Monthly Archives: February 2012

Nerd fight!

I got into a bit of a scientific nerd fight today online with @hylopsar, and I thought that I might make a record of our duel for the internets to see.  It’s good for a laugh, so go check it out:

View the story “Nerd fight!” on Storify

(I tried embedding it but that failed miserably, so until I can do that you’ll have to view it on Storify’s website).

Can we just agree on a name?

An image of a squirrel with personality

A squirrel with personality, from jpaxonreyes (used under a CC license). Because let's face it, this post needs a picture.

Looking at the email alerts I get for new journal issues, I came across a new paper by Sih et al. in Ecology Letters [1], looking at the “ecological implications of behavioural syndromes”.  And I suppose that I could talk about the content of the paper, but what I’d rather do instead is go off on a short rant about research on this topic, as is my right as a blog writer.  What’s got a bee in my bonnet (and why am I suddenly 90 years old)?  It’s the name, “behavioural syndromes”.  It drives me mad.  I’ve seen papers refer to the topic by:

  • “Animal personality”
  • “Behavioural syndromes”
  • “Coping styles”
  • “Animal temperament”
  • “Interindividual variation” – not an SEO friendly description, to be sure.

There seems to be a political aspect to this too, but I’m not 100% clear on it.  Some themes are clear, though.  My feeling is that Sih seems to be pretty stuck on “behavioural syndromes”, while others like Denis Réale (whom I know from my Ph.D. at UQÀM) and Neils Dingemanse seem to be throwing spaghetti at the wall; after trying to introduce “animal temperament” as a thing – which, as far as I can see didn’t take hold – they had the (actually quite inspired) idea of doing an end-run around the whole thing by combining personality with plasticity and coining the new phrase “behavioural reaction norms” [3].  Only time will tell if that one takes off.

Lest you think that it’s just a name problem, it seems that confusion in the names is a symptom of deeper confusion over what they’re studying and how to study it.  Hanging around at a couple of the discussions at the last ISBE made it clear that people working in this field aren’t agreeing on the name, the definition, or the methodology (statistical or experimental).  Some of this is cause for excitement, of course:  when you’re this confused, it’s probably a sign that you’re on to something good.  And don’t think that I’m writing the area off;  there’s been a lot of exciting work in personalities over the last decade or so.  Hell, I’m trying to get a paper published on the topic myself right now.  Yet, I can’t help feeling that work in this area is going to be a little bit hamstrung until it converges on clear values for each of these things.

And honestly, I just feel sorry for the next poor sod who wants to do a literature review or meta-analysis.  So, can we just agree on a name and call it a day?


[1]. Andrew Sih, Julien Cote, Mara Evans, Sean Fogarty, and Jonathan Pruitt. Ecological implications of behavioural syndromes. Ecology Letters, 15(3):278–289, 2012.

[2]. Denis Réale, Simon M. Reader, Daniel Sol, Peter T. McDougall, and Niels J. Dingemanse. Integrating animal temperament within ecology and evolution. Biological Reviews, 82(2):291–318, 2007.

[3]. Niels J. Dingemanse, Anahita J. N. Kazem, Denis Réale, and Jonathan Wright. Behavioural reaction norms: animal personality meets individual plasticity. TRENDS in Ecology and Evolution, 25(2): 81–89, 2009. 

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Tell Ontario teachers that they should ban pickles, too.

Ontario teachers:

The Ontario English Catholic Teacher’s Association says computers in all new schools should be hardwired instead of setting up wireless networks.

It also says Wi-Fi should not be installed in any more classrooms.

In a position paper released on Monday, the union — which represents 45,000 teachers — cites research by the World Health Organization.

Last year the global health agency warned about a possible link between radiation from wireless devices such as cellphones and cancer.

Some believe wireless access to the Internet could pose similar risks.

What the WHO actually says:

Are there any health effects?

A large number of studies have been performed over the last two decades to assess whether mobile phones pose a potential health risk. To date, no adverse health effects have been established as being caused by mobile phone use.

