Category Archives: science

Integrating the Social Sciences with the Environmental and Earth Sciences

Seven years ago, I was invited to participate in a panel at NIH in Bethesda charged with evaluating the joint NSF/NIH interdisciplinary program on the Ecology of Infectious Disease. While there was an explicit call for the participation of social and behavioral sciences in the call for proposals, very few social scientists were getting involved in this remarkable program. Having participated in a wide array of similarly interdisciplinary panels, I knew that this was a common dilemma: the architects of the panel (whether it is a panel evaluating grant proposals, an interdisciplinary symposium, or an edited volume), who are typically natural scientists of some sort, make a good-faith effort to bring social scientists into the fold, but generally have little luck. Through a series of slightly hilarious miscommunications and travel snafus, I was unable to attend the meeting in Bethesda. I holed up for a weekend in a cottage in Santa Fe (where I had been participating in an panel the previous week) and wrote a document on how researchers working on the ecology of infectious disease could engage the social sciences and social scientists. As I contemplate my new role in the School of Earth, Energy, and the Environment at Stanford, it seems like a propitious time to revisit this white paper.

The stakes for involving the social sciences in environmental research – broadly construed – are high. Massive – potentially existential – problems like climate change, emerging pandemic disease, and large-scale extinction have both human drivers and enormous consequences for human welfare. This said, there are precious few social scientists – people charged with understanding human behavior and societies – who are engaged in research on environmental problems. This problem is particularly acute at elite institutions such as leading research universities.

Since human behavior is central to many aspects of most environmental problems, the contributions of social scientists to work on environmental problems is important and, quite possibly, necessary for dealing with the major problems associated with this domain of research. Understanding environmental problems such as climate change is obviously of major significance for state actors (e.g., governments, regulatory bodies)  and, ultimately, people more generally. Why then is it so difficult to engage social scientists in these research questions? This seems all the more puzzling given the amount of money potentially available for this research, particularly when compared to the funding available within the social science disciplines. There is clearly a collective action problem here: the generation of a public good that could come from the cooperation of social scientists and natural scientists is being inhibited somehow. Presumably, there would be benefits for social scientists who chose to collaborate with natural scientists on important environmental problems. Why then are we stuck with the collective action problem?

Sometimes, there is an explicit attempt to get social scientists to do the bidding of natural scientists in promoting social or cultural change for their desired ends. The eminent Stanford ecologist, Paul Ehrlich  has called for research into the mechanisms that change social norms, suggesting that there is an urgency to changing norms because of mounting environmental problems. The irony here, of course, is that in trying to engage social scientists in research on the environment, Ehrlich and other interested natural scientists needs to induce a change in social norms.

In an essay reviewing models for changing social norms,  Ehrlich and the great Princeton ecologist Simon Levin note that they did not even attempt to address how asymmetries of power or social networks affect the spread of social norms. Unfortunately, this is exactly the problem facing natural scientists trying to engage social scientists and models that fail to acknowledge these factors are doomed to failure. Within both the academy and society more broadly, there are distinct power asymmetries across scientific fields and, in general, social science fields are on the losing end of such power asymmetries. The great majority of social scientists can not compete with natural scientists with respect to research funding or the prestige (or volume) of of their publications.

When power/prestige gradients are steep, disciplines are likely to become insularized. An adaptive response to a collective’s inability to compete across disciplines is to, consciously or not, collude in agreeing that the only relevant opinions about the quality/volume of individual scholars’ research are other members of the scholars’ discipline. There are institutional practices that can facilitate this (e.g., the manner in which promotions are managed). I suggest that insularized disciplines will also fetishize theory above all other intellectual outcomes. Theory becomes fetishized at the expense of answering interesting and important questions or developing new methodologies for answering important questions. There are few checks on the degree to which theory can become abstruse and convoluted when its development becomes decoupled from answering questions. There comes a point where only very narrow specialists can ever hope to understand the intricacies of a particular theoretical tradition and be successful. Emphasizing theoretical development above all else within a discipline is thus a path toward disciplinary insularity and is the enemy of both interdisciplinarity and problem-focused research.

Social science disciplines do not gain prestige or other within-field benefits from engaging in the substance of human-environmental interactions. This arises in part because of the dynamics of differentiation from higher-prestige science disciplines engaged in these questions. There is also a positive feedback. Way back when I first came to Stanford, I was at a party where most of the other party-goers were political scientists. At the time, I was struck by the fact that there didn’t seem to be anyone in the department who studied environmental politics. I took the opportunity that this party afforded to ask a fellow assistant professor in that department why this was the case. His answer was simply “because no one could ever get tenure at Stanford studying environmental politics.” This conversation piqued my interest and I have now had a similar conversation with quite a few economists and political scientists. While not everyone is as blunt as my interlocutor in 2003, most have agreed broadly that working on environmental questions is not the route to professional advancement and these topics are therefore avoided by promising junior scholars trying to forge research careers.

I should probably note that economics provides an interesting exception to the power/prestige hierarchy. It’s really a topic that deserves its own post, so I won’t get into it too much here, but I think that economics is an exception that proves the rule. While the discipline is certainly more prestigious than, say, anthropology (!), I think that it’s hard to imagine a more insular discipline that fetishizes theory – and its mathematical accoutrements – more and in which professional incentives are absolutely not aligned with the interests of interdisciplinary, problem-based science.

Another phenomenon that has become a barrier to genuine interdisciplinary engagement for social scientists is the tendency for scientists from high-prestige disciplines to dabble in social science. The hilariously half-assed surveys that some scientists field when they want to get at the “human dimensions” of their problem come immediately to mind.

At a more structural level, I think about network science. When one attends the Sunbelt Social Networks Conference, one can frequently hear grumbling about how a bunch of physicists have swooped in and created what is sometimes known as a “new science” of networksIt is rare to find citations to the substantial social science literature on the topics many physicists write on other than the token citations to Milgram or possibly Simmel. New terms for well-described phenomena are invented and go largely to cultural fixation. Prior work (often 20 years old) is ignored. Papers on social networks get published in Physical Review D rather than established technical journals like Social Networks, Computational and Mathematical Organization Theory, or the Journal of Mathematical Sociology. Within-discipline citations are circular. Concepts having little interest to social scientists (for good reason) go to fixation and demand being addressed despite dubious relevance (e.g., “scale-free” networks).

I am actually of two minds about this phenomenon. On the one hand, it would be nice if this “new science” did a better job acknowledging that smart people have been working on these topics for quite a long time. On the other hand, I think that we need to have more more than the small handful of methodological innovators who work on social network analysis from within social sciences departments. The volume of quality work coming out of the physical sciences is almost certainly greater than that coming out of social science departments. A big part of this is the social organization of science (see below), but surely part of this is about getting smart people to work on important problems. We need to have more social scientists who are willing to engage in the general science literature where the visibility is greater (e.g., compare the citation patterns and general visibility of Science vs. CMOT!). Social scientists need to be willing to take the risk of publishing their strongest results in high-prestige general science journals like Science, Nature, PNAS. Yes, we will usually get rejected, but that’s no different from the experience of natural scientists, and we are certain to never get into these high-impact journals if we never even try.

I do not, in any way, want to decry the engagement of high-prestige natural scientists with the social sciences. Indeed, this is something we desperately need! But it needs to be real engagement rather than either dilettantism or intellectual imperialism. Three examples of physicists who switched disciplines and had enormous positive effects come immediately to mind: Harrison White (Sociology, Columbia), Bob May (Epidemiology, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Oxford), and my sometime mentor, Shripad Tuljapurkar (Demography/Population Biology, Stanford). These are all scholars who took the substance and the history of their new disciplines seriously and have made enormous contributions. My amazing Ph.D. student Mike Price is a physicist-turned-anthropologist who is poised to make some truly fundamental contributions to anthropology, evolutionary biology, and economics.

