Scientists are weird

And they are not about to get more normal

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ABSTRACT

Previous studies have suggested that scientists are weird. Drawing on the conclusions of a case study realized in Panama in January 2017, we hereby reinforce this statement. Furthermore, our study points towards a possible increase in weirdness in the next few years. However, more studies would be necessary to confirm this preoccupying hypothesis.

METHODS

For the purpose of this study, 16 observers were brought together in Panama for a period of 3 weeks, during which they were exposed to a vast array of scientists (n>30) coming from various fields related to tropical biology. The group of observers was herded all around the country to study different scientists in various environments (said environments include: island of tropical forest providing strict isolation of scientists from the rest of the world, remote mountainous region, Caribbean resort)

The scientists studied were told to present their study field and research work to the group of observers who were presented as “the next generation of tropical scientists”. Most scientists filled this requirement in the form of a lecture, often complementing it with a visit to the field. Some also accompanied the group of observers in the realisation of group projects. Throughout these activities, the group of observers took notes, asked questions, participated assiduously to the activities prepared by the scientists and produced numerous related blog posts, thus playing convincingly their part as “future tropical scientists”. Observations about signs of weirdness would be denoted throughout these interactions between the scientists and observers. In order to increase reliability of the present study, triangulation was used to verify former observations. In this regard, scientists were also observed in more casual situations, such as sharing diner, cold beers and dance floor with the group of observers. Also, most of the scientists studied having provided some of their own publications, these were meticulously read as a third source of data collection. These different sources of data were then regrouped and analyzed thoroughly in order to attest if our sample attested for scientists’ weirdness or not. Observers bias was effectively neutralized by the diversity of observers in terms of provenance, training and personal characters.

Moreover, an opportunistic individual from the group of observers realized that the group of observers, indeed being composed of future tropical scientists, could in fact serve as an interesting data set in the present study. The generational difference with the scientists formerly studied was thus used to add a cross-sectional dimension to the study. However, due to the significantly shorter amount of experience this group has in the scientific world, the same methods could not be reproduced with the same intensity within this second group. This part of the study relies mostly on observations made in casual contexts, such as sharing meals, cold beers, mojitos, short and long bus/boat/plane rides, basket-volley ball games, etc. More controlled contexts are limited to participation to the scientists lead activities described above. Finally, the only publications emerging from this second group that were consulted are blog posts. We consider that there was no observer bias as the principal observer cited here is a confused French Canadian who doesn’t have a strong sense of what is going on in this world.

RESULTS AND DISCUSSION

In the case of the first and older group observed, many signs of weirdness were noted during the experiment. Table 1.1 shows a few examples of strange behaviors noted during lectures and fieldwork.

SIGNS OF WEIRDNESS EXPRESSED OCCURENCE
Setting up love hotels for false crabs so they will mate in front of the camera 1
Walking in the forest with socks full of corn starch 2
Calling a shovelful of dirt, fungus and angry leaf-cutter ants “gold” 1
Swimming in the ocean with bundles of baits in the hope of attracting predators. 3
Checking ALL of the leaves in ALL of the trees in a 50 ha plot 1
Referring to leaf pathogens as “beautiful” 2
Creating mutant butterflies 3
Creating supersoldier ants 1
Continuing lectures after 10 PM. 10

The signs of weirdness observed with this method of data collection are strongly supported by publications read, which confirm in many cases the seriousness that the scientists put in their weird ideas (no publications will be cited here, in order to keep participants’ anonymity).

However, our other data collection method (casual context such as sharing dinner and beers with studied subjects) suggests contradictory results; in those casual contexts, observed scientists appeared as very normal human beings. However, we decided to reject these outliers, as data collected through lectures and fieldwork provide such strong evidence of weirdness. We can thus assert, with a confidence interval of 95%, that the scientists sampled are, indeed, weird. We consider that the diversity of observed scientists is sufficient to generalize this conclusion to the whole population of tropical scientists.

As for the second set of scientists studied, a worrisome amount of strange behaviors was noted throughout all of the data collection methods. These behaviors include, but are not limited to: eating peanut butter and relish sandwiches (and liking it); showing a profound distaste for pretty and colorful things; spending several hours debating preferred ways of accidently dying in the jungle; asking lecturers to go on with their lecture even past 10 pm; showing disproportionate hatred for plant genomics; imitating all kinds of different species like ants, vampire bats, butterflies and even Chihuahuas; enthusiastically looking for crocodiles.

