I first heard this phrase from my friend, Brad Boyle, last weekend (though he was cheekily commenting that the plural is data). An anecdote, in case you’re not sure, is a story about something that happened, usually to you or someone you know. It might be something you noticed once, or even a number of times. And that provides you with some information. But that does not necessarily make it data.
Data is information that should be collected and analyzed in a standardized way to answer a question or estimate some value (like the growth rate of a population or the strength of a bridge). One problem with anecdotal information is that it is not collected with the intention of providing a large or unbiased sample. Basing our understanding of the world around us on anecdotal information could lead us to the wrong conclusions, resulting in poor decisions.
For example, many medical procedures have variable outcomes. Imagine you have some inflammation of the elbow (lateral epicondylitis) from playing tennis, rock climbing, or just everyday life. Corticosteroid injections seem to be the most effective way to get a short term reduction in pain and inflammation so that you could use that elbow in the next few weeks. However, the study I linked to reported a 92% success rate at the six week mark. What if you had a big competition coming up and wanted to decide whether to go for the treatment? If you talk to only your aunt, who had had the procedure, and was part of the 8% it did not help, you might decide not to get it. Especially if you heard a second anecdote from your best friend, who was also not helped! There you have multiple anecdotes, but a larger sample might reveal there is a pretty good chance it would help you be able to compete.
Understanding the scientific method is important for everyone, not just scientists. If your vacuum cleaner breaks, to borrow an example from another friend, Marielle Smith, scientific thinking can help you to fix it more efficiently. Instead of replacing parts at random, you might form a hypothesis about what piece failed. That hypothesis might be based on anecdotal information, like what part of your friend’s vacuum cleaner broke. Or it might be based on observations, such as where smoke is emerging from. Either way, you can test your hypothesis by isolating that part of the vacuum to test it, or by replacing it and trying the vacuum, ultimately spending less time and money than replacing parts at random.
Helping each other to better understand science and the scientific method is important for all of us, as well. With outbreaks of preventable diseases, like measles, currently happening in the United States, we can see the negative effects that not vaccinating children has on those who are too young or sick to be vaccinated. The data shows that vaccines are safe and measles are not, but some parents are scared anyway. With 2014 the warmest year on record (though one year does not a trend make), we more urgently need political action on climate change than ever, but a large proportion of the US electorate first needs to better understand the risks of unchecked climate change.
So what can YOU do to increase scientific literacy?
1. Practice asking questions.
Question everything. Question sources, and learn who has the expertise to be right about a subject. Just as a theoretical ecologist might not have the skills to remodel a kitchen professionally, a lobbyist with no scientific training may not have the skills to validly contest a research finding. Make up questions while you’re driving (or biking) to work, or waiting in the grocery store check out line. Just be curious about the world.
2. Practice answering questions.
Design a way to collect data to answer them, even if you do not intend to hang out at the grocery store all day collecting that data, or use Fermi estimation to get close. Why? It’s more entertaining than watching the driver singing (or worse) in the car behind you, and as my junior high math teacher always said, it’s like going to the gym for your brain. (If you enjoy this kind of problem, you will really enjoy the What If? page of xkcd.com.)
3. Learn the difference between causation and correlation (and more about trends, variability, and probability in general).
To use the famous example, both ice cream consumption and murder rates go up during the summer, but that is probably not because eating ice cream makes people want to murder each other. I spend a lot of time these days analyzing data I collected for my dissertation, and discussing probability and analyses with other graduate students. We have to formally analyze data because human brains are not really wired to understand probability. The more you can learn about this, and how to bolster your own ability to understand and communicate about variable results, the better you can interpret the world around you.