A key issue that has not been sufficiently addressed in the differential funding, productivity, and status within universities is the social organization of science. The natural sciences are generally structured for productivity: organized labs, large groups working toward a common research goal, substantial division of labor. This social organization of science certainly interacts with institutional structures. For example, the allocation of teaching load and the manner in which activities (i.e., lab meetings, co-taught classes) are credited often differs systematically between the natural and social sciences. For the most part, social scientists still follow a more individualist model of scholarly production. Papers may be written with students, but research groups, if they exist, are not necessarily structured for production toward a common research goal. My own situation is instructive on this topic. As an anthropologist, I have always had more of a natural-science culture to my research group. This said, my “lab” has always been more a loose confederation of people more or less interested in similar things, than a group focused on a clearly-articulated research goal.  There was a point not that long ago when I had Ph.D. students simultaneously working on the following topics:  bushmeat in Cameroon, sex workers in China, malaria ecology in the Colombian Amazon, water security in Caribbean Colombia, sago horticulture in West Papua, disease transmission networks in Uganda, rodent population cycling and hantavirus transmission, TB in South Africa, food sharing in Nunavik. Now that I’m based in a natural science department, there is hope for some more coherence.

Really Inviting Social Scientists to the Table: A Power-Inversion Strategy

We have a situation where lower-prestige disciplines effectively opt out of competing with high-prestige ones, where runaway theory fetishism institutionally insulates scholars interested in similar phenomena from each other, and where substantive applications to problems of human-environment interaction are institutionally blocked. How do we get social scientists engaged?

The simple answer is that professional incentives of social-science researchers (particularly junior ones) and the institutional and societal priorities of solving vital problems involving the environment and human well-being need to be aligned. The first step is to get social scientists to the table to foster an environment of collaboration. Being mindful of the power dynamics across fields, collaboration opportunities need to be framed in terms of categories of thought and research questions of intrinsic interest to social scientists.  This may sound trivial, but it is key that this framing be consistent with the autochthonous development of ideas within the social sciences, rather than (even well-intentioned) natural scientists’ conceptions of what social science is. Even though an RFP or other invitation may seem like something in which social scientists should be interested to natural scientists and program officers, it may not obviously address institutionally important or interesting questions, theories, or methodologies from the social scientists’ perspective.

Remember, the system of professional reward works reasonably well from any individual social science researcher’s perspective. We expect agents to be risk-averse and such risk-aversion in this context leads to the collective action problem that we are forgoing a public good of increased understanding – and maybe even the ability to positively intervene in – significant environmental challenges of humanitarian, social, and economic import. By framing questions in terms of existing research themes in the social sciences, we may be able to overcome the risk-aversion because properly framed research opportunities should not be professionally risky.

Some areas within social science of relevance to the environmental sciences include:

  • political economy, global-to-local political relationships, the development of power asymmetries – particularly in regard to access to resources, health, etc.
  • equity, justice, property rights, and social movements
  • trust, governance, conflict
  • consumption, social, cultural and symbolic capital
  • institutions
  • migration, indigeneity, and ethnicity
  • markets, commodities, motivations, values and cosmologies, and time horizons

In brief, if we want social scientists to become engaged with research generally seen as beneficial from a societal perspective, we have to let them “do their thing” first and let the natural science do the complementing. Rather than asking how social science can contribute to natural science research agendas, we must sometimes ask how natural science can contribute to social science research agendas. Some examples from infectious disease ecology: How can thinking about the emergence in the western hemisphere of Zika virus help us understand the development of trust or its implications for governance? How do neoliberal economic policies promote the emergence of Nipah virus of Japanese encephalitis? Why does the Indonesian government refuse to provide H5N1 samples to the US CDC or WHO? This certainly doesn’t mean that it always has to work this way, but it must work this way sometimes if progress is to be made.

I do think that natural scientists and social scientists need to be able to sit down and put together intellectually strong, multi-disciplinary research projects together. However, the way to get social scientists engaged in the first place is to frame the research possibilities in terms that are relevant to them. From here, real interdisciplinarity can be achieved.

AAA Post-Mortem

Well, it’s been a long time and there are bunch of things I should really catch up on here. I spent last year on sabbatical in the very remote location, at least half a mile from my house, of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, where I was working on various book manuscripts that seem to grow in number the more I write. Then there’s the fact that I changed Earth Systems Science. This is a topic that clearly requires a bit of explication at some point, but now is not the time. I figured I’d break back into the blog by doing my semiregular, highly-selective review of the American Anthropological Association meetings.

The meetings this year were in Minneapolis, which is a lovely city, but maybe not the best place for a conference that meets in mid-November. Apparently, the weather was beautiful for the first couple days. However, I had spent the beginning of the week in Atlanta at the meeting of the American Society for Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (that was a very interesting meeting, but this post is about AAA). This meant that I had to fly in late Friday evening before my Saturday session. By this time, the weather had changed to something slightly more horrifying. While my flight seemed like a relatively long-haul (4.5 hours from SFO), we nonetheless flew in a regional jet. A storm had moved into the Twin Cities area by Friday afternoon and our little plane got tossed around quite a bit in our approach to MSP. In fact, we flew in a holding pattern for about an hour before the pilot came on intercom and said that we “we’re going to try to land” Try? It was a white-knuckle landing in which we experienced more yaw than I care to remember. There are many reasons that I’m grateful that our try at landing was successful, and high among those is the fact that I didn’t relish the thought of climbing back through that unsettled air if we had failed on our first pass.

Once safely on the ground, I was able to take the lovely (and cheap!) light rail straight to downtown, about three blocks from the conference venue. I don’t know what one calls the precipitation that was falling at this point (sleet? freezing rain? wintery mix?), but it was quite a shock for this adopted Californian.

The meeting was held in the Minneapolis Convention Center, a cavernous space that the 5,000 or so anthropologists didn’t come close to filling. This gave the conference a bit of a ghost-town feeling. Adventitious encounters were minimal and I definitely saw far fewer anthropologists of different stripes than I have at past meetings. The registration process was surprisingly efficient (maybe because I was registering on what I thought was the last day and there wasn’t much of a crowd). Rather than the standard canvas bag, we were given fluorescent green plastic (?) bags. I have actually wondered whether I hallucinated this, since I threw mine out immediately and have been completely unable to find a picture on one on the internets, but Rex over at Savage Minds has also commented on the bizarre bags (alas, I don’t think they were soy fiber, Rex).

Then there were the conference badges. Not so much badges as they were bibs — a bonus to the messy eaters in our midst! They were bright red (if you are lucky enough to be a AAA member) and were reminiscent of those travel wallets that are designed to fit a passport and shout “I’m a tourist, please harass me!” Too bad I left my fanny-pack at home. Once again, AAA astounds me with its tone-deaf marking of outsiders. Oh, you’re not a member of our club? Then wear this other-colored bib to display your status for all to see! I’ve been to many different societies’ conferences and AAA is the only one where I’ve experienced this practice.