On a larger scale, we noted that this group would also do pretty much anything they were told to do without questioning it (for instance, if an individual was told to “get the f*** in the water”, they would immediately jump in the water). Another recurring strange habit was the generalized identity crisis in which this whole group seemed to be: first, very few of them could actually put a name on their type of research. Most of them would mix up random subjects, like anthropology and genomics, when asked about their research subject. Second, even though they have already invested a lot of work in their own field, you would often hear them say random things like “I want to study bats!” when they studied forest management or “I’m going to be a marine biologist!” when they were actually studying soils.

All these observations enable us to confirm with complete certainty that weirdness is spread across all generations of scientists. Moreover, comparing the younger and older generations of scientists of this case study, we perceive a trend to increasing weirdness in the younger generation, as shown in figure 1.1, where group 1 represent the first group here examined and group 2 represents the group that also served as observers for group 1.

capture

Figure 1.1 Increasing weirdness through generations

However, it is impossible for the moment to confirm this trend, as, like exposed earlier, data gathered for the second group is not entirely reliable, given the casual context of its collect and the limited number of participants. Also worthy of noting is the limited amount of time these individuals have spent in the scientific world. Thus, the correlation between their denomination as “scientists” and relative weirdness might not be strong. An interesting question emerging from this realization is: are people becoming scientists because they are weird, or are people becoming weird because of science?

Apart from these frightening results, we end this study with some more surprising insights; although, as the depiction made above suggests, the group of younger scientists can sound like a big mess, it seems that they might in fact be evolving into something completely new. Of this group we have also noted an incredible amount of cooperation; the diverging backgrounds of observed individuals was, in general, not a source of disruption, but rather an opportunity to build knowledge, enhance reflections and provide all sorts of solutions to problems faced. This collaborative spirit showed in all kinds of situations. For example, with this strange group, a mere visit in the forest could become a very extensive analysis; for every question, be it on ants, birds, bees, soils, human uses, plant genomics, monkeys, carbon-cycle, etc., there was a knowledgeable individual eager to share with their counterparts. Also, they totally kicked ass at accomplishing complicated tasks like preparing a group barbecue. Could weirdness actually be the key element to this supra-level of organization? We would certainly need some further testing (perhaps more field courses in the Caribbean?) to fuel this reflection.

CONCLUSION

Through this study, we have, with different methods, proven that, indeed, scientists are weird. Although the increasing trend we have found is disturbing and should be further explored, we conclude that, through innovative strategies, it seems that the younger generation might be able to make it alright despite their abnormal weirdness. Maybe that is actually how generations and generations of scientists before us have also survived?

Under the sea

16491270_10210927770337723_1845705248_oYou look outside the water. Everything is just so calm. You see 1 or 2 persons chilling in the nearby boat. All around you, back of heads and tubas are poking out of the water. It’s the same feeling as entering a room full of people glued to their cellphone. You’re surrounded by people, but nobody is actually there. There is only one thing to be done in those moments: get into your own little universe. Even easier than turning on a phone, you dip your face in the water and there you are: gazing at a coral reef, aka a world that should only exist in the most far-fetched of fantasies. But here it is, so real that if you don’t watch out, a fire coral might scratch your belly.

In this wonderland, you have no bearings. The only things you know from this world come from fiction stories. You look at that water, showing off every best shade of blue that exists, from the surface down to the very bottom of the sea, and you think, look, that is the same water as in Finding Nemo! Ok, also, pretty much every fish you recognize comes from Finding Nemo. Thank you, Disney, for some solid intro to the marine world.

You then approach the mangroves, of which you can now only see the roots. They are covered in sponges and strange other things. Doesn’t that look like Will Turner’s dad’s face in Pirates of the Carribeans?

Slowly learning to manoeuver your fins you start speeding up, flying over various scenes of everyday marine life. Schools of tiny fishes swimming purposefully. Jelly fishes floating around. Fishes that go hide into their hole in the sand when you approach. Other ones that just don’t care and carry on nibbling on their corral. But isn’t that just exactly how Harry was swimming, while he was crossing mermaid land during the second task? You realize only now how much of a dork you are. Good thing nobody can read your mind. You just don’t know how ill-advised your future self might be.

You laugh to yourself, take a big breath and free-dive just to swim next to a silly looking fish. That, you think, is most definitely not borrowed from another story. It’s just you, the fish and the sea. And then the song that goes by this name starts playing in your head, because, you like your Quebec singers, don’t you?

In this giddy mood you reflect on how lucky you are to be in this place. Trying to understand what brought you here, you can only be more bewildered than you already were from this moment. In the last few weeks you have: caught pretty butterflies to never release them, smashed snails with a hammer, gleefully set up false-crabs fights, destroyed ants’ nests to then drown ants in alcohol, destroyed spiders’ nets, carelessly dug with a hammer in million years old mounds of fossils. How is it that Nature still wants to treat you with one of its finest piece of art? But really, are you going to question the whole functioning of karma when it’s actually treating you so well?