4. Interact with scientists and science educators at your local university.
If you live in Tucson, check out the Cosmic Origins lecture series, which is free and open to the public (but crowded – get there early!), or Science Cafe talks at local breweries and restaurants. Visit the Laboratory of Tree Ring Research, see a laser show at Flandrau Science Center and Planetarium, use the telescopes on Mount Lemmon during SkyNights programs or with Sky School, tour Biosphere 2 or the Mirror Lab, or hike up Tumamoc Hill. The Gem and Mineral Show is going on now – find the UA Geosciences students teaching there! And Tucson Festival of Books has a whole Science City where you can see rockets, volcanoes, gila monsters, and more – for free March 14-15. Even better, volunteer for Science City this year (they still need many, many volunteers)!
5. Support science fairs.
Whether you’re a parent who can encourage your kids to do an experiment, or a scientist who can volunteer to judge, get involved! In Tucson, the regional Southern Arizona Research, Science and Engineering Foundation Fair is coming up!
6. Use science to shape how you communicate with people around you.
There are very rational reasons that people may not have all the data or scientific interpretations on a topic, like vaccinations. Going out and doing research takes time and effort, and people have lives to live. Researching every little thing is impossible. So instead, we lump issues together into our identities to decide how we feel about them. Cognitive science has demonstrated that attacking a person’s beliefs, or implying that she or he is an idiot for not knowing something, is the best way to solidify a previously held belief. So when engaging with someone less scientifically literate than you, use what evidence suggests is the best way to get them to change their beliefs: acknowledge their fear or doubt are real and reasonable, acknowledge that data and scientific papers are often not open access, and… ask questions.
Last weekend, I peeked at the naughty bits of dozens of rodents. I was in the San Simon Valley, outside Portal, Arizona, at the site of a long term ecological project there. (Incidentally, a fantastic stargazing site as well! Thanks to Alan Strauss and his friends for letting the mammal studying group join them and their telescopes for a little while.)
A student from Morgan Ernest’s lab was trapping rodents and tagging them, as she does every month. I had joined them to compare the rates at which motion detecting cameras caught animals with the rates that the live traps caught animals. For example, here is a video in which the camera recorded a visitor that did not get caught in the trap:
When animals are caught, they are measured and tagged. Rodents’ genitals become enlarged when they are open to mating, so researchers with a live mouse in hand can easily see if it is physically ready to be reproductively active. Typically, rodents reproduce primarily during the warm months, from March to October. Since this was mid-January, I was surprised to see many females pregnant or lactating as if having recently given birth, males with enlarged sex organs, and even recent signs of mating in a female kangaroo rat. No one has yet examined the data to see if this is really an unusual number of reproductively active animals, but it seemed high to me, though I am not an expert.
I had always thought the cold temperatures increased the risk of freezing to death, and that was why they bred in the summer months. But 2014 was the hottest year since record keeping began in 1880. Could the animals simply feel warm enough to be active and to give breeding a go?
Another important factor in both reproducing and staying warm is food energy. I recently went backpacking in southern Utah, hiking frequently through snow, and was amazed at how many calories I could – and needed to – eat to stay warm and active.
Substantial rains this summer at the Portal site made it the grassiest I have seen it in about five years. All that grass produces a lot of seeds, which many of these animals eat. Perhaps the larger amount of energy available is giving them the energy to go for it in January.
It is impossible to know if any one specific instance is a result of a long term trend in an otherwise variable system. Is the number of reproductively active rodents in January outside the typical range? Or even unusually high at all? Is it unusually high for grassy years? Is this one more small sign of larger changes in our climate?
If you have noticed small changes like this over the winter, I would be very interested to hear your stories.
Last week, I posted about my encounter with the impressively aggressive and carnivorous mice (Onychomys), which ended in me leaving a number of motion-sensing infrared video cameras at a long term ecology site near Portal, Arizona. I’m happy to report I have some footage of these mighty hunters. (The team from the Ernest lab had trapped a number of Onychomys they ID’d as species torridus on the plots where I placed these cameras just nights before, so my educated guess is that these videos are of O. torridus, but if any mammologists can distinguish the species more definitively from these videos, I’d love to hear about it.)