If we’re being perfectly honest here, I’m not big on conference talks. I generally try to minimize the number of attend. Let’s face it, most conference talks are not great and when you have to submit your talk nine months before the conference, freshness of material tends not to be super high. I spend most of my time at conferences meeting with people: planning a paper with co-authors, strategizing with program officers, meeting with editors, catching up with former students, dining and drinking with colleagues I haven’t seen in years. This is the really productive work of an academic conference. Nonetheless, I was curious what AAA had to offer. I found the online program so difficult to use that I gave up on even trying to find talks I wanted to see (this is another topic that Rex takes up hilariously — I couldn’t agree more on his review). This tool was clearly not designed by anyone who actually attends academic conferences. The more I use it to write this piece, the more comically dysfunctional I realize it is. Who thinks it’s a good idea to hide the author names in a search result? See the screenshot below for an example of what gets returned from a search for Anthropology and Environment Society talks:

screenshot of online schedule search

I organized a session for the Evolutionary Anthropology Society entitled, “Evolutionary Anthropological Approaches to Inequality.” It seemed to me that there is a group of human behavioral ecologists out there doing long-term ethnographic work, measuring economic and demographic variables, and thinking hard about how people adapt in a rapidly-changing world, and that these scholars might have some real insights into the mechanisms generating economic inequality. I was right.

One of my goals for this session was to beat the bushes for contributions from scholars other than the usual suspects. Don’t get me wrong; I’m very fond of the usual suspects in EAS, but there is a lot of great work being done that is both relevant to our section’s mission and engages different communities of scholars. I had some success recruiting different people in the initial call for papers. Unfortunately, when these new folks saw how much it costs to present a paper at AAA (the conference is very expensive, particularly when you adjust for the overall quality of the scientific program), they backed out. Fortunately, we had enough people still signed up that we were able to retain our session (apparently, you only need four speakers to stay on the program). When faced with a sparse session, the organizer has a few options: add a discussant, give speakers longer slots, open up a discussion. I decided to opt for yet another strategy. We wildcatted three late-breaking talks by junior researchers. Obviously, these talks didn’t make the program (not sure that’s much of a penalty though, given what a mess the program was), but it still gave the speakers the opportunity to present their research in front of a crowd of at least 50 (we had a great turn-out for the entire session).

The line-up for the session included a number of stars from EAS (well, and me):

  1. Paul Hooper (Emory), “If You Know What Feeds Hierarchy, then You Can Starve It”
  2. Siobhán Mattison (UNM), “Market Integration, Kinship, and Social Inequality Among the Mosuo of Southwest China”
  3. me (Stanford),”State-Dependence, Uncertainty, and the Economic Rationality of Poor People”
  4. Katie Starkweather (MPI), “Subsistence Strategies: Risk, Reward and Gender Roles for the Boat-Dwelling Shodagor of Bangladesh”

We missed Tamas David-Barrett, who had to deal with some emergent business back home. Our late-breaking talks were contributed by Elspeth Ready (Stanford), E’lana Jordan (Stanford), and Dave Nolin (Missouri). All were great. This was E’lana’s debut, as she is just back from the field, and she killed it. Elspeth was, as ever, dazzling in her analytical sophistication and the general bad-assery of her fieldwork.

The other EAS session, “Finding Insights in the Field: Ethnographic Experience and the Scientific Process,” organized by former student and current Omidyar post-doc at SFI, Elly Power, was also terrific. All the talks in this session were very good and the attendance was excellent. Naturally, I was particularly partial to the incredibly sophisticated analysis that Elly presented to close out this excellent session.

This has now happened enough times at AAA that it has tweaked that paranoid part of my brain. Our EAS session was scheduled at the same time as a great-looking session sponsored by Anthropology and the Environment Society called “Emergent Landscapes, Disturbance Ecology, and New Approaches in Ecological Anthropology.” Friends and colleagues involved in this session included Mark Moritz (Ohio State), Steve Lansing (Nanyang Technological University, Singapore), Brian Codding (Utah), Sean Downey (Maryland), and Kathy Galvin (Colorado State), among others. This session would have been of great interest to many in EAS, but, unless you’re Hermione Granger, you can only be in one session at a time. It was particularly frustrating because the editor for the new journal, Nature Human Behavior, also had to choose between sessions. These are constituencies who have natural affinities and we should work on getting them to coordinate somehow, AAA scheduling be damned.

Once again, there was apparently nothing newsworthy at AAA, as a Google news search turns up no hits from the actual meeting. This is a big difference between AAA and other major professional meetings, where new discoveries or novel analyses make their way into different quarters of the news media. The usual defensive response to this critique is that anthropology is more a humanities discipline (which, of course, is itself debatable) and, as such, doesn’t lend itself to “discoveries” or press releases. I don’t buy that. A similar search for the MLA, for example, turns up quite a few stories. I think it’s something about which we should be concerned as a discipline. While I am heartened by some of the work I saw at AAA (or from which I was structurally blocked from seeing but about which I heard in conversations with speakers later that evening), I really wonder about the relevance of our discipline as a whole. In principle, I believe the world really needs anthropology — perhaps now more than ever. But, in practice, I’m not sure what anthropologists are doing is what the world needs.

Among other things, I wonder if we really need to have meetings in convention centers. The public spaces seemed particularly sparse this year and many of the sessions I walked by looked like they had more speakers than audience members. I know it’s hard, but maybe we need to conduct a bit of quality control. Of course, I should be careful what I ask for. Given the fact that EAS is not a powerful section of AAA, we would almost certainly lose, even though our sessions are very well attended. This may sound heretical, but maybe we should collect data on session attendance and factor that into which sessions get included. Surely, the number of people who actually attend a session is a better measure of interest than the number of people who belong to a given section. In my experience, both EAS, BAS, and Anthropology and the Environment would do quite well on that criterion, even if they are relatively small sections.

I will probably keep going to AAA, at least occasionally, not because I think it’s a good conference in general. I will go because there is a core of great young researchers in EAS and I want to continue to support them, even if AAA is, at best, an uneasy home for them.

Seriously, People, It's Selection, Not Mutation!

I just read an excellent piece at Slate.com this morning by Benjamin Hale. He notes that the scariest, most insidious thing about Ebola Virus Disease is that the disease capitalizes on intimate contact for transmission. While diseases such as influenza or cholera are transmitted by casual contact, frequently to strangers, via aerosolized droplets (influenza) or fecally contaminated water (cholera). Caretakers, and especially women, are hit hard by EVD. Hale writes,

…the mechanism Ebola exploits is far more insidious. This virus preys on care and love, piggybacking on the deepest, most distinctively human virtues. Affected parties are almost all medical professionals and family members, snared by Ebola while in the business of caring for their fellow humans. More strikingly, 75 percent of Ebola victims are women, people who do much of the care work throughout Africa and the rest of the world. In short, Ebola parasitizes our humanity.

True, and tragic, enough. But this article falls prey to one of my biggest frustrations with the reporting of science, one that I have written about recently in the context of the current EVD epidemic ravaging West Africa.

In the list Hale presents of the major concerns about EVD, he notes: “The threat of mutation,” citing concern that Ebola virus might become airborne in a news report in Nature and the New York Times article that got me so worked up 10 days ago. Earlier this week, there was yet another longish piece in Nature/Scientific American that mentions “mutation” seven times but never once mentions selection. Or in another Nature piece,  UCSF infectious disease physician Charles Chiu is quoted: “The longer we allow the outbreak to continue, the greater the opportunity the virus has to mutate, and it’s possible that it will mutate into a form that would be an even greater threat than it is right now.” True, mutations accumulate over time. Not true, mutation alone will make Ebola virus a greater threat than it is now. That would require selection.

