Tool use in ecology — conservatism & risk-taking

Why and when do ecologists adopt new tools — statistics, editors, workflows, systems, social networks? Obviously there is variation among ecologists — some adopt very early, others but those who adopt early are not only the first to reap the benefits; they also shape how their community uses and views these tools.

I’ve been thinking of this a lot lately, as I returned from the 2013 ESA. At the conference I was making new friends, meeting folks from Twitter, getting enthusiastic about nerdy things — all as per usual — and I tweeted about it:

And then there was controversy, and discussion, in the course of which I was branded <gasp!> a hipster (though not, it should be noted, for the first time:)

Caught Pabst-Handed

the author, at left, with a PBR at a local show. Brasstronaut in fact. You probably haven’t heard of them. Photo by Lewis Kelly

Markdown vs Word — a calmer, quieter Editor War?

Markdown itself has been defended already by better writers than I in these comments. There are lots of places to go to read about markdown. For example, Karthik Ram has several posts devoted to it — of which his “how to ditch Word” was most influential to me (e.g. I modelled my shell script on his).

You know what this reminds me of most? The great Editor War between emacs and Vi. Fellow ecologists — lets try to avoid starting our own, more underwhelming Editor war. Will we start referencing the “Holy Orthodoxy of Word”, or the “Zealous Cult of Markdown” or whatever? Face it, folks: the GNU/Linux community was there well ahead of us, and went way farther than we would.

The “You make me want to throw up” effect

Days after all this was happening, I found this excellent piece by Inger Mewburn. In it she describes the (sometimes scornful) reactions of her colleagues to her blogging. It struck me that a lot of content from that discussion could be copy-and-pasted into this one (maybe with a search&replace to change “blogging” -> “Markdown”):

This is quite true, but I still think the incentive structure is only part of the answer. Reluctance and determined avoidance may have multiple causes. The emotions that surround scholarly work are rarely attended to, but they are complex; ranging from curiosity and excitement to fear and envy and every stop in between. This volatile mix extends into online spaces.

Some of Dr. Mewburn’s colleagues really didn’t like that she was blogging. They thought it was frivolous, a waste of time, ‘unscholarly’. As she points out in the above quotation, the reasons people have for pushing back on a new tool can be really complicated. She compares the reactions she gets to her own feeling about the ‘cool kids’ in high school and, in my favourite quote, asks “have I become the cool kid? Am I witnessing a similar set of complex emotions, but from the other side?”

I was also reminded (HT Ethan White) of the classic TED talk featuring the first follower, that critical individual that turns a movement from an oddity to an event:

Whenever a new tool or technique comes along, we see some ecologists adopt it with zeal, some who eagerly follow the first, and others who hang back, saying “What’s in it for me”, “show me how this will improve my science first” etc. I think a study of how and why scientists adopt new techniques would be fascinating (as has been done already at CERN and I understand at NCEAS as well).

“Use what works for you” & the risks of novelty

One might argue that you can “Use what works for you” — select the tools that fit what your needs are right now. The alternative approach is to take the risk to invest time & effort in a new tool — and find your needs & mindset changing around it. Most of us are somewhere between these two extremes, though I think I’m more a proponent of taking a few risks and gaining the opportunity for serendipity.

You can’t really know, before you start learning a tool, how it is going to affect you, or your workflow. It is a risk, therefore, to adopting any new tool — the earlier, the riskier. You may waste a day, a week — or much more! — learning that technique, with no guarantee it will be useful once you do it. But you are risking something more important than your time: you’re risking your habits, your routine, even your worldview. Because you have no way of knowing, before you learn, how the New Thing is going to change your career.

For example, learning R didn’t just change the way I estimate parameters — it transformed how I collect, organize, and think about data. Learning git didn’t just help me version control my existing projects — it suggested a radical new way of organizing project directories. I’m sure that once I learn Python, Jekyll, SQL or whatever that my outlook will be changed again.

Early adopters determine the way a new tool is used by their community. Take github as an example. Look at Tim Poisot, who is soliciting comments on a preprint via his manuscript’s github issues page. Or look at Daniel Falster, writing an argument for opening up the massive TRY plant trait database and wants to know what you think about it. Is this the future of science? It might be! But if it becomes so it’ll be because these early adopters got up there and started dancing — not because they were using what had always worked for them in the past.

52 thoughts on “Tool use in ecology — conservatism & risk-taking

  1. I don’t think most scientists actually wonder “how will this improve my science” when they’re criticizing something like markdown or github or preprint servers, though they may say those words. They may _want_ to mean that, but by science they actually mean career by which they mean papers for other scientists in expensive journals that look good on their CVs.

    I think many scientsts are a little nervous about new techniques popping up because they’re afraid of losing prestige or falling behind. Academic scientists have a lot invested in a certain system and get really upset when it’s disrupted. Something like markdown can elicit weirdly disproportionate responses because it’s so tied to open science folks. The academy is hard and people are tired and then there are all these folks who seem to have time to learn these shiny new skills that let them play the game by different rules – or maybe even change the game.

    Unfortunately, there are still institutional barriers that often keep “will this help me do science in a way that will speed up or otherwise improve my field?” and “will this help my career as a scientist?” from having the same answer.

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