Ecoloblogy spins off from Virtual Synapse

Upon examining site statistics and user comments on this blog, I’ve noticed two distinct groups of Virtual Synapse readers. One group tends to primarily visit and comment on my ecology/science posts, while the other group appears to be more interested in my posts on topics not closely related to my research.

 Since the blog started, I’ve been trying to come up with a good balance of science and non-science content, but lately I’ve been finding this pressure to balance science and non-science content to be an unnecessary and undesired constraint on blog post topics.

 So in an effort to free myself from this undesired constraint, and to provide a bit more focus for the two distinct groups of readers of this blog, I’ve decided to create a new blog, Ecoloblogy, where I’ll post my ecology/science/academia content from now on.

 I’ve just made a new post on Ecoloblogy, a draft of my teaching philosophy for a job application I’m working on. I’d appreciate any hearing any feedback on what you think of it, and/or how I might be able to improve it. The post can be found here:

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Are we safer, or just over-regulated?

The following is a guest post by David Mudge:

I was about to cross the street the other day in Halifax, NS, when I came to an intersection that always raises my awareness: Coburg Road forks, and most traffic flows to the left –but occasionally a car will swing right, where I was trying to cross. There’s no crosswalk, traffic light, or yield sign at this fork, but there will be.

I don’t know that for sure, but I’m confident some sort of security will be put in place. And bet it will be within days of someone getting hurt.

All over town, we find traffic lights where there were none; stop signs where there was once a steady flow; restrictions and rules where there was once freedom and confidence in the citizen. This kind of “social growth” raises the following questions:

– Installing a traffic light in response to an injury: Isn’t that just too late?

– Does every injury require a response? What happened to plain old “accidents”?

– Are we actually safer now?

– Do rules that are intended to help us cause us to avoid responsibility for ourselves?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for pedestrians’ rights. Crosswalks are important, and we should have more improvements for cyclists at the cost of drivers. But more than that, we should expect a more defensive approach from all parties involved. No amount of lights or signs will allow any of us to put our complete faith in these constructs.

This whole scenario is worth discussing because it reflects society in general. We have more rules, more laws, and more restrictions than we used to. It’s much easier to make something illegal than it is to decriminalize our current offences. We reinforce these changes by our governments, and I’m worried it’s not so much “progress” as it is “over-regulation”.

How much are you concerned about potential over-regulation?
What are some other situations where over-regulation might be a problem?

Leave a comment, we’d love to hear what you think.

David Mudge is a 3rd year law student at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

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The value of education

Lately I’ve been getting increasingly disappointed by how often I hear people talking about how they’re only continuing with their education to help themselves get a better job. I like to think that education has greater value than merely to demonstrate qualification for employment and I worry that the focus on this particular benefit of education (either at the personal or the societal scale) may be impeding our ability to obtain the full value of education.

The overall value of education is a difficult thing to pin down, but my general view is that education (whether it be formal or informal) helps us to be better people. Put slightly differently, education allows us to become more human in any of the characteristics that we identify as being human characteristics, and in doing so, education prevents us from behaving like “sheep”, “parrots”, “animals” or “robots”.

Becoming a better person through formal or informal education requires a certain amount of conscious reflection about the real-world relevance of things being learned and an integration new knowledge into the lens through which we view the world.  This crucial step of reflection and integration may be lost when holding a narrow view of education as a series of tests that must be passed to demonstrate an appropriate knowledge base for a particular type of employment. When we fail to remind ourselves that the goal of education is to become better people, we risk having the value of our education being watered down to whatever value the extra line on our resumes is worth.

Does anyone else worry about this, or is it just me? I’d like to hear what others think about this, so feel free to leave a comment.


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Has Occam’s razor shredded ecology to bits?

At its most basic level, ecology attempts to explain the richness and abundances of species over space and time.

I feel that ecology has been notoriously poor at achieving this goal in most situations. It is not uncommon for fisheries to collapse, for pest control measures to be unsuccessful and for species conservation efforts or re-introductions to fail. Although there are often political and/or economic factors contributing to these failures of applied ecology, poor and/or contradictory ecological predictions frequently also play a role.

Compared to other scientific disciplines, ecology has disappointingly few predictive theories that are both practically useful and broadly applicable. Instead, ecology is highly fragmented and our explanations for the richness and abundances of species over space and time tend to be both taxonomically and geographically specific. The common excuse for this situation is that nature is complex. Few dispute this. However, why should the complexity of nature be an adequate excuse for favouring simple, system-specific explanations of species richness and/or abundance patterns? In practice, this leads to uncertainty when attempting to apply ecological principles to new, previously uninvestigated systems.

Why aren’t we looking for a grand, universal model for predicting species richness or species abundances over space or time? It can’t be possibly be for lack of data. I do suspect that any initial attempts at a universal model for predicting species richness or abundance over space or time would be complex and would also likely have both low predictive capacity and low universality, but I would argue that this is also true for our current system-specific models.

In taking a reductionist view of ecology, we have parsed it out into a multitude of sub-disciplines and found that different things are important predictors of species richness or abundance in different sub-disciplines, and we’ve stopped there. It seems that we’ve lost sight of “understanding the whole” and instead are sprawling out into examining more and more parts from different perspectives. I believe that favouring small-scale simplicity in this way is strongly impeding the unified, integrated progression of the discipline as a whole.