You decide to stop for a moment. Now, you are floating just an arm’s length away from corals. A single square meter of this environment is so filled with wonders that you know you could spend the whole day just gazing at that square meter. All of the colors of the world seem to be in this spot, in all possible shapes and textures. You think Nature must have messed up somewhere when it moved life outside of the water, for it forgot to bring out most of these flashy colours out of the sea. I mean, look at that, some fishes are even neon colored!! Why aren’t there neon colored moose running around in Canada already?

Then on your already pretty festive square-meter of sea-land, enters the king of all sea-creature, the octopus (of course it’s the king!). The sea-floor is its dance floor and it’s doing some pretty wicked moves with its funky tentacles. Then its floppy head turns in a way that makes its sort-of-empty eyes look at you. Uh-oh. Are octopus dangerous for humans? It depends. Could Ursula be considered as an octopus? Maybe this is how karma is finally getting back at you. Then you remember. In Finding Dory, there is an octopus and, apart from being grumpy and driving a truck into the ocean (spoiler alert), it was quite inoffensive.

Oh hello, octopus!

And instantly your mind cranks up the volume on “In an octopus’s garden”.

Good lord, it seems that main-stream culture has already trained me to become an awesome marine biologist. I’ll be waiting for the offers!

Linking ideas about linking species

One of the things I really enjoyed discovering during this course is the endless number of ways that all kinds of individuals in nature are collaborating. Wasps pollinating fig trees in exchange for shelter, shrimps looking for food while their goby soul-mate watches for predators, vampire bats feeding each other in times of need, groups of Greater Anis sharing a nest, etc. Nature sure has a lot of imagination when it comes to promoting networking. What fascinated me even more is how all these different relationships could be studied in the same way as a human community. As a major theme in my master is community-based forest management (CBFM), I couldn’t help make some (albeit twisted) parallels between my subject and the different types of mutualism we stumbled upon during the course.

For example, you can ask, about a community-based forest management system, as well as a wasp-fig[1] one:

  • Who is cheating? For the human part, it could be somebody chopping off all the trees in the community forest and watching them burn all alone in their basement. For the fig and wasps, it could be a wasp that doesn’t care to pollinate the fig that is sheltering it.
  • How is this individual going to be punished? In our human example, the cheater could be excluded from all decisions regarding the management of the forest. In the fig & wasp situation, figs that are not pollinated could abort, making the cheating wasp’s home not so cozy all of a sudden.
  • What are the trade-offs to collaborating? For our humans, following the rules might keep people from taking all the wood for themselves, which means less short-term individual gain. However, if everybody does this effort of sharing and making sure that the wood is harvested sustainably, there will be wood forever! For the fig, losing some fruit space in favour of wasp eggs is the price to pay to continue being pollinated. An interesting question here is, what kind of proportion between eggs and fruits is ideal for both the wasps and the fig trees?

In a broader perspective than a community sharing a forest, mutualism questions can also be translated into an economic sciences problem: how do two countries define the terms of a trade agreement? Egbert Leigh (2010), whom we met in Barro Colorado Island, actually wrote a very interesting article on this whole comparison, exposing how any species, human or not, will only engage in collaboration if, in the end, there is a comparative advantage. It’s weird to think that all those intricate relationships we have developed amongst humans had already been invented by tiny organisms way before we were even created as a species (hipster organisms, doing mutualism before it was cool). Should economists and people interested in CBFM tap into mutualism studies to find new strategies to collaborate between humans? I like this idea a lot (especially if I can push it far enough so that going snorkelling around coral reefs could become a part of my community-based forest management studies…).

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[1] If, like me 2 weeks ago, you don’t have the background on the fig and wasp relationship, here is, roughly, the fig and wasp life cycle: Soon-to-be-mama fig wasp flies into a young fig; inside this fig, there are tons of tiny flowers, waiting to be pollinated; Mama wasp gets cozy in her fig, using some flowers to lay her eggs, pollinating others with pollen she got before entering; the flowers gradually turn into fruit, or newborn wasps; newborn girls and boys give each other some love (often it seems there is more than one mama wasp in a fig, so it’s not all incest); the boys stay with their mama forever, the girls grab some pollen and go on a lifetime adventure to a new fig. And that is how figs and wasps are made.

 

SOURCE CITED:

Leigh, E. G. (2010). The evolution of mutualism. Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 23(12), 2507–2528. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1420-9101.2010.02114.x

AND UNCITED:

A great talk on figs and wasps by Charlotte Jader!

 

 

PUTTING NAMES ON THINGS

Aka putting cute faces on scary blood sucking monsters.

Was that a little intense? Sorry. Let’s start again.

Sunday was bat day. Bat night. Bat students hearing about bat studies. Or something like that.