I baited the cameras with mixed birdseed, so I had lots and lots of videos of granivorous (seed eating) kangaroo rats and pocket mice to view, like these:
But about an hour after the pocket mouse (above) was last seen walking through that path in the grass, look who followed:
The southern grasshopper mouse (I think)! Also known as the scorpion mouse, because it takes down all kinds of dangerous and venomous arthropods, as well as animals nearly its own size. And ten minutes later it (or another one, can’t tell for sure) came back through again, definitely looking like it was tracking something:
Wait, why did I bait the cameras with birdseed when I was seeking carnivorous animals? Although grasshopper mice are carnivorous, they are commonly captured in live traps baited with seeds and oats. I had wondered whether they were at all interested in the seeds, or whether they smelled animals previously trapped in that box and were looking for prey – or whether they were just curious and exploring. (Plus, I was secretly hoping I would capture a grasshopper mouse killing the pocket mouse that was eating the bait. No luck.)
One video seems to answer my question: even if these mice can be completely carnivorous, some are open to trying new food:
I hear a certain large foreign TV network is working on a documentary about these animals. To get high-quality video images, they have to capture a number of animals, then stage encounters by placing a grasshopper mouse and, say, a tarantula in a sandbox together. I like to think that although my footage is less polished, it provides a complementary view of their lives by peering at what happens on a daily basis out in the wider world, where anything could happen.
Last weekend, I drove from Tucson down to a long term ecology research site near Portal, Arizona. It’s a site started by Jim Brown in 1977 with a series of fenced plots that look at the effect of rodents on the plants of the Chihuahuan Desert, now run by Morgan Ernest’s lab. It looks substantially different than the Sonoran Desert that I’m used to, but still spectacular laid out at the foot of the Chiricahua Mountains.
I was helping out with the monthly rodent census at the sites. Researchers from Utah State University travel to the Portal Site for a long weekend every month to live trap and mark small mammals. I was also interested in comparing camera trap encounter rates with live trap rates as the seasonal and inter-annual population density fluctuations occur, so I set up my cameras, after dark, on the first night I got there. (Yes, I also wanted to see if the pocket mice near Portal dance. I suspect they do.)
While I was setting up the cameras in the dark, I thought I heard the faint squeal of a truck’s breaks. It lasted maybe two seconds. But no headlights were visible in the dark San Simon valley. I heard it again and again as I walked around a quarter hectare plot, setting out cameras.
It turns out the squeal is actually an itty bitty howl, emitted by the only genus of carnivorous mice. Yes, if you thought mice were scary before, just think of an aggressively hunting mouse standing on its hind legs to howl upward at the sky. They have short, stubby tails, and typically eat, well, grasshoppers, I guess. It is grasshopper season in Portal, and the horse-lubbers especially cover every surface, and are slow to move or respond. Easy prey.
However, one of the other grad students had a story of releasing a Bailey’s pocket mouse (an animal weighing about 20 grams), and seeing a recently released grasshopper mouse (about 25 grams – not much larger!) seize it by the throat and drag it down a hole. They must be at least somewhat omnivorous (eating things other than meat), because we caught several in the Sherman live traps that were baited with millet seed.
Wikipedia claims they have home ranges of approximately 28 acres and are very territorial, but we caught three in less than a quarter hectare. But they certainly move differently than the pocket mice and kangaroo rats that made up the bulk of the captures. Those others (in family Heteromyidae) are boing-y, bouncing around, like, well, a kangaroo. The grasshopper mice, when released, scurried off through the grass in a more fluid, slinky way, like a cat or a ferret, using all four feet and close to the ground.
I plan to pick up my cameras next week. I look forward to seeing what video – and audio – I have of the unique species there.
The first time I saw the Biosphere 2 space frame structure, it reminded me of a giant jungle gym. Actually, every time I see Biosphere 2, it looks like a giant jungle gym. I’m sure I’m not the only one who stares at it, imagining how to to climb it.
It’s just that I finally got to.
