANT to the centre of this debate! That paper is now available as a preprint, so I can try to outline why I think that Dunsworth is right, and Coyne is being short-sighted. My argument has *nothing* to do with humans, however–I don’t know the human sexual selection literature well enough to weigh in on that. Instead, my argument is by analogy with our knowledge of mating systems in Anolis lizards.

Until relatively recently, it’s been widely accepted, on the basis of behavioral studies, that anoles are territorial and polygynous. This description is so prevalent, in scientific as well as popular accounts of these lizards’ biology, that anyone who knows anything about anoles wouldn’t stop to think twice about it.

Following a somewhat circuitous path (which you can hear about at or after my thesis defence on March 28th!), the main project of my Ph.D. ended up being an investigation of exactly this “fact”–are anoles really territorial? Genetic evidence, which has shown evidence for females mating with multiple males as well as complex spatial relationships between mating pairs, led me to wonder if territoriality was a useful description of these lizards’ mating system. And while an important part of my work is empirical, my best sampling was restricted to a single population of a single species. So a complementary and equally important endeavour has been reviewing all of the evidence we have in support of the conclusion that anoles are territorial. And an outcome of this endeavour has been realizing that even things that we *think* are well-supported scientific facts–like territoriality in Anolis–may in reality be based on very little evidence.

I’m not going to rehash the whole argument of the review paper (co-written with my advisor Jonathan Losos) over here. The gist is that the earliest studies concluded that anoles are territorial based on strange and limited data, but the idea caught on. Most subsequent studies, therefore, ended up assuming territoriality implicitly or explicitly. This assumption affected choices made in sampling design, analysis, and interpretation, such that it became unlikely that studies would consider important, or even be able to detect, behaviours that were not quite territorial but were still potentially important for reproduction.

To illustrate what we meant, I am going to excerpt a couple of paragraphs below (edited for out-of-context clarity and to remove examples). In this section,we argued that if studies are designed with the assumption, implicit or explicit, that individuals remain in relatively small, exclusive areas (i.e. they are territorial), then these studies end up being designed such that they will not detect, or won’t consider important, evidence suggesting otherwise:

Because by the 1970’s the consensus seemed to be that anoles are territorial, research at this time was not often designed to explicitly test if these lizards behave territorially, i.e. to show that they stay in the same place and maintain exclusive areas. Specifically, territoriality was an almost foregone conclusion in studies with a limited spatial and temporal extent of sampling.

If the sampling period of a study of social behavior is not long enough, then relatively infrequent but reproductively consequential departures from territorial behavior are unlikely to be detected often enough that they are considered signal and not noise. This includes not only occasional forays away from and returns to a fixed territory, but also shifts in territory location that may take place only a few times per breeding season—neither would be detected by studies with short durations.

Moreover, if a study of social behavior does not sample over a large enough area and a sampled individual disappears from the study site, researchers cannot know if the individual has died or simply moved. Thus, studies with limited sampling areas will be most likely to sample only those individuals who stay in the same place, that is, animals whose behavior appears territorial.

You can read the paper for details and examples of limited sampling, as well as other ways in which research choices were shaped by assumptions of territoriality. But in sum, because of this dependence on territoriality throughout research on anole social behavior, the facts we have come to hold about these lizards’ biology look very different than they may have if biologists had started out with different assumptions, or had clarified what their assumptions were. The upshot is that, at this point, we simply don’t know if anoles are territorial or not–they may well be, but we don’t yet have good evidence for it.

If you read the paper, you may glean that I now think that instead of arguing about whether or not anoles are territorial, it’s more fruitful to ask if territoriality is a useful way to describe behavior. In the case of Anolis, I don’t think it is. Others of course may disagree, and our disagreement could be resolved by testing predictions emerging from territoriality against predictions that do not depend on territoriality. But this would be very different from considering the predictions made by two hypotheses that both reside within a territorial framework. And this, I think, is Dunsworth’s point–which hypotheses we consider and how we decide to test them not only shapes what facts we have the capacity to discover but also depends an awful lot on what we think we already know. What we think we know in turn depends an awful lot on the particular trajectory that a body of research has followed. Consequently, the hypotheses that get tested do not emerge from a vacuum. All hypotheses emerge from assumptions, whether we recognize them or not.