While the idea of airborne transmission of Ebola virus is terrifying, the development of the ability to be transmitted via droplet or aerosol would be an adaptation on the part of the virus. Adaptations arise from the action of selection on the phenotypic variation. Phenotypes with higher fitness come to dominate the population of entities of which they are a part. In the case of a virus such as Ebola virus, this means that the virus must make sufficient copies of itself to ensure transmission to new susceptible hosts before killing the current host or being cleared by the host’s immune system. While efficient transmission of EVD by aerosol or droplet would be horrible, equally horrible would be an adaptation that allowed it to transmit more efficiently from a dead host. It’s not entirely clear how long Ebola virus can persist in its infectious state in the environment. In a study designed to maximize its persistence (indoors, in the dark, under laboratory conditions), Sagripanti and colleagues found that Ebola virus can persist for six days. Under field conditions, it’s probably much shorter, but CDC suggests that 24 hours in a reasonably conservative estimate.

The lack of a strong relationship between host survival and pathogen transmission is why cholera can be so devastatingly pathogenic. The cholera patient can produce 10-20 liters of diarrhea (known as “rice water stools”) per day. These stools contain billions of Vibrio cholerae bacteria, which enter the water supply and can infect other people at a distance well after the original host has died. The breaking of the trade-off between host mortality and the transmissibility of the pathogen means that the natural break on virulence is removed and the case fatality ratio can exceed 50%. That’s high, kind of like the current round of EVD. Imagine if the trade-off between mortality and transmission in EVD were completely broken…

Changes in pathogen life histories like increased (or decreased) virulence or mode of transmission arise because of selection, not mutation, and this selection results from interactions with an environment that we are actively shaping. Sure, mutation matters because it provides raw material upon which selection can act, but the fact remains that we are talking primarily about selection here. Is this pervasive misunderstanding of the mechanisms of life the result of the war of misinformation being waged on science education in the US? I can’t help but think it must at least be a contributor, but if it’s true, it’s pretty depressing because this misunderstanding is finding its way to some of the world’s top news and opinion outlets.

EEID 2014 Wrap-Up

It’s been a long time since I’ve written in monkey’s uncle. Life has gotten pretty busy and my seeming inability to write brief entries has led me to neglect the blog this year. However, I am freshly back from the Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Disease Conference in Fort Collins, Colorado and feel compelled to give my annual run-down. The conference was hosted by friend and colleague Mike Antolin, Sue Vandewoude, and my erstwhile post-doc, now CSU researcher, Dan Salkeld. Nice job, folks, on a very successful conference.

EEID is pretty much the best meeting. As I noted in last year’s post, I love its future-orientation. EEID is a meeting that foregrounds the work of junior scientists and there was, as ever, a tremendous array of human capital on display at this meeting. This drives home to me the importance of investment in professional training and research programs that specifically develop human capital. This community exists in large measure because of the innovative program jointly offered by NSF and NIH. Thanks as ever to the vision and hard work of Josh Rosenthal, Sam Scheiner, and all the funders (e.g., support from The Gates Foundation can be found all around this conference) for this area. It’s always great to catch up with smart, fun friends. Plenty of time was spent talking science and drinking craft beer (what a beer town Ft. Collins is!) with the likes of Peter Hudson, Jessica Metcalf, Ottar Bjornstad, Aaron King, Mike Antolin, Tony Goldberg, Issa Cattadori, Maciej Boni, Marm Kilpatrick and, of course, Dan Salkeld. It was nice to meet and chat, if only briefly, with my sometime remote collaborator Paul Sharp, who gave what I understand to be an extremely stimulating keynote on the complicated and surprising evolution of malaria (alas, I missed it as I was delayed getting to Ft. Collins). I also spent some quality time learning about acquired immunity in dogs with Colin Parrish. This may come in handy for some ideas that Jess Metcalf and I have been playing around with.

There is a great tradition of the EEID hike and closing banquet/dance. Ft. Collins provided a beautiful and challenging hike out in Lory State Park. The view from the top of Arthur’s Peak was pretty amazing.

View from the top of the trail on Arthur's Peak, Lory State Park, Ft. Collins.
View from the top of the trail on Arthur’s Peak, Lory State Park, Ft. Collins.

At Wednesday’s banquet, I’m afraid to say that Princeton once again dominated the dance floor as we all rocked out to the amazing Denver funk/rock/jam band Kinetix (great choice, Mike). The Stanford showing was disappointing in part because of the early departure of some of our most enthusiastic dancers. Don’t get cocky though, Princeton. We’ll be gunning for you next year.

The entirety of Tuesday morning’s session was given over to communicating science. Dan Salkeld warmed up the crowd with some hilarious examples of the reporting frenzy that ensued following the publication of our paper on plague dynamics in prairie dog towns or, more recently, Hillary Young‘s work showing that excluding large ruminants increases rodent density in Kenya. Wow. Dan also used my Stanford colleague Rebecca Bird‘s work as an example of how an unexpected story can engage readers and listeners. My collaborator Tony Goldberg gave a talk that was also not lacking in ridiculous headlines thanks to his “viral” nose-tick work. David Quammen, author of outstanding popular science books such as The Song of the Dodo and Spillover (which Bill Durham and I use for our class on environmental change and emerging infectious disease), gave a terrific presentation in which he consolidated a lot of nice, practical advice on the craft of writing engaging work into 18 points, amply illustrated by anecdotes of characters from our field. Sonia Altizer from the University of Georgia introduced the crowd to the opportunities (and pitfalls) of citizen science and suggested that it might just be possible to engage the public in disease ecology data collection. Some examples she identified included the granddaddy of citizen-science in the US run by the Laboratory of Ornithology at Cornell, the ZomBee Watch at SFSU, and her own Project MonarchHealth. If I had to summarize this session in one pithy phrase, I think it would have to be “Yay, ecologists!”

Quammen took to Twitter to call us out for being behind the curve with respect to social media.

While there were, in fact, a few of us tweeting the occasional tidbit from the conference, I think his general point is valid. This stuff is intrinsically interesting and we can do a much better job communicating to broad publics.

Some talks that really caught my attention.

Ary Hoffmann gave a great talk about the complexities of using bacteria of the genus Wolbachia to control the Aedes mosquitoes that transmit dengue in Australia (and elsewhere). Wolbachia infects mosquitoes and can have a variety of effects on their biology. The reason artificial infection of mosquitoes wit this bacterium seems so promising as a means of biological control is that the offspring of crosses between infected and uninfected mosquitoes are not viable. This is obviously a very substantial fitness cost to the mosquitoes and this creates serious challenges for getting the infected mosquitoes to persist and take over local populations. Hoffmann presented a cool result about the invasibility of infected mosquitoes wherein in the early phases of introduction there is an unstable point in the mosquito dynamics. At this point, if the infected mosquitoes are above a threshold, they will successfully invade, otherwise, they will die out because of the inherent fitness costs of the Wolbachia infection. One policy challenge that arises is that to get a local population of mosquitoes above the invasibility threshold, researchers and vector-control specialists have to sometimes introduce a lot of mosquitoes. This means that the number of mosquitoes locally can increase substantially and, as you can imagine, this isn’t always popular with communities.

Fellow Anthropologist Aaron Blackwell from UCSB gave a fantastic talk on our “old friends”, the helminths (cue the freaky electron micrograph of a helminth’s mouth!). Aaron participates in the Tsimane Health and Life History Project which was started by colleagues Mike Gurven (also at UCSB) and Hilly Kaplan (New Mexico). Using sophisticated multi-state Markov hazard models (go Anthropology!), Aaron showed that co-infection with helminths and Giardia is less frequent than expected among this population that experiences ubiquitous exposure to both pathogens and that, in fact, infection with the one appears to be protective against infection with the other. One of the most provocative results he presented showed that helminth infection actually lowered systolic blood pressure in men by an amount equivalent to the increase that comes from aging ten years. Chronic helminthic infection may be a reason why Tsimane men’s systolic blood pressure does not rise precipitously with age as it does in the US. This result, which may provide fresh insights into the mechanisms of hypertension, a major source of morbidity in the US, struck me as particularly poignant given the demeaning comments made about NSF funding for work among the Tsimane from none other than Lamar Smith (R–TX), the chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

Anna Savage, a post-doc with the National Zoo in Washington DC, gave an awesome talk on the comparative immunogenetics of of frogs with respect to infection with the devastating fungal infection, chytridiomycosis. Chytridiomycosis has been identified as a major cause of amphibian extinction worldwide and Anna showed surprising heterogeneity in immune response across frog species. This is a subject with which I have only passing familiarity, but her talk demonstrated an amazing sophistication in integrating different levels of biological organization and making sense of a dauntingly complex problem. I would wager that Dr. Savage is one to keep an eye on.

