Thursday, March 27, 2014

Are we winning the science communication war?

Since the time that I was a young graduate student, there have been constant calls for ecologists to communicate more with the public and policy makers (Norton 1998, Ludwig et al. 2001). The impetus for these calls is easy to understand –we are facing serious threats to the maintenance of biodiversity and ecosystem health, and ecologists have the knowledge and facts that are needed to shape public policy. To some, it is unconscionable that ecologists have not done more advocacy, while others see a need to better educate ecologists in communication strategies. While the reluctance for some ecologists to engage in public communication could be due to a lack of skills that training could overcome, the majority likely has had a deeper unease. Like all academics, ecologists have many demands on their time, but are evaluated by research output. Adding another priority to their already long list of priorities can seem overwhelming. More fundamentally, many ecologists are in the business of expanding our understanding of the world. They see themselves as objective scientists adding to global knowledge. To these ‘objectivists’, getting involved in policy debates, or becoming advocates, undermines their objectivity.

Regardless of these concerns, a number of ecologists have decided that public communication is an important part of their responsibilities. Ecologists now routinely sit on the boards of different organizations, give public lectures, write books and articles for the public, work more on applied problems, and testify before governmental committees. Part of this shift comes from organizations, such as the Nature Conservancy, which have become large, sophisticated entities with communication departments. But, the working academic ecologist likely talks with more journalists and public groups than in the past.

The question remains: has this increased emphasis on communication yielded any changes in public perception or policy decisions. As someone who has spent time in elementary school classrooms teaching kids about pollinators and conservation, the level of environmental awareness in both the educators and children surprises me. More telling are surprising calls for policy shifts from governmental organizations. Here in Canada, morale has been low because of a federal government that has not prioritized science or conservation. However signals from international bodies and the US seem to be promising for the ability of science to positively influence science.

Two such policy calls are extremely telling. Firstly, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which includes the governments of Mexico, Canada, and the USA, which normally deals with economic initiatives and disagreements, announced that they will form a committee to explore measures to protect monarch butterflies. They will consider instituting toxin-free zones, where the spraying of chemicals will be prohibited, as well as the construction of a milkweed corridor from Canada to Mexico. NAFTA made this announcement because of declining monarch numbers and calls from scientists for a coordinated strategy.

The second example is the call from 11 US senators to combat the spread of Asian carp. Asian carp have invaded a number of major rivers in the US, and have their spread has been of major concern to scientists. The 11 senators have taken this scientific concern seriously, requesting federal money and that the Army Corps of Engineers devise a way to stop the Asian carp spread.

There seems to be promising anecdotal evidence that issues of scientific concern are influencing policy decisions. This signals a potential shift; maybe scientists are winning the public perception and policy war. But the war is by no means over. There are still major issues (e.g., climate change) that require more substantial policy action. Scientists, especially those who are effective and engaged, need to continue to communicate with public and policy audiences. Every scientifically informed policy decision should be seen as a signal of the willingness of audiences to listening to scientists and that communicating science can work.

Ludwig D., Mangel M. & Haddad B. (2001). ECOLOGY, CONSERVATION, AND PUBLIC POLICY. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, 32, 481-517.


Monday, March 24, 2014

Debating the p-value in Ecology

It is interesting that p-values still garner so much ink: it says something about how engrained and yet embattled they are. This month’s Ecology issue explores the p-value problem with a forum of 10 new short papers* on the strengths and weaknesses, defenses and critiques, and various alternatives to “the probability (p) of obtaining a statistic at least as extreme as the observed statistic, given that the null hypothesis is true”.

The defense for p-values is lead by Paul Murtaugh, who provides the opening and closing arguments. Murtaugh, who has written a number of good papers about ecological data analysis and statistics, takes a pragmatic approach to null hypothesis testing and p-values. He argues p-values are not flawed so much as they are regularly and egregiously misused and misinterpreted. In particular, he demonstrates mathematically that alternative approaches to the p-value, particularly the use of confidence intervals or information theoretic criteria (e.g. AIC), simply present the same information as p-values in slightly different fashions. This is a point that the contribution by Perry de Valpine supports, noting that all of these approaches are simply different ways of displaying likelihood ratios and the argument that one is inherently superior ignores their close relationship. In addition, although acknowledging that cutoff values for significant p-values are logically problematic (why is a p-value of 0.049 so much more important than one of 0.051?), Murtaugh notes that cutoffs reflect decisions about acceptable error rates and so are not inherently meaningless. Further, he argues that dAIC cutoffs for model selection are no less arbitrary. 

The remainder of the forum is a back and forth argument about Murtaugh’s particular points and about the merits of the other authors’ chosen methods (Bayesian, information theoretic and other approaches are represented). It’s quite entertaining, and this forum is really a great idea that I hope will feature in future issues. Some of the arguments are philosophical – are p-values really “evidence” and is it possible to “accept” or “reject” a hypothesis using their values? Murtaugh does downplay the well-known problem that p-values summarize the strength of evidence against the null hypothesis, and do not assess the strength of evidence supporting a hypothesis or model. This can make them prone to misinterpretation (most students in intro stats want to say “the p-value supports the alternate hypothesis”) or else interpretation in stilted statements.