In my last post, I wrote about a summer excursion to the Brazilian Amazon to help with research on the future of the Amazon under climate change. I was helping Neill Prohaska and other members of Scott Saleska’s lab and the GO Amazon project measure seasonality and reflectance of leaves, which is part of a larger effort to understand what would happen if the climate there gets hotter and drier.
But back in the early 1990’s, Biosphere 2’s original builders included a tropical rainforest in their structure. Now researchers can do the experiment by creating a drought for an entire stand of living rainforest trees, which is tricky to do in the Amazon. In fact, they kind of already have.
Over the years, as the facility changed hands, it experienced a gap during hot Arizona summers with virtually no air conditioning or rainfall – an extreme version of climate change. Another member of Scott’s lab, Ty Taylor, has analyzed the concurrent change in the tree species remaining. (I should point out that the species in B2’s forest are not all Amazonian, but from around the world, so it’s not a perfect analog in several ways.)
But Dr. Joost van Haren wants to know what happens to individual trees and to the system’s ability to photosynthesize and grow, storing carbon dioxide from the air, during a drought. So for the last 8 weeks, the B2 tropical rainforest has experienced a drought. This weekend, I was part of a small team that helped take some vital rates of photosynthesis activity in the rainforest.
By far the most exciting part was the pre-dawn climb up through the space frame to cut sample branches. I was actually not helpful at all in this part – Neill scampered around the structure like a capuchin, while I moseyed upwards comparatively like a sloth. I didn’t cut a single branch.
It turns out when you approach the space frame closely, the struts are a little bigger than your school yard jungle gym, a little slicker with condensation (even during the drought they were a little wet), a little more likely to be covered in vines to catch you…. and the whole thing is a little bit taller.
And while we used harnesses and safety devices that clipped to these struts, these static lines would hurt to fall on, even if you didn’t break a bone hitting the bars of the frame on your way down.
“Don’t fall,” Neill told me. Eek!
I didn’t fall, even climbing all the way to the top of the rainforest section to watch the sunrise, where a bird flew in through an open vent and perched on the struts nearby.
If YOU haven’t seen the rainforest for a while, you should join me some Saturday evening in October out at Biosphere 2 for pizza, live animals, telescopes, and more. This is a shameless plug, since I’m helping to coordinate these Discovery Nights, as the late evening events are called, but seriously, you should get some friends together and go. I’ll be at all three. There will be live animals, fossils or meteorites, telescopes, and the chance the wander through B2 in the dark at your own pace instead of with a large tour. Oh, and your admission fee includes an annual pass on those nights. And kids are free. (If YOU want to get in free as well, you can volunteer all evening! Send me an email ASAP if you want in.)
Check out the details and dates at http://www.b2science.org.
I usually study population dynamics in the upper Sonoran Desert near Tucson, but since I am still entering data from last summer’s fieldwork and analyzing it, I took my laptop down to Brazil for nearly a month. While I’m here, I also get to climb massive trees and learn about the questions and methods used by Scott Saleska’s lab to better understand the future of the Amazon under climate change.
Climate models predict wildly different things about how the Amazon Rainforest will respond to a new climate, but all agree that whatever happens will have a big effect on the rest of the world’s climate. There is a lot of carbon stored in these trees, and if they release that to the atmosphere through dying or burning, it will accelerate global warming. On the other hand, if they grow bigger and faster, they might actually buffer the climate by taking up more carbon dioxide.
One problem is that no one really knows how these trees respond to changes in the climate. Our best understanding, captured in mathematical models, predict that drought would cause the forest to die back, looking barer and browner. Yet during recent droughts, the forest appeared to green up! Was it because the forest is light limited and fewer clouds meant more light for the plants to grow? Would that response continue if the drought continue?