The organizers tried a scheduling format that was a bit different from last year, wherein each session started with two half-hour talks generally given by somewhat more senior people. The second half of each session was then given over to brief ten-minute talks, typically delivered by more junior people. This format is nicely in keeping with the great EEID tradition of promoting the research of junior scientists. A few short talks that I found especially interesting included one by Sarah Hamer, from Texas A&M, on Chagas disease in the United States. She presented sobering data from national blood-bank surveillance showing a surprising number of Chagas-infected samples coming from donors with no history of travel to Latin America. When pushed by a questioner, she suggested that she would consider Chagas to be endemic in the US, at least in dogs and possibly even in people. Carrie Cizauskas, formerly of Wayne Getz‘s shop at Berkeley and now with Andy Dobson and Andrea Graham at Princeton, give a nice talk on the role of both stress and sex hormones in mediating macroparasite infection in wild ungulates in Etosha National Park, Namibia. Romain Garnier from Princeton described a very nifty image-processing approach to scanning large volumes of histological slides for indications of infection.

I perhaps didn’t see as many posters as I should have. The problem with the poster sessions is that one keeps running into various people one wants to talk to. I did manage to check out the poster of my former freshman advisee and current Princeton EEB student Cara Brook. She’s got an awesome PhD project studying the multi-host ecology of infectious disease in Malagasy fruit bats.

I’m looking forward to next year’s meeting at the University of Georgia already. I’m also looking forward to resuscitating the pedagogical workshop that used to be a signature feature of this EEID meeting. More on that later…

AAA Recap, 2013

I guess it’s that time of the year. You know, when I recap, in my bittersweet way, the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association? I am an anthropologist, yes, but I am deeply torn in my feelings for my discipline, my department, and my flagship (?) professional organization. The question mark arises because I am also a physical anthropologist and a demographer, so an argument can be made that my flagship professional organization is actually AAPA or PAA, but there is something about the unmarked category that is AAA. It’s supposed to represent anthropologists, broadly construed. I honestly don’t think that it does a very good job at this, but the reasons behind that are complex and I’ve only allocated myself a bit of time to blog since I’m desperately trying to catch up from all the travel I’ve done recently.

The meeting this year was in Chicago, which is a pretty amazing town. I stayed in the the Blackstone Renaissance Hotel, which was recently renovated in a lovely Art Deco theme. We did Chicago stuff. Tube steaks were eaten, the quantity of cheese that can be crammed into a deep-dish pizza was marveled at, beer was drunk.

AAA is a pretty bizarre scene. For starters, it’s at the weirdest time. It seems like the peculiar timing of AAA during November must be disruptive for just about every academic anthropology department, particularly because it is nearly a week-long endeavor. It seems that the life in an American university carries on just fine without the anthropologists around for a week in the middle of the Fall term, thank you very much. A couple innovations this year struck me as particularly incongruous, given the content of much current scholarship in anthropology. First, anyone who registered for the meeting as a non-member was given a yellow badge holder to mark them as outsiders. This seemed a bit gratuitous. I’m not sure what’s gained from such marking — they already pay a substantially higher rate for the privilege of attending, do they also need to be shamed for their lack of faith? Second, in the hall outside the main bunch of conference rooms, there was a television that played a loop of anthropologists talking about how important anthropology is. This struck me as unnecessarily propagandistic and it’s not at all clear to me who the target audience for this performance was. Presumably, those of us who were there already think that anthropology is a worthwhile endeavor. Seems to me that it’s the rest of the world we need to convince. Once again, there appears to be almost nothing considered newsworthy to emerge from this meeting of 6,000+ scholars with the exception of a paper on the similarities in street-scanning behaviors by police and fashion scouts.

Another strange feature of AAAs is that computers, cables, remotes, laser-pointers, etc. were not provided in the conference rooms but needed to be provided by the session chairs. This is the first time I’ve experienced this in years at a major conference and it definitely slowed us down quite a bit at the start of our session. I’m not sure what was going on with that. Maybe the budget to pay for AV services was already spent on the fancy video production that reminded us how important we all are?

This year, I organized and chaired a session, which was sponsored by EAS, on social network analysis in evolutionary anthropology. Unfortunately for the EAS party-goers from the previous night, the session ran at 08:00 on Saturday morning. Despite this challenge, the room was packed and the audience generally seemed into it. We had great talks by Stanford’s own Elly Power and Ashley Hazel. Elly talked about her amazing dissertation research on using social capital to understand costly displays of religious devotion in southern India. Ashley talked about her dissertation work in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment on mobility and the changing landscape of STI risk in Kaokoland, northern Namibia. David Nolin, one of our discipline’s most talented young methodologists, presented a very clever test of generalized reciprocity using dichotomous exchange data from his work in Lamalera in Indonesia. Ben Hannowell, yet another talented methodologist to come out of the WSU/UW IGERT program, discussed his collaborative work with Zack Almquist on inferring dominance structure from tournament graphs. The always marvelous Rebecca Sear talked about her recent synthetic work on the effects of kin on fertility (kinship, of course, is the classic application of networks in anthropology since genealogies are just special cases of graphs). John Ziker presented a network-based approach to understanding food sharing and reciprocity from his terrific ethnographic work in Siberia. I closed out the talks with my own combination history of anthropological (and ethological) contributions to social network analysis and pep talk to encourage anthropologists to be confident about their methods and have the courage to innovate new ones the way people like John Barnes or Clyde Mitchell or Elizabeth Bott or Kim Romney or Russ Bernard did!

After schmoozing for a bit post-session, I headed over to the Saturday EAS session on methodological advances in experimental games. While I didn’t see all the talks, the ones I saw were pretty cool. In general, I have mixed feelings about experimental economic games. There are lots of results and some fairly convincing stories to go along with some of the results. However, absent of context, I really wonder what they are measuring and, if they are indeed measuring something, whether it is actually interesting. This session made some real progress in dealing with this question and I think it really highlighted the comparative advantage of anthropologists in the multi-disciplinary landscape of twenty-first century behavioral science. While economists such as Loewenstein (1999) might lament the fact that there is no way to play context-less games and that this jeopardizes the validity and generality of such experimental games, anthropologists are experts in thinking specifically about context and its effect on behavior. Furthermore, anthropologists are still the go-to researchers for providing contextual diversity. In this session, we heard about experimental games played in Bolivia, Siberia, Fiji, and on the streets of Las Vegas. One talk in this session that particularly impressed me was given by Drew Gerkey, who is currently a post-doc at SESYNC in Annapolis, Maryland (and soon to be an assistant professor at Oregon State University — Go Beavs!). I was at SESYNC earlier in the week and got a chance to talk pretty extensively with him about this work. Drew makes the point that seems obvious now that I’ve heard (a sign of an important idea) that, in the evolution of cooperation literature, the counterfactual scenario to cooperation is frequently untenable. One does not simply go it alone when one is a hunter/fisher in Siberia. Drew also designed a number of very clever experimental games that fit the types of social dilemmas faced by his Siberian interlocutors. Very nice work indeed.