Not surprisingly, Murtaugh receives the most flak for defending p-values from researchers working in alternate worldviews like Bayesian and information-theoretic approaches. (His interactions with K. Burnham and D. Anderson (AIC) seem downright testy. Burnham and Anderson in fact start their paper “We were surprised to see a paper defending P values and signi´Čücance testing at this time in history”...) But having this diversity of authors plays a useful role, in that it highlights that each approach has it's own merits and best applications. Null hypothesis testing with p-values may be most appropriate for testing the effects of treatments on randomized experiments, while AIC values are useful when we are comparing multi-parameter, non-nested models. Bayesian similarly may be more useful to apply to some approaches than others. This focus on the “one true path” to statistics may be behind some of the current problems with p-values: they were used as a standard to help make ecology more rigorous, but the focus on p-values came at the expense of reporting effect sizes, making predictions, or careful experimental design.

Even at this point in history, it seems like there is still lots to say about p-values.

*But not open-access, which is really too bad. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

How are we defining prediction in ecology?

There is an ongoing debate about the role of wolves in altering ecosystem dynamics in Yellowstone, which has stimulated a number of recent papers, and apparently inspired an editorial in Nature. Entitled “An Elegant Chaos”, the editorial reads a bit like an apology for ecology’s failure at prediction, suggesting that we should embrace ecology’s lack of universal laws and recognize that “Ecological complexity, which may seem like an impenetrable thicket of nuance, is also the source of much of our pleasure in nature”.

Most of the time, I also fall squarely into the pessimistic “ecological complexity limits predictability” camp. And concerns about prediction in ecology are widespread and understandable. But there is also something frustrating about the way we so often approach ecological prediction. Statements such as “It would be useful to have broad patterns and commonalities in ecology” feel incomplete. Is it that we really lack “broad patterns and commonalities in ecology”, or has ecology adopted a rather precise and self-excoriating definition for “prediction”? 

We are fixated on achieving particular forms of prediction (either robust universal relationships, or else precise and specific numerical outputs), and perhaps we are failing at achieving these. But on the other hand, ecology is relatively successful in understanding and predicting qualitative relationships, especially at large spatial and temporal scales. At the broadest scales, ecologists can predict the relationships between species numbers and area, between precipitation, temperature and habitat type, between habitat types and the traits of species found within, between productivity and the general number of trophic levels supported. Not only do we ignore this foundation of large-scale predictable relationships, but we ignore the fact that prediction is full of tradeoffs. As a paper with the excellent title, “The good, the bad, and the ugly of predictive science” states, any predictive model is still limited by tradeoffs between: “robustness-to-uncertainty, fidelity-to-data, and confidence-in-prediction…. [H]igh-fidelity models cannot…be made robust to uncertainty and lack-of-knowledge. Similarly, equally robust models do not provide consistent predictions, hence reducing confidence-in-prediction. The conclusion of the theoretical investigation is that, in assessing the predictive accuracy of numerical models, one should never focus on a single aspect.” Different types of predictions have different limitations. But sometimes it seems that ecologists want to make predictions in the purest, trade-off free sense - robustness-to-uncertainty, fidelity-to-data, and confidence-in-prediction - all at once. 

In relation to this, ecological processes tend to be easier to represent in a probabilistic fashion, something that we seem rather uncomfortable with. Ecology is predictive in the way medicine is predictive – we understand the important cause and effect relationships, many of the interactions that can occur, and we can even estimate the likelihood of particular outcomes (of smoking causing lung cancer, of warming climate decreasing diversity), but predicting how a human body or ecosystem will change is always inexact. The complexity of multiple independent species, populations, genes, traits, all interacting with similarly changing abiotic conditions makes precise quantitative predictions at small scales of space or time pretty intractable. So maybe that shouldn’t be our bar for success. The analogous problem for an evolutionary biologist would be to predict not only a change in population genetic structure but also the resulting phenotypes, accounting for epigenetics and plasticity too. I think that would be considered unrealistic, so why is that where we place the bar for ecology? 

In part the bar for prediction is set so high because the demand for ecological knowledge, given habitat destruction, climate change, extinction, and a myriad of other changes, is so great. But in attempting to fulfill that need, it may be worth acknowledging that predictions in ecology occur on a hierarchy from those relationships at the broadest scale that we can be most certain about, moving down to the finest scale of interactions and traits and genes where we may be less certain. If we see events as occurring with different probabilities, and our knowledge of those probability distributions declining the farther down that hierarchy we travel, then our predictive ability will decline as well. New and additional research adds to the missing or poor relationships, but at the finest scales, prediction may always be limited.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The lifetime of a species: how parasitism is changing Darwin's finches

Sonia Kleindorfer, Jody A. O’Connor, Rachael Y. Dudaniec, Steven A. Myers,Jeremy Robertson, and Frank J. Sulloway. (2014). Species Collapse via Hybridization in Darwin’s Tree Finches. The American Naturalist, Vol. 183, No. 3, pp. 325-341

