Thursday, April 3, 2014

Has science lost touch with natural history, and other links

A few interesting links, especially about the dangers of when one aspect of science, data analysis, or knowledge receives inordinate focus.

A new article in Bioscience repeats the fear that natural history is losing its place in science, and that natural history's contributions to science have been devalued. "Natural history's place in science and society" makes some good points as to the many contributions that natural history has made to science, and it is fairly clear that natural history is given less and less value within academia. As always though, the issue is finding a ways to value useful natural history contributions (museum and herbarium collections, Genbank contributions, expeditions, citizen science) in a time of limited funds and (over)emphasis on the publication treadmill. Nature offers its take here, as well.

An interesting opinion piece on how the obsession with quantification and statistics can go too far, particularly in the absence of careful interpretation. "Can empiricism go too far?"

And similarly, does Big Data have big problems? Though focused on applications for the social sciences, there are some interesting points about the space between "social scientists who aren’t computationally talented and computer scientists who aren’t social-scientifically talented", and again, the need for careful interpretation. "Big data, big problems?"

Finally, a fascinating suggestion about how communication styles vary globally. Given the global academic society we exist in, it seems like this could come in handy. The Canadian one seems pretty accurate, anyways. "These Diagrams Reveal How To Negotiate With People Around The World." 

6 comments:

Russell Dinnage said...

Don't you mean "Mo' data, mo' problems"? Yeah, not very original, I know (https://www.google.com.au/search?q=mo+data+mo+problems)

Caroline Tucker said...

Ha! I think the "mo' data, mo' problems" people should talk more with the "Big data is the answer to everything!!" people :)

Russell Dinnage said...

I actually think the claims of natural history's death are somewhat exaggerated. I think that it is just less and less being treated as a separate thing than science. The truth is, and I think most biologists intuitively understand this, you cannot do biology without natural history. Natural history will be a byproduct of doing science with a system, whether you like it or not. I did not take a lot of specific "natural history" courses as an undergraduate, but I learned a ton of natural history in every biology course. How could you not? How can you know what the interesting questions are, without it? Also, I think exploratory statistics -- and there is nothing wrong with them -- are just a way of doing natural history in another way. It is just looking for and describing patterns in nature. Isn't this natural history? I think it is true though that pure natural history gets less respect, but that is only because of the way we get publications in high impact journals these days. Proper natural history doesn't have p-values (or in the exploratory statistics case, doesn't need them), and so it doesn't get published. So don't waste your time with that, do the 'real' science, but natural history still gets done, out of necessity, we just don't call it that.

BenK said...

The attack on Big Data should be rephrased as an attack on 'messy data over-interpreted.' The problem is that concessions sometimes are required in quality when generating quantity. On the other hand, the push to squeeze every last conclusion from a very hard won data point also generates difficulties with generalization, meaning and significance.

There is a real phenomena of 'mo data mo problems' that comes when it takes a huge computational effort simply to copy the data set or do simple descriptive statistics (i.e. how many points do we have?). However, this is distinct from the issues of misunderstanding the messiness of the data - frequently using data collected for other purposes (or no purpose at all) with no controls.

Jeremy Fox said...

Related to the decline of natural history:

http://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2014/01/28/stats-vs-scouts-polls-vs-pundits-and-ecology-vs-natural-history/

Yes, natural history is de-emphasized compared to what used to be the case. But whether that's a bad thing *on balance* is far from clear...

Hans Castorp said...

It is true that natural history has not p-values and is not published. But that doesn't mean that it cannot have p-value. the truth is that nobody has developed proper statistical tools specifically fitted to natural history. I think that the reward would be immense.