In addition to the sessions I attended, it was nice to see and chat with various smart, fun people I know who sometimes find their way to AAAs. I missed my partner in crime from last year’s AAA, Charles Roseman, who left the day I arrived, probably too bloated from the binge on Chicago’s amazing food he no doubt shared with Fernando Armstron-Fumero to be of much use to anyone. However, I got to see Siobhan Mattison, Brooke Scelza, Brian Wood, Rick Bribiescas, Mary Shenk, Aaron Blackwell, Pete Kirby and, briefly, Shauna Burnsilver and Dan Hruschka. Despite my general misgivings about the conference, it is nice to have an excuse to see so many cool people in one place at one time.

Should You Get a Ph.D.?

I wrote this as a long email to a list this week and, based on the feedback I’ve received, I thought it would be worthwhile posting it here. This is a topic to which I have given a lot of thought over the years, starting as a fellowships tutor at Harvard during my own grad school years and, more recently, as an undergraduate advisor and resident fellow at Stanford. While the specific context that elicited this essay was whether getting a Ph.D. in anthropology is worth the cost given uncertain job prospects, I think that the approach applies more generally.

Choosing to go to grad school is a decision that is fraught with uncertainty and a degree of risk. There are plenty of nightmare stories to go around about great teachers/scholars who get trapped in an exploitative cycle of perpetual adjuncting. However, a Ph.D. can also be a platform from which to launch a productive and rewarding career both within the academy and outside of it. Here are some of the issues that I think any student approaching a Ph.D., especially in anthropology, should consider:

(1) Are you passionate about research and communication of your research? For better or worse, the rewards within the academy accrue to research and publication. Some professional schools have made substantial progress in developing teaching (and clinical) tracks for faculty that reward teaching and other applied work, but this is typically not the case in disciplines housed in colleges of arts & sciences, as anthropology typically is. You need the passion for your research question to get you through the inherent tedium of research and the many obstacles to successful publication. A commitment to research does not mean giving up on teaching or other activities (such as organizational or other applied work). The NSF career awards, for example, require applicants to coherently weave their research interests with their teaching. However, research requires a commitment and, based on my rather unscientific sample, it seems that the people who are most productive in research are the people who are really driven to answer questions and are committed to publishing not because they want the professional rewards, but because they care about communication of their results. You have to be willing to write at night when you’re exhausted after you’ve put kids to bed and your grading is done. You have to write on weekends, etc. A passion for answering questions goes beyond a fascination with ideas, a love of social theory, or a commitment to education. There is a certain obsessive quality to the top researchers — answering questions and communicating your results becomes almost a compulsion. This is what helps you deal with the inevitable (and frequent) obstacles and allows you to succeed.

(2) Are you enrolling in a program that will pay for your Ph.D.? Given all the vagaries of the faculty job market, you do not want to go into debt doing a Ph.D. The financial details of different Ph.D. programs have become more critical than ever. Make sure you are informed! Ph.D. programs should pay their students’ tuition and a livable wage since Ph.D. students perform vital services for research universities. These services include the obvious things like teaching and doing the grunt work of research assistants but includes some less obvious, but perhaps more important, things like providing prestige to their institutions. The Ph.D. graduates of an institution are the people who go on to get prestigious jobs and write important works and garner fancy awards and societal recognition that reflect positively on their mother institution. It is difficult to over-state the importance of prestige for the functioning of the top research universities and Ph.D. students play a fundamental role in constructing this prestige. Many programs will pay for a Ph.D., but they are very competitive, as you can imagine. Big grad factories that provide little in the way of resources to their students — either financial or human capital investments — do no one any favors.

(3) If you choose to matriculate in a Ph.D. program, take advantage of the opportunity to gain some concrete (and portable!) research skills. Anthropologists have developed some really amazing methodologies that can be applied broadly. I think that anthropologists sometimes have an inferiority complex about our methods. It never ceases to amaze me how often I hear our students say that anthropologists don’t have methods! To get a sense of the potentially far-reaching impact of methodological innovation in anthropology, check out the many students of Kim Romney and Russ Bernard as just two examples. Ethnography is a very trendy idea in industry now. Having a slightly more tangible skill in addition (e.g., survey design, statistics, GIS, the use of qualitative analysis software like Atlas.ti or NVivo, social network analysis) improves not only your academic job prospects but your ability to secure a job in an NGO or industry.

(4) Communicate with people outside of your small disciplinary circle. The ability to communicate across disciplines increases the number of job opportunities both within the academy and without. With an anthropology Ph.D., you may expect a job in an anthropology department. However, if you are able to communicate with a wider audience and, crucially, convince people why your research is important, you might be able to land a job in a department of environmental studies or ethnic studies or women’s studies or urban studies or community health or … you get the idea. The academy of the future is far more interdisciplinary and interdisciplinarity places a premium on the ability to communicate across traditional disciplinary lines. Talk to people outside your department, write journalistic pieces for local media outlets, or even write a blog. I’m continually surprised how many people with whom I make professional connections who know me from the blog I write in about four times a year!

(5) Are you mobile and flexible? Many people who get sucked into the vicious cycle of perpetual adjunct teaching get that way because they are tied to a specific geographic location because of partner, family, or other obligations. There are good graduate programs all over the country and there are actually jobs but many would require you to move to some place you might not have considered. This includes overseas. Sometimes you take a job that may not be your ideal if it provides you an opportunity to get the work done that then allows you to trade up. If you are constrained to remain in a very specific geographic location, I would think twice about matriculating in a Ph.D. program.

I suspect that this is a step in the professional development process where we lose a lot of outstanding potential first-gen faculty. Mobility and flexibility are easier if you are an upper-middle-class grad who has been financially buffered by your parents and, importantly, when your social support derives from a mobile nuclear family. I think there are many ways that modern professionals resemble hunter-gatherers more than their more recent agricultural forebears and the key commonality is mobility and flexibility: emphasis on the nuclear family as the unit of production, bilateral kinship, high logistical and residential mobility, an ethos emphasizing individuality over group identity. Hunter-gatherers follow prey across a landscape while professionals follow job opportunities. People who are tied to a locality, whether for livelihood-based reasons or persistent social ties, will find this type of flexibility more difficult.

Getting a Ph.D. can pay off, both intellectually and professionally but it takes some planning and, frankly, quite a bit of luck if you’re going to make it in the academy. What is less up to luck is the fallback. Have a fallback plan; think strategically. It won’t hurt your chances within the academy and, in fact, will probably help. There are great opportunities for anthropology Ph.D.s with excellent research and communication skills. I have former students who work for major conservation NGOs (e.g., WCS, WWF) and public health organizations, and who have even started green businesses. I have friends who have gone into industry and done very well. Sapient and Olson, for example, are two companies I know that get major input from anthropologists and anthropological methodologies. Anthropological insights and, yes, methodologies are in demand if you are willing to look outside of the usual channels for employment for anthropologists.

It’s easy to get depressed by the academic job market (and many other job markets for that matter). However, with a little bit of planning and flexibility, getting a Ph.D. in anthropology (or any discipline really) can be an excellent ticket to a rewarding career both within and outside of the academy.

Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Disease

I am recently back from the 2013 Ecology and Evolution of Infections Disease Conference at Penn State University. This was quite possibly the best meeting I have ever attended, not even for the science (which was nonetheless impeccable), but for the culture. I place the blame for this awesome culture firmly on the shoulders of the leaders of this field and, in particular, the primary motivating force behind the recent emergence of this field, Penn State’s Peter Hudson. Since I had attended the other EEID conference at UGA earlier this Spring (another great conference), I had no intention on attending the Penn State conference this year. Then, one day in late March, Nita Bharti asked me if I was going and mentioned, “You know it’s Pete’s 60th birthday, right?” Well that sealed it; I really had no choice.  I simply had to go if for no other reason than to pay my due respect to this man I admire so greatly. Pete has the most relentless optimism about the future of science and a willingness to make things happen that I have ever encountered and, in this way, has provided me one of my primary role models as a university professor and mentor. He has played a role in developing so many of the brilliant people who make this field so exciting, it’s amazing (just a sample that comes immediately to mind: Ottar Bjornstad, Matt Ferrari, Nita Bharti, Marcel Salathé, Isabella Cattadori, Jamie Lloyd-Smith, Shweta Bansal, Jess Metcalf…). Of course, even as I write this, I realize the joint influence of another major player in the field, Bryan Grenfell, formerly of Penn State but now at Princeton, becomes obvious. A great scientist in his own right, Pete is the master facilitator, providing the support (and institutional interference!) that allows young scholars to thrive. He is a talent-spotter extraordinaire.

The talks that made up the bulk of the scientific program were, for the most part, excellent. The average age of the speakers was about 30, maybe just a bit higher. When one attends an academic conference, one typically expects that the major addresses to the collected masses will be by geezers, er, senior scholars in the field. There was a clear play at inversion of the standard model here though. Speakers were clearly chosen because of their trajectories, not their past achievements.  That’s pretty great. When I went up for tenure at Stanford, I was told that Stanford does not really care about what you have done; it cares about what you will do. Of course, the best information that the university has about your future work is the work you have already done. This conference embodied this spirit by placing the future (and, in many cases, current) leaders of the field in the key speaking roles while some of the biggest names in ecology, population biology, and epidemiology sat happily in the audience (e.g., joining Hudson and Grenfell were Andy Dobson, Andrew Read, Mick Crawley, Charles Godfray, Mike Boots, Mercedes Pascual, Les Real, Matt Thomas, …)

The tone set by these great mentors carries through to the whole culture of the conference, where senior people attended the poster sessions, sat with students at lunches and dinners, and schmoozed at the plentiful open-bar mixers. For example, on the first full day of the conference, there was an afternoon poster session that started at 4:30 (we had been in back-to-back sessions since 8:30). This session was preceded by an hour-long poster-teaser session in which grad students and post-docs got up and presented 60-second (and, as Andrew Read noted, not one nanosecond more) teasers of their posters. Bear in mind, this session was entirely comprised of students and post-docs. It was striking that essentially every seat in the house was occupied and all the major players were present. The teasers were great – many were very funny, including a haiku apparently written by a triatomine bug and translated to us by Princeton EEB student Jennifer Peterson.

After the teasers, the conference went en masse to the fancy new Millenium Science Complex (it turns out that Pete Hudson has physical capital projects in addition to human capital ones!). There, participants milled about the 150 posters. After spending quite a bit of time doing this – and dutifully getting pictures of all my lab with their posters – I thought to check the time and realized it was nearly 6:30. The poster session had been going for two hours and nearly everyone was still there, including all the luminaries. It helped that there was free beer. I tweeted my amazement at this realization:

That is, in fact, Princeton‘s Bryan Grenfell moving fast in the middle of the picture, apparently making a bee-line for Michigan’s Aaron King. Andrew Read is in the far background, talking to a poster-presenter (he has that posture).

Scientific highlights for me included Caroline Buckee‘s talk about measuring mobility in the context of malaria transmission in Kenya and Derek Cummings‘s talk on the Fluscape Project to measure spatial heterogeneity in influenza transmission in China. I am a long-time fan of this project and it’s nice to see the great work that has come out of it. These talks were right in my wheelhouse of interest, but there were plenty other cool ones including Britt Koskella‘s talk on the dynamics of bacteria and phage on tree leaves.

Stanford was exceedingly well represented at this conference. My lab had no fewer than five posters. Ashley Hazel presented on her work with Carl Simon on modeling gonorrhea transmission dynamics in Kaokoland, Namibia. Whitney Bagge presented her work on remote-sensing of rodent-borne disease in Kenya. Alejandro Feged presented work on the transmission dynamics of malaria in the Colombian Amazon among the indigenous Nukak people. Laura Bloomfield presented her remote sensing and spatial analysis work from our project on the spillover of primate retroviruses in Western Uganda. I closed things out with a minimalist poster on simple graphical models for multiple attractors in vector-borne disease dynamics in multi-host ecologies. In addition to my lab group, Giulio De Leo (with whom I have been running a weekly disease ecology workshop at Woods since winter quarter) was there, helping to bridge all sorts of structural holes in our collective collaboration graphs.

The other thing that comes out of these meetings, especially more intimate ones like EEID, is some actual work on collaborative projects. I managed to find some time to sit down and discuss plans with collaborators as well as do some shameless recruitment for my planned re-submission of the Stanford Biodemography Workshops. I’m really excited about some of these collaborations, including one that brings together my two major areas of interest: biodemography and life history theory and infectious disease ecology.

Oh, and I’m convinced that there must be an interpretive dance component to the Ph.D. exam in the Grenfell lab. This is certainly the most parsimonious explanation for much of what I saw Wednesday night.

Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Disease, 2013

I am recently back from the Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Disease (EEID) Principal Investigators’ Meeting hosted by the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia in lovely Athens. This is a remarable event, and a remarkable field, and I can’t remember ever being so energized after returning from a professional conference (which often leave me dismayed or even depressed about my field). EEID  is an innovative, highly interdisciplinary funding program jointly managed by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. I have been lucky enough to be involved with this program for the last six years. I’ve served on the scientific review panel a couple times and am now a Co-PI on two projects.

We had a big turn-out for our Uganda team in Athens and team members presented no fewer than four posters. The Stanford social networks/human dimensions team (including Laura Bloomfield, Shannon Randolph and Lucie Clech) presented a poster (“Multiplex Social Relations and Retroviral Transmission Risk in Rural Western Uganda”) on our preliminary analysis of the social network data. Simon Frost’s student at Cambridge, James Lester, presented a poster (“Networks, Disease, and the Kibale Forest”) analyzing our syndromic surveillance data. Sarah Paige from Wisconsin presented a poster on the socio-economic predictors of high-risk animal contact (“Beyond Bushmeat: Animal contact, injury, and zoonotic disease risk in western Uganda”) and Maria Ruiz-López, who works with Nelson Ting at Oregon, presented a poster on their work on developing the resources to do some serious population genetics on the Kibale red colobus monkeys (“Use of RNA-seq and nextRAD for the development of red colobus monkey genomic resource”).

Parviez Hosseini, from the EcoHealth Alliance, also presented a poster for our joint work on comparative spillover dynamics of avian influenza (“Comparative Spillover Dynamics of Avian Influenza in Endemic Countries”). I’m excited to get more work done on this project which is possible now that new post-doc Ashley Hazel has arrived from Michigan. Ashley will oversee the collection of relational data in Bangladesh and help us get this project into high gear.

The EEID conference has a unique take on poster presentations which make it much more enjoyable than the typical professional meeting. In general, I hate poster sessions. Now, don’t get me wrong: I see lots of scientific value in them and they can be a great way for people to have extended conversations about their work. They can be an especially great forum for students to showcase their work and start the long process of forming professional networking. However, there is an awkwardness to poster sessions that can be painful for the hapless conference attender who might want, say, to walk through the room in which a poster session is being held. These rooms tend to be heavy with the smell of desperation and one has to negotiate a gauntlet of suit-clad, doe-eyed graduate students desperate to talk to anyone who will listen about their work. “Please talk to me; I’m so lonely” is what I imagine them all saying as I briskly walk through, trying to look busy and purposeful (while keeping half an eye out for something really interesting!).

