Monday, May 20, 2024

On the joy of field work–and lab work

EcologyOn the joy of field work–and lab work

Chris Mantegna has a nice piece in Nature on the joys of field work, and the importance giving students from historically underrepresented groups opportunities to experience field work themselves. The piece resonates with the growing literature on positive field experiences as key to attracting and retaining students from historically underrepresented groups into ecology (e.g., Race et al. 2021, Armstrong et al. 2007, Bingham & Torres 2008; note that “positive” is a key word there, because without that it’s possible for field experiences to function as a barrier rather than a gateway, see Bowser & Cid 2021, Morales et al. 2020, Woods et al. 2023) (update Apr. 25, 2024: citations updated to remove a miscitation, and add additional citations).

At the risk of not doing justice to the entire piece, I wanted to talk about one small bit of it from early on in the piece. It’s a bit that I disagreed with when I first read it. But then I read on and discovered that, taken in the context of the whole piece, I don’t actually disagree with it after all (at least, not enough to be worth talking about). I’ve seen versions of this bit expressed many times in other pieces by other ecologists that I do disagree with. So I’ll quote the bit, talk about why I (thought I) disagreed with it, and then talk about why it turns out that I don’t disagree.

Here’s the bit in question:

The more time we spend analysing at the bench, not the beach, the less connected we are to the ecosystems we are trying to protect. In an age of data abundance, I urge myself and other ecologists not to lose touch with the joy of the field.

As I said, I’ve read many pieces by ecologists expressing this sort of worry. Personally, I disagree with it. I don’t worry that eDNA and other technological advances mean that ecology will involve less fieldwork in future, or that ecologists will lose their deep sense of personal connection to threatened ecosystems. I don’t share this worry for a couple of reasons. First, because there are other ways to build a sense of connection to a place besides physical presence in that place. (Sociologist Kieran Healy has a lovely piece making this point.) Second, because some field ecologists have had the same worry for decades, and yet field ecology keeps going strong. The only thing that changes isn’t the worry that we’re losing field ecology, it’s the technology that prompts the worry. Back in the 1960s and ’70s, there were ecologists who saw computers as a threat to field work in ecology (Gay 2013, if memory serves; I don’t have the book handy to check the reference). Steve Carpenter had the same worry back in 1996, except the technology he was worried was going to replace field ecology with the siren song of lab work wasn’t computers or eDNA, it was microcosms. In 2001, Paul Dayton and Enric Sala worried that statistical hypothesis testing was undermining the joys of field work. In 2011 (and again in 2013), David Lindenmayer and Gene Likens worried that ecologists were all going to turn into meta-analysts, leaving nobody to go out and collect the field data for everybody else to meta-analyze. See the links in this old post of mine, and Anderson (2017), for various other worries along the same lines.

In noting that worries about the loss of field ecology are about as old as field ecology itself, if not older*, I’m not trying to dismiss those worries about the future of field ecology as groundless or irrational or whatever!** I appreciate where concerns about the future of field ecology come from, even though I disagree with them. Technology and scientific research approaches are always changing. That’s part and parcel of scientific progress. But progress isn’t inevitable. Just because some new technology or research approach is new doesn’t mean it’s better than, or complementary to, existing technologies and approaches. Maybe that hot new bandwagon that everyone seems be jumping on really is on a road to nowhere, and we really would be better off just sticking with the old way of doing things! And even if some new technology or research approach is a good thing on balance, well, progress in science, or any other domain, usually creates losers as well as winners. We always lose something when the world changes, even when the world changes for the better. If we didn’t, it couldn’t change. It’s only human to recognize those losses and losers, even in the context of acknowledging overall progress. Finally, if you love something, whether it’s field ecology or anything else, you’re going to be particularly alert to any real or perceived threat to it. That’s only human too.

For my own part, I think it’s fabulous that we have a lot of ecologists like Chris Mantegna, who are passionate about field work, and passionate about sharing that passion with students. And I’m confident we always will have a lot of passionate field ecologists, thanks to the efforts of ecologists like Chris Mantegna. I say all this as a crappy natural historian who is very much not passionate about field work. It is very, very good for ecology as a whole that many (I’d guess most) ecologists, ecology students, and prospective ecology students know and care a lot more about field work and natural history than I do, and feel a deeper connection to nature than I do! Ecology as a scholarly field would indeed be doomed if everybody in it was like me!***

It’s just that, I also think it’s fabulous that we also have other sorts of ecologists who do other sorts of ecology. Not least because there are some prospective ecology students who try field work and discover it isn’t for them. Even when the field work experience is as positive and inclusive as it could possibly be. Some people want to do ecological research, but for all sorts of personal reasons would rather do it indoors (here’s an old anonymous comment that makes this point well). It’s good that those students–some of whom are from historically underrepresented groups–also have a place in ecology. It’s good that they too can proudly think of themselves as ecologists, even though they only go outdoors for recreational rather than professional purposes (if at all).