While our paper, by design, deals primarily with assumptions about Anolis territoriality originating within science, it hasn’t escaped my attention that the existing description of these lizards’ social behavior are positively Victorian. This struck me most clearly when I explained my empirical research to non-biologist friends and family. “They sound so old-fashioned!”, I was told, which made me realise that this might well be because the science on which the descriptions are based originated in the social milieu where these now-old-fashioned ideas were a given *. It also hasn’t escaped my attention that most of the research that suggested departures from territorial behavior in Anolis remained unpublished in scientific journals, and that three of the four genetic studies showing female multiple mating were conducted by women scientists. These observations wouldn’t sway anyone who believes that science is 100% objective, and it’s certainly possible that animal behavior could conform precisely to Victorian ideals, but I think the coincidences are at least worth pondering.

In this world where the very concepts of knowledge, facts, and scientific expertise are under dispute, I fully recognize the danger of writing about how science can do an incomplete or even incorrect job of discovering truths about the natural world. But it isn’t doing science any good for us to ignore how our processes of discovery can be blinkered by unwarranted assumptions, assumptions that can originate either inside of science or outside it, from myriad sources of bias that afflict every single one of us. The future of science cannot depend on us pretending that we scientists are infallible.

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*Of course, none of this is new to sociologists or historians of science–check out, as just one of many examples, Erika Milam’s Looking for a Few Good Males ^

Schimel vs. Heard: Comparing Two Guides to Scientific Writing

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This and last fall, I was a teaching assistant for a class taught by Andrew Richardson called Writing Scientific Papers, in which we workshopped papers that graduate students were writing. The textbook that Andrew has used for this class since its inception in 2012 is Josh Schimel’s Writing Science: How to Write Papers That Get Cited and Proposals That Get Funded. But before this year’s class, we both read and really enjoyed Stephen Heard’s recently published The Scientist’s Guide to Writing: How to Write More Easily and Effectively Throughout your Scientific Career.

In a nutshell, the main difference between these two books is captured by their subtitles. While Schimel’s book is shorter, to the point, and very goal-oriented, Heard’s is longer, a bit more meandering, and more process-oriented. I think both books are worth reading if you work in science and write papers or grant proposals, and either could be a good textbook for the sort of class we were teaching. Below, I’ve listed some more comparisons between the two, with the caveat that I last read them back in September, and some points may be retrieved from a fuzzy memory:

  • Neither book is prescriptive, and both recommend following principles over rules. This makes sense for a writing guide, in my opinion, as there are a million ways to write something well.
  • Both books focus, at their core, on story telling. However, this emphasis is stronger and more present throughout Schimel than Heard. Schimel advocates for focussing on the story at every level of writing, from sentence to paragraph to whole paper. I personally find this a bit too much (I’m not sure I believe that every sentence has to tell a full story). However, it lends a coherence to the whole book that translates well into the classroom–whenever we got stuck in critiquing some writing in class, we could move forward by asking “what’s the story here?”
  • The discussion of narrative arcs and funnel- or hourglass-shaped stories (start and end broad, narrow in the middle) is very similar in both books.
  • While both books mix examples and principles, I learnt more from Schimel’s examples and Heard’s principles than the converse. I think this is an important way in which the two books complement one another.
  • In particular, Heard carefully thinks through all possible ways of approaching particular writing challenges. For example, he has a section titled “Three properties of good paragraphs,” in which one subsection titled “Making paragraphs coherent” has a list of seven possible ways in which to organize a paragraph. The whole book is peppered with such examples of comprehensive thought, which I really enjoyed.
  • Heard includes multiple chapters on the writing process, as well as the scientific authoring process. Schimel’s book doesn’t have equivalent chapters. We assigned chapters from Heard as supplemental reading, e.g. the chapters on outlines, tables and figures, and self-revision. With more planning, we would no doubt have added more, e.g. the chapters on coauthorship and review, both from colleagues and peer review.
  • I think this approach of mixing the two books is ideal for the classroom. A course taught entirely off of Heard’s book may become frustrating if students don’t care about the process of writing at all. With just Schimel’s advice, I think you could hate writing but still get the job done. Heard, however, is probably a bit more likely to get you to enjoy writing.
  • Whose advice you like better is going to be a matter of personal preference. I happen to like Heard’s choices and examples a  bit more than Schimel’s, because my style happens to match Heard’s a bit more closely. But again, there are a million ways to write something well, and both of these books are impeccable guides to writing. This is one of those choices where you can’t really go wrong.

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