My limited knowledge of bats meant only one thing: I was in for a lot of amazement. Force feeding friends, flying foxes, frog eaters… I feel like I could write an awfully long post about all those strange bat discoveries, but I won’t. First, because I fear I might just end up switching study-field. Second, because I’m quite sure you will hear more about bats in this blog.  So let’s talk about something a little less sexy: people’s perception of bats.

You don’t need a PhD to understand that, outside our evening gathering where enthusiastic bat-loving researchers were showing cute little bats to the public, there are not only sympathizers to the cause of bats. So, there is actually one thing I wasn’t surprised to hear during Bat night: that people’s misconceptions of bats still lead to a lot of irrational killings. “They think all bats are vampire bats, they think they all have rabies”, was saying the researcher to whom I asked. In the case of Panamanians, I have to admit that one of their fears might be justified: vampire bats can bite cows, and those wounds can get infected. But apart from that, people also believe that those bites will result in bad milk, crazy cows, and who knows what else. This, and fear of rabies, brings people to kill everything that has to do with bats in their environment. A sad situation for the bat community, especially knowing that it is not specific to Panama: all over the world, bats are perceived by many as nothing more than pest, leading, again, to unjustified decimation of bat populations, contributing in turn to their worldwide decline (Pennisi et al. 2004).

However, bats are all but pest: in fact, a study that took place in BCI (Barro Colorado Island) showed that, in this case, bats played a greater role than birds in controlling insect herbivory (Kalka et al. 2008). Importance of bats in pest control has been confirmed in several other places. For instance, in the United States, foreseeing the disaster that could take place regarding the decimation of bats populations by the white-nose syndrome, it was estimated that related agricultural losses could be up to 3,7 US $ a year (Boyles et al. 2011). Not to forget that bats are also important pollinators!

Moreover, “l’envers de la médaille” (Just trying to teach you some good French expressions! Nothing to do with being unsure of the right translation.) of bats, which should be Dracula cows and rabies, is actually not that bad. Very few bats carry the rabies. In fact, a lot of them have developed a resistance to the disease, which not only makes them immune to it, but also prevents any transmission. However, when a bat population starts declining, because of an external cause like scared humans, rabies cases suddenly explode. So rabies is definitely not a good excuse to kill a bat. As for the Dracula cow. I haven’t found any studies on that case, but, well.

I know that the portrait I am brushing here is quite simplistic. But it is because what I am actually interested in here is the general idea behind this story. People kill bats because they fear them. They fear them because they don’t really know bats. Hence, the importance of science: I only mentioned a few studies, but I think that all the academic work that is done on bats is crucial to changing people’s attitude towards them.

This makes me think a lot of a situation in Quebec:  in 1920-1930, there was a great abundance of belugas in the Saint-Lawrence river. It is said that at times, boats couldn’t even pass because of their presence. At that time, cod fishing was an important economical activity, but the cod was declining fast. Some people made a rapid connection: where there was cod, there was always some belugas hanging around. Belugas must eat cod. So everything was put into place to take care of the mean belugas. The government started paying people for every whale that was killed. Then, it subsidized bombing of beluga infested areas. This went on for over ten years. Then somebody had the idea of dissecting a beluga to try and see what it was actually eating. Turns out, belugas biologically can’t even eat cod. They happened to hang around cods simply because they ate the same things. Now, belugas are on the list of threatened species in Canada and Quebec (Dionne 2007).

My point is, wildlife management is a great responsibility. It has great consequences and often, when we think we know everything, we actually have not understood a thing at all. This is true, I think, both in tropical and temperate regions. This is why I believe that the researchers we met at Bat night are doing a great job: not only are they breaking myths about bats by studying them carefully, but they also work hard on transmitting these notions to the public, using their best assets: cute little bats for whom (almost) everybody’s heart melted a little. (Damn it, that’s one more reason to want to study bats.)

SOURCES

Boyles, J.G. et al., 2011. Economic Importance of Bats in Agriculture. Science, 332(6025), p.41 LP-42. Available at: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/332/6025/41.abstract.

Kalka, M.B., Smith, A.R. & Kalko, E.K. V, 2008. Bats limit arthropods and herbivory in a tropical forest. Science (New York, N.Y.), 320(5872), p.71. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18388286.

Pennisi, L. a., Holland, S.M. & Stein, T. V., 2004. Achieving Bat Conservation Through Tourism. Journal of Ecotourism, 3(3), pp.195–207.

Dionne, S. & Gourbillière, C. 2007. Béluga du Saint-Laurent. http://www.ameriquefrancaise.org/fr/article-103/B%C3%A9luga%20du%20Saint-Laurent#.WIGDcxvhDif .