It turns out that in a very diverse forest like the Amazon, no one really knows how the leaves behave. Unlike in, say, New Hampshire, where trees all put out buds around the same time and then lose their leaves around the same time, this forest appears evergreen. Since leaves don’t live forever, we might assume trees replace their leaves. But how often? All at once, or on a sort of rolling basis? Regularly, or in response to some environmental signal? Tree species might behave very differently – after all, some grow fast in response to forest gaps, while others grow slowly in the shade of larger trees until they reach the canopy. So how similar are their leaf lifespans and replacement strategies? These answers are pretty difficult to answer, especially because walking up to a tree whose lowest branches are over 100 feet in the air makes it very difficult to look at their flowers – or even their leaves.
Fortunately, with improved arbor techniques, climbers can now safely access much more of the canopy to measure and tag individual leaves. Imaging and remote sensing might be calibrated to in the future provide an even faster way to measure leaf age and species identification. I’m enjoying learning both techniques for measuring leaf traits and leaf demography as well as for climbing into the canopies. And I’m especially enjoying thinking about a completely different set of scientific questions: questions about movement of water and carbon through a whole ecosystem, instead of competition, predation, and population dynamics.
Drawing lines is hard. In a variable and idiosyncratic world, our tendency is to lump ideas or places into groups. We learn in preschool to categorize, to delineate, and later to characterize and describe those categories. This leaves us frustrated when we look closer at where those lines should be, and they become difficult to draw.
Last week, I posted about Dave Bertelsen, who has recorded flowering plants along a five mile section of trail ascending the Santa Catalina Mountains for nearly 30 years. The vegetation’s structure, species identity, and density looks very different at an elevation of 8,000 feet than at 5,000 feet, which looks different than plants at 3,000 feet. Biologists commonly recognize these as different “communities,” “biomes,” or “assemblages” of plants, but when you hike from 2,500 feet up to 6,000 feet, you realize it is hard to draw a line between them on the ground. It makes perfect sense when you think of each individual species responding to the temperature, moisture, soil, competition from other plants, and herbivory from animals, but it makes generalization more difficult.
Another line that becomes difficult to draw when you think about it too hard is which areas to ask the US Congress to designate “Wilderness.” That designation is the highest legal protection against housing developments, mining, and other activities that would change the character of a place. We probably each have an idea of what wilderness looks like, and what activities are compatible with wilderness. But those ideas may vary from person to person in ways that seem subtle when viewed as an abstract national policy, but can be very important when that line touches a place you love.
Earlier this week I attended a meeting of the Southern Arizona Climbers’ Coalition. I had been meaning to join them for nearly a year, when they first formed. After all, I didn’t just move to Arizona for grad school. My list of potential advisors was strictly within a few hours of decent rock climbing. At this meeting, I had been invited to give a short presentation on the ecology of the region, and I used it as an opportunity to ask what ecology should be included if you had only two pages in a guide book. Being down in the weeds, it can be hard to see the big picture of the desert and Sky Islands, even from the top of a six pitch crag. Thanks to the folks who responded to that question – if you have an opinion, especially if you’re new to the area – please email me or leave a comment on this post!
Almost more valuable than those comments were the conversations I had about ongoing land management issues. Climbers enjoy and value wilderness, I suspect more than much of the general public. The recent shift of land management agencies toward prohibiting safe and practical rock climbing in areas being managed for wilderness character changes the way the increasingly large segment of the public uses the land. It also puts the climbing community in the very awkward position of somehow opposing wilderness designations. Of course we want to protect the landscape from mines, off road vehicles, and other large impacts. But it seems ludicrous to lump rock climbing in with mining and road creating, especially when a majority of climbers practice Leave No Trace ethics (though not as many as I wish would). Many of us have worked or volunteered with, or for, or been members of organizations like The Wilderness Society, which are promoting more wilderness designations.