Small Galapagos tree finch,
Camarhynchus parvulus
Darwin’s finches are some of the best-known examples of how ecological conditions can cause character displacement and even lead to speciation. Continuing research on the Galapagos finches has provided the exceptional opportunity to follow post-speciation communities and explore how changes in ecological processes affect species and the boundaries between them. Separate finch species have been maintained in sympatry on the islands because various barriers maintain the species' integrity, preventing hybrids from occurring (e.g. species' behavioural differences) or being recruited (e.g. low fitness). As conditions change though, hybrids may be a source of increased genetic variance and novel evolutionary trajectories and selection against them may weaken. Though speciation is interesting in its own right, it is not the end of the story: ecological and evolutionary pressures continue and species continue to be lost or added, to adapt, or to lose integrity.

A fascinating paper by Kleindorfer et al. (2014) explores exactly this issue among the small, medium, and large tree finches (Camarhynchus spp.of Floreana Island, Galapagos. Large and small tree finches first colonized Floreana, with the medium tree finch speciating on the island from a morph of the large tree finch. This resulted in three sympatric finch species that differ in body and beak size, but otherwise share very similar behaviour and appearance. However, ecological and environmental conditions have not remained constant on Floreana since observations in the 1800s: a parasite first observed on the island in 1997, Philornis downsi has taken residence and has caused massive nestling mortality (up to 98%) for the tree finches. Since parasite density is correlated with tree finch body size, the authors predicted that high parasite intensity should be linked to declining recruitment of the large tree finch. If females increasingly prefer smaller mates, there may also be increased hybridization, particularly if there is some advantage in having mixed parental ancestry. To test this, the authors sampled tree finch populations on Floreana in both 2005 and 2010. Parasite numbers increase with high precipitation, and so by combining museum records (collected between 1852-1906, when no parasites were present), 2005 sampling records (dry conditions, lower parasite numbers), and 2010 sampling records (high rainfall, high parasite numbers), they could examine a gradient of parasite effects. They measured a number of morphological variables, collected blood for genotyping, estimated individual age, measured parasite intensity in nests, and observed mate choice.

Philornis downsi:
larval stage parasitizes nestlings.
(a Google image search will provide
some more graphic illustrations)
For each time period, morphological measurements were used to cluster individuals into putative species. The museum specimens from the 1800s had 3 morphologically distinguishable populations, the true small, medium and large tree finch species usually written about. In 2005 there were still 3 distinct clusters, but the morphological overlap between them had increased. By 2010, the year with the highest parasite numbers, there were only two morphologically distinguishable populations. Which species had disappeared? Although recent studies have labelled the two populations as the “small” tree finch and “large” tree finch, the authors found that the 2010 “large” population is much smaller than the true large tree finches collected in 1852-1906, suggesting perhaps the large tree finch was no longer present. Genetic population assignment suggested that despite morphological clustering, there were actually only two distinct species on Floreana in 2005 and 2010: it appeared that the large tree finch species had gone extinct, and the boundary between the small and medium tree finch species had become porous, leading to morphologically intermediate hybrids.

The question then, is whether the extinction of the large tree finch and the collapse of the boundary between small and medium tree finches can be attributed to the parasite, and the changing selective pressures associated with it. Certainly there were clear changes in size structure (from larger birds to smaller birds) and in recruitment (from few young hybrids to many young hybrids) between the low parasite year (2005) and the high parasite year (2010). Strikingly, parasite loads in nests were much lower for hybrids and smaller-bodied populations than for the larger-bodied population (figure below). Compared to their large-bodied parents, hybrids somehow avoided parasite attack even in years with high parasite densities (2010). When parasite loads are high, hybrid offspring have a fitness advantage, as evidenced by the large number of young hybrids in 2012. The collapse of the large tree finch population is also likely a product of parasite pressures as well, as females selected smaller mates with comparatively lower parasite loads. Despite the apparent importance of the parasites in 2010, the existence of only a few older hybrid individuals, and greater morphological distance between populations seen in the 2005 survey (a low parasite period) suggests that selection for hybrids varies greatly through time. Though the persistence of the Philornis parasite on Floreana may prevent re-establishment of the large tree finch, changing parasite densities and other selective pressures may continue to cause the boundaries of the remaining finch populations to overlap and retract in the future. The story of Darwin's finches is even more interesting if we consider that it doesn't stop at character displacement but continues to this day.
From Kleindorfer et al 2014: Philornis parasite intensity in nests sampled in 2005 (lower parasite) and 2010/2012 (higher parasite), for nests of the small-bodied (population 1), intermediate hybrid, and larger-bodied (population 2) individuals.

Friday, March 7, 2014

EEB & Flow inclusion in Library of Congress Web Archives

I just received this email the other day, and nearly deleted it as another spam email (along with fake conference invites, obscure journal submission invites, and offers to make millions). But apparently it's legit, and the US Library of Congress has been archiving web sites for some time. They are now building a collection of science blogs (link, link), which is a pretty cool idea, and we're excited to be part of it :-)