I’ll conclude by talking a little bit about the personal experiences that have shaped my own perspective on this. As a white guy, I’m fortunate in that I’ve never had a feeling of not belonging in ecology because I look different than the people around me. Having never had that feeling myself, I can only imagine what it would be like. And thanks in part to good mentoring, I’ve never found it difficult to connect up with other ecologists who are interested in the same questions as me, use similar research approaches as me, or just enjoy hanging out with me. But I have had the experience of feeling like my own preferred way of doing science was threatened. Which for a long time made me feel like a bit of an outsider in ecology, and made me a bit prickly and defensive about my microcosm research. Don’t get me wrong, I love being an ecologist and always have. But for many years, it bugged me a little to think that lots of other ecologists didn’t quite regard me as a “real” ecologist. It was never a big deal; most days I never felt that way at all. But every once in a while, something would happen that would remind me that I was a bit of an outsider in ecology, due to my unusual choice of a lab-based study system. I eventually got over that occasional feeling of outsider-ness. In retrospect that occasional feeling of outsider-ness was mostly self-inflicted. It was mostly my own anxieties latching on to any excuse they could find in order to justify their own existence.****

In relating these feelings, I’m absolutely not suggesting that I’m just like other ecologists who feel like outsiders because of (say) their ethnicity or gender! Nor am I suggesting that my own occasional feelings of outsider-ness were just as bad, or just as indicative of systemic problems in the field, as feelings of outsider-ness experienced by others for other reasons. And I’m not suggesting that, because my own occasional feelings of being an outsider turned out in retrospect to be largely self-inflicted, that anyone else’s feelings of being an outsider also are self-inflicted! Rather, I relate my own feelings just so you know where I’m coming from as I write this post. I draw on the memory of those feelings when I try to make an imaginative leap. Try (imperfectly) to put myself in the shoes of someone else who feels like an outsider in ecology, or like their own preferred approach to ecological research is going away. That I’m unconcerned that about threats to field ecology from eDNA, or any other new technology, no doubt reflects the fact that my own personal experiences with microcosm research ultimately turned out positively. My own personal experience is that the field of ecology is not at risk of losing field work, or microcosm work, or whatever kind of work you love. If anything, just the opposite–I think the field of ecology is getting better at being a scholarly field in which all sorts of people doing all sorts of work for all sorts of reasons can find their place. We’re not perfect, but we’re getting better.

Which is why I’m glad that Chris Mantegna, in extolling the “joy of the field,” recognizes the joy of technology too:

We don’t ignore technology: the students work with both physical surveys and eDNA data. I’m optimistic that eDNA and the bioinformatic tools behind it can help to extend our community and, hopefully, our joy.

Exactly right. I was so happy to read this bit, and thereby discover that I don’t actually disagree with Chris’ piece at all. New ways of doing things don’t have to be seen as a threat to the old ways! You can talk about what you do and love, and even highlight what we’d lose if it went away, without treating what other people do and love as somehow inherently a threat to what you do and love. Not everything in life is a zero-sum game! It’s up to us to make use of eDNA (or whatever) in ways that are best for our science, and for the people who are learning, doing, and using that science. Which often won’t involve picking one thing over another.*****

*The worry that humans are losing (or have already lost) a connection to nature that’s essential for human thriving is centuries old at least. My assumption would be that it’s as old as agriculture.

**Well, Lindenmayer & Likens’ worries about ecologists all becoming “data parasites” is a little irrational. Same for Steve Carpenter’s worry that all ecologists are going to become microcosmologists. That’s the trouble with writing a polemic–almost by definition, it means exaggerating your concerns to the point that they become a little irrational. Take it from someone who knows. 🙂

***Good lord, there’s a dystopian thought. It’d be like this.

****In my own experience, your anxieties can always find some excuse to justify themselves. Which is why I don’t think that there’s anything anybody around me could or should have done, individually or collectively, to create an environment in which I would never have felt those occasional feelings of outsider-ness. In particular, it’s fine that Steve Carpenter publicly criticized microcosms as a research approach back in 1996. Even though one side effect of that criticism was to make a new grad student (me) feel a bit prickly and defensive. “Nobody should ever publicly criticize anyone else’s research” wouldn’t be either a feasible or desirable norm for scientists to follow. Even in a perfect world in which everyone unfailingly treats everyone else with kindness and professionalism, there will be criticism, and some of that criticism will sometimes cause some of those receiving it to feel bad in some way. Here are many, many more words on this point.

*****Ok, sometimes it will. There are some zero-sum games in life. The point of this post is that “doing ecological field work, or doing ecology in some other way,” is not one of them.

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