I definitely see rock climbing in the traditional style (trad climbing) being consistent with wilderness character. Typically (these days) anchors and gear are primarily removed, with the possible exception of webbing used to rappel off the top of the climb, which eventually fades and disintegrates – eventually, not fast, but still eventually. One of the earliest North American pioneers of rock climbing, John Muir, who was also a wilderness advocate and started the Sierra Club, would have agreed, I think, though he likely would be astounded at our safety technology today. Maybe, like many old climbing hardmen, he would be contemptuous, too, but I like to think his vision, compassion, attention to detail, and evidence based values would have won him over to the freedom of climbing having a place, even in wilderness. Judiciously, of course, and with climbing ethics firmly in mind.
But what about sport climbing, in which metal bolts are drilled into the rock, usually requiring a mechanized drill, and left for following climbers to use? Those bolts also need to be replaced periodically that practically for the safety of the climbers. These bolts are rarely visible except right next to a crag (and sometimes maddeningly invisible to a climber on the route), so they are unlikely to heavily impact the wilderness experience of nonclimbers. Rock climbers who want a pure experience, a true pathfinding adventure without metal cairns, may not appreciate their presence, although my understanding of climbing ethics is to not place bolts where finding alternative protection is actually possible. This is definitely not a cut and dried area – especially when you consider drilling in metal rap anchors at the top of a popular trad route to make the descent safer (or possible).
Should leaving any gear or drilling bolts be allowed in areas where we want to preserve wilderness character? Wilderness is, after all, an important legal protection for areas that we would like to keep climbing against threats like mining that would completely remove access. If even wheelbarrows are prohibited, can exceptions be made for mechanized equipment like drills? Actually – what about cameras and wristwatches and smartphones? Are only mechanized things that interact with the landscape prohibited? That touch something other than the person? Where do you draw that line?
Somewhere like Cochise Stronghold, a backcountry area whose rugged terrain practically protects itself from offroad vehicles and even off train mountain bikes, certainly includes rock climbing in its wilderness character. Anecdotal evidence from climbers there suggest that a few humans climbing the rocks slowly and awkwardly (okay, some of us more slowly and awkwardly than others) does little to strike fear into the hearts of nearby animals. Anecdotal, to be sure. And does the short term presence of a drill’s racket increase that disturbance? By how much? (I am currently writing a paper on how the ecology of fear affects biodiversity, and I would love to collect more rigorous empirical data on the effects of climbers.)
I had a good series of conversations with other members of SACC following the meeting about other access issues related to ecological and species specific concerns. One of my greatest frustrations as a recent college graduate back in D.C. dealing with gigantic policy concerns and disagreements between close allies in environmental issues was my lack of expertise. Besides the lack of climbing in the Washington area, that was a major factor in driving me to pursue a Ph.D. in a basic science department.
It’s been nearly five years to the day since I packed my mountain bike and clothes into a station wagon, and drove three days to Arizona and begin a Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Although I had spent the previous 18 months working on federal environmental policy, I chose a basic science department, rather than one dedicated to solving immediate and applied issues. This even despite the fact that the 6 months prior to my position in D.C., I had worked for BLM in Nevada, and before that for a lab studying the effects of an invasive plant. My entire post-college professional experience was in solving pressing environmental problems, and I walked into a department where that training was not particularly valued, and instead the focus was on what questions would move the state of human knowledge forward. Perhaps a naive choice, but perhaps wise. After all, I had been glad that as an undergraduate, I focused on a degree in Biology (Scripps being a small liberal arts college, we had no differentiation possible within that major at the time) rather than an attractive interdisciplinary major in Environment, Economics, and Politics.
I’m not done with my PhD yet. I’m still writing and revising drafts of papers for publication, some of which will eventually become my dissertation. It feels like a long slog sometimes. An exciting and endlessly fascinating slog, but nevertheless long.
I may be still slogging the long slog, slog by slog, but it felt good at that meeting to offer my background in ecological theory, local field work, and access to current scientific literature to contribute to the conversation between climbers and land managers. I came away with ideas for new topics I want to research in my spare time (ha).
I would say it felt spooky for my former world of negotiating differences in environmental allies to collide with my current research and climbing worlds in so personal a way, but I’m actually more surprised it hasn’t happened sooner.