Developing universal models for predicting species richness or abundances over space or time (expressed in terms of information we have the ability to measure) would be a very daunting task. I do, however, think it is sorely needed in order for the highly fragmented field of ecology to provide us with a more complete understanding of our natural world.

“It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.” – Albert Einstein, in “On the Method of Theoretical Physics,” the Herbert Spencer Lecture, Oxford, June 10, 1933.

Or, more simply:

“Everything should be as simple as it can be but not simpler.” – Robert Sessions, in “How a ‘Difficult’ Composer Gets That Way,” The New York Times,  January 8, 1950.

Please feel free to chime in with any ideas of potential starting points for universal ecological models, or with any measurable values that might make important parameters in such models.

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Environmentalism, Psychology, Economics and Christmas shopping

Tomorrow is Black Friday, a day when stores offer big sales to encourage people to spend lots of money Christmas shopping in attempt to ensure a valuable Christmas experience for their loved ones.

Tomorrow is also Buy Nothing Day, a social/environmental movement to reduce overconsumption during the holiday season.

These two events are clearly mutually exclusive and I have to admit that I’m sympathetic to both views. I enjoy the spirit of giving that we normally associate with Christmas but at the same time, I don’t like the level of commercialization that the Christmas season has reached for many people.

I did a bit of digging to see if science might have an answer to this dilemma and here’s what I came up with…

Prospect theory explains how people evaluate gains and losses in real-world situations and has become one of the fundamental concepts in behavioural economics. One component of prospect theory can be summed up in the following graph:

This graph describes how people tend to value relative gains and losses. An interesting thing about this graph is that perceived value is an S – shaped curve, not a line. Larger gains have less impact on increasing our perceived value resulting from the gain. This means we can spend a lot of money on Christmas but it won’t increase the value of our Christmas experience by very much at all compared to spending a little bit of money. The place you want to be on this graph is somewhere in the sliver of white space between the red line and the blue curve, where the perceived value resulting from Christmas gift giving is greater than the dollar value spent on gifts, and this only happens when spending small amounts of money on Christmas gifts.

Another interesting thing about the perceived value vs. relative gain graph is that the curve is steeper for losses than it is for gains. A relative loss will cause a greater reduction in perceived value than the increase in perceived value resulting from a relative gain. This means people tend to be loss averse, and prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. So if you are planning on letting your friends and family know that you are planning on not spending much money on gifts this Christmas, it is important to avoid framing this as a loss. People will tend to react more negatively to a “no gift Christmas” (no gifts sounds like a loss) than they would to the idea of a “buy nothing Christmas” (buy nothing sounds like less of a loss, or maybe even a gain if you like not buying things), and they may react even more positively to the idea of a “community Christmas” (there’s nothing negative at all about spending time with friends and family).

Overall, I don’t see anything wrong with spending a little money on making the Christmas season special for friends and family, even if it’s just money spent on supplies to make homemade gifts. The key thing is to not overspend, psychology and economics say it’s not worth it. Try and keep this in mind on Black Friday.

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Frequentists vs. Bayesians (and a comment about the optimal alpha approach)

Frequentists vs. Bayesians

If the frequentist had used the optimal alpha approach and calculated an optimal alpha for a scenario of unequal prior probabilities of null and alternate hypotheses, he/she would have agreed with the Bayesian.

The optimal alpha approach using unequal relative costs of error would have also resulted in the frequentist agreeing with the Bayesian. The cost of error Type I error (falsely concluding the sun has gone nova) would be $50 because he/she would have lost the bet.  The cost of Type II error (falsely concluding the sun has not gone nova) is negligible because there’s really no advantage to knowing the sun has just exploded since we’d soon all be dead. If Type I errors are more serious than Type II errors, the resulting optimal alpha that minimizes costs of errors would be much smaller than 0.05, leading the frequentist to the conclusion that the sun hasn’t gone nova.

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Treehouse claims it will help me change the world. We’ll see…

Last month I put my name in a draw for one of 5000 free 2-year student scholarships at Treehouse, an online service that offers online web development training courses and support. I just found out today that I was one of the lucky 5000 students that got a scholarship. I don’t really know how many students applied for these, so I may not have actually been that lucky. Nevertheless, I’m happy to have gotten one of these scholarships because a subscription to their content and services normally costs $50/month, so a 2-year free subscription is worth $1200.

The mission statement of Treehouse is “to bring affordable technology education to people everywhere, in order to help them achieve their dreams and change the world.” It seems like they’re doing pretty good at the first half of their mission statement (free is very affordable).  Hopefully they’ll be able to follow through with the second part, and I’m optimistic that they might actually be able to deliver on this too.

Over the last few years, aspects of multiple projects that I’ve been working on have had to be put on the back burner because they involved the development of interactive websites that I currently lack the capacity to develop. Treehouse offers both standardized and customizable training paths for people with different interests and different initial levels of experience, so it looks like I might be able to use this service to fill in the knowledge gaps that are preventing me from continuing progress on my “dream” projects that might someday “change the world.”

This will be my first experience with online training courses. More on this to come once I complete some of the modules…

Please leave a comment if you’ve had any experiences with and/or tips about online learning that might be good for me to know while I’m getting started.

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