What a smart commenter (ve5cma) pointed out:

Headline should read:

“Teachers’ Union Falls for Junk Science”

Sub head:
Standing within sight of a 50,000 watt radio station transmitter, the head of the teachers’ union complained about the 4 watt WiFi router.

What I’m doing right now:

Found at

I knew that when the WHO classed cell phones as “possibly carcinogenic” (a classification so soft that it includes pickles as possible carcinogens) people would crawl out of the wood work using that as an excuse to ban anything electronic that scares them,  and wi-fi seems like an obvious target.  And let’s face it, Ontario has had problems with this before.  So I guess I can’t say that I’m too surprised something like this happened, but I sure am disappointed.  No one, including the WHO, has been able to find a link between cancer and cell phones.  So how does the Ontario English Catholic Teacher’s Association think that a radiation emitter being held against your head and failing to cause cancer is a good reason to ban wi-fi  throughout schools?   There’s no reason to believe that this kind of radiation has any effect on biological tissue  (even if it’s not physically impossible), and the available evidence is strongly against the idea.

It’s just sad that a group of people responsible for teaching science to children can fail so badly at basic scientific literacy.  For shame, Ontario English Catholic Teacher’s Association, for shame.

Update: Orac at Respectful Insolence hits the same notes with a lot more depth.

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Opening up to open access…

If you’ve been reading this blog for any period of time, you’ll know that I’m not overly political here.  That’s not to say that I’m not opinionated (I’ve got plenty of opinions), but I don’t tend to post specifically in order to weigh in on timely political topics.  However, having recently wandered into a battleground only to discover that I’ve chosen a side, it feels right to jot down a few thoughts on the topic while my blood is still simmering.

What am I talking about?  Well, I’m talking about Open Access (OA) science publishing.  If you’re reading this blog you’re probably familiar with at least the basics of the debate, but whether you are or not I highly recommend reading this parable by Mike Taylor that puts the issue in clear language, and this recent press release on Tim Gower’s blog explaining the reasoning behind the Elsevier boycott (5398 and going strong!).

I recently ended up tangling with Robert Kurzban and others over this subject over the Evolutionary Psychology blog, and in the process of joining the discussion (I’ll refer you to that post to read more;  it’s too long to reproduce here) I discovered that I do, in fact, support the ideals of OA with a strength of feeling that surprised me.  What do I believe?  My belief, upon looking at the ethics and data (what exists, anyways) behind the current journal publishing system is that there are two parts to the argument:

  1. Publishers like Elsevier employ a business model that is exploitative and verges on (is?) corrupt.  Their product is the free labor of scientists, repackaged and copyrighted with little to no added value in the internet era, and sold back to the public that paid for it and the scholars the created it at a massive profit.
  2. The second part of the argument is whether a better alternative exists, in the form of Open Access (OA) publishing.  I believe that OA is a better alternative ethically, financially, and for the betterment of science as a whole.  OA has an obvious effect on the reach of a scientific paper (as the audience is now potentially anyone with an internet connection and the interested to read it), can have a positive effect on citation, and is more accountable and transparent.  On the other hand, the models for OA are still being worked out, and although the issue of publishing fees has been overblown it is still a valid concern, as are concerns such as a lack of OA journals in one’s sub-field, issues about career advancement (maybe), and the effort to move journals to OA publishing or start new journals.

Where do I stand now?  Well, for one thing, I haven’t yet signed the Elsevier boycott.  Why not?  Because I haven’t thought it all the way through yet.  I’ve just recently sat down to get my head straight about open access and found that I have strong feelings on it, and so I’m still coming up with a way to work that into my professional life.  I don’t know yet what form that will take;  I would like to publish exclusively in OA journals, but I don’t know if that’s yet an achievable goal for me, especially as I have collaborators to consider who may or may not the same way.  I do know that I will be searching for good OA alternatives to the journals I publish (ha!) in now, and that I will be looking for ways to increase my support of the OA movement as much as I can.

And if all else fails, I’ll write some more blog posts.  That helps, right? 🙂