The scene at EEID is much different. All posters go up at the same time and the site-fidelity of poster presenters is the lowest I have ever seen. It has to be since, if everyone stuck by their poster, there wouldn’t be anyone to see any of them! What this did was allow far more mixing than I normally see at such sessions and avoid much of the inherent social awkwardness of a poster session. Posters also stayed up long past the official poster session. I continued to read posters for at least a day after the official session ended. Of course, it helps that there was all manner of great work being presented.

There were lots of great podium talks too. I was particularly impressed with the talks by Charlie King of Case Western on polyparasitism in Kenya, Maria Diuk-Wasser of Yale on the emergence of babesiosis in the Northeast, Jean Tsao (Michigan State) and Graham Hickling‘s (Tennessee) joint talk on Lyme disease in the Southeast, and Bethany Krebs’s talk on the role of robin social behavior in West Nile Virus outbreaks. Laura Pomeroy, from Ohio State, represented one of the other few teams with a substantial anthropological component extremely well, talking about the transmission dynamics of foot-and-mouth disease in Cameroon. Probably my favorite talk of the weekend was the last talk by Penn State’s Matt Thomas. They done awesome work elucidating the role of temperature variability on the transmission dynamics of malaria.

It turns out that this was the last EEID PI conference. Next year, the EEID PI conference will be combined with the other EEID conference which was originally organized at Penn State (and is there again this May). This combining of forces is, I’m sure, a good thing as it will reduce confusion and probably make it more likely that all the people I want to see have a better chance of showing up. I just hope that this new, larger conference retains the charms of the EEID PI conference.

EEID is a new, interdisciplinary field that has grown thanks to some disproportionately large contributions of a few, highly energetic people. One of the principals in this realm is definitely Sam Scheiner, the EEID program officer at NSF.  The EEID PI meeting has basically been Sam’s baby for the past 10 years. Sam has done an amazing job creating a community of interdisciplinary scholars and I’m sure I speak for every researcher who has been heavily involved with EEID when I express my gratitude for all his efforts.

The Least Stressful Profession of Them All?

In the spirit of critics misunderstanding the life of university researchers that I started in my last post, I felt the need to chime in a bit on a story that has really made the social-media rounds in the last couple days. This kerfuffle stems from a Forbes piece by Susan Adams enumerating the 10 least stressful jobs for 2013. Reporting on a study from the job-site careercast.com, and to the surprise of nearly every academic I know, she listed university professor as the least stressful of all jobs. Adams writes: “For tenure-track professors, there is some pressure to publish books and articles, but deadlines are few.” This is quite possibly the most nonsensical statement I think I have ever read about the academy and it reveals a profound ignorance about its inner workings. This careercast.com list was also picked up by CNBC and Huffington Post, both of which were completely credulous of the rankings.

Before going on though, I have to give Ms. Adams some props for amending her piece following an avalanche of irate comments from actual professors. She writes:

Since writing the above piece I have received more than 150 comments, many of them outraged, from professors who say their jobs are terribly stressful. While I characterize their lives as full of unrestricted time, few deadlines and frequent, extended breaks, the commenters insist that most professors work upwards of 60 hours a week preparing lectures, correcting papers and doing research for required publications in journals and books. Most everyone says they never take the summer off, barely get a single day’s break for Christmas or New Year’s and work almost every night into the wee hours.

All true.

In the CNBC piece, the careercast.com publisher, Tony Lee, lays down some of the most uninformed nonsense that I’ve ever read:

“If you look at the criteria for stressful jobs, things like working under deadlines, physical demands of the job, environmental conditions hazards, is your life at risk, are you responsible for the life of someone else, they rank like ‘zero’ on pretty much all of them!” Lee said.

Plus, they’re in total control. They teach as many classes as they want and what they want to teach. They tell the students what to do and reign over the classroom. They are the managers of their own stress level.

Careercast.com measured job-related stress using an 11-dimensional scale. These dimensions and the point ranges assigned to each include:

  • Travel, amount of (0-10)<
  • Growth Potential (income divided by 100)
  • Deadlines (0-9)
  • Working in the public eye (0-5)
  • Competitiveness (0-15)
  • Physical demands (stoop, climb, etc.) (0-14)
  • Environmental conditions (0-13)
  • Hazards encountered (0-5)
  • Own life at risk (0-8)
  • Life of another at risk (0-10)
  • Meeting the public (0-8)

These seem reasonable enough, but the extent to which they were accurately assessed for at least this first item in the list is another point altogether.

It is important to note that there is enormous heterogeneity contained in the job title “professor.” There are professors of art history and professors of business and professors of law and professors of vascular surgery, and professors of chemistry, and professors of seismic engineering professors of volcanology and … you get the point. No doubt some of these are more or less stressful than others. Many of these involve substantial work in the public eye and meeting the public. Some involve hazardous environmental conditions and physical demands.

However, I will focus mainly on what I see as the most ludicrous statements made by both Lee and Adams: that professors have no deadlines. My life is all about deadlines: article/book submission deadlines, institutional review board deadlines, peer review deadlines, editorial deadlines, and the all-important grant deadlines. There are the deadlines imposed by my students when they apply for grants or fellowships or jobs and need highly detailed letters of recommendation, often on very short notice. Oh, and guess what: grades are due on a particular date at the end of the term. You know, a deadline? And those classes we teach: better have a lecture ready before the class meets. Again, kinda like a deadline. I think that it is worth noting that one is expected to meet these teaching deadlines even when most professional incentives (at least at a research university) are focused around everything in your job description but teaching. There is a trite phrase describing the life of a professor — particularly a junior professor — that seems to have found its way into the general consciousness, “publish or perish.” Notice that it is not “give coherent, interesting lectures and grade fairly and expediently or perish”!

So, yes, there are deadlines and there are very difficult trade-offs relating to the finiteness of time. Honestly, it’s hard for me to imagine how even a casual observer of the university could not see the ubiquity of deadlines for the professor’s life.

In an excellent rebuttal of this list, blogger Audra Diers writes about both the time demands and the economic realities of obtaining a tenure-track job. I will finish up with a few thoughts on competitiveness and “growth potential.” My experience on a variety of job search committees since coming to Stanford is that there are typically hundreds of highly qualified candidates for any given job search. These are all people who have Ph.D.’s and, frequently, already have jobs at other universities. In the anthropology department at Stanford, the majority of faculty joined Stanford from faculty positions at other universities. It is very difficult to get a job at a university like Stanford directly out of graduate school. Inevitably, you are competing against people who have already been assistant professors (or at least post-docs) at other universities and already have a substantial publication and grant-writing record. The differences in salary, teaching loads, and institutional prestige can be substantial. Browsing the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Almanac of Higher Education can provide some numbers. Many people bust it in lower-prestige universities with the hope of eventually getting an opportunity for a job at a place like Stanford or Berkeley or Harvard. This means publishing important work, often while teaching outrageously high teaching loads at universities with primarily teaching missions and that means long hours, juggling many conflicting demands, and enormous individual drive.

If you are a scientist, you are often competing with other scientists for results. Getting yourself in a position to secure such results means successful grant-writing and attracting top students and post-docs to your lab. Now, this competition is often enjoyable and almost certainly drives innovation, but it can be stressful (and deadline filled!). There is nothing quite like the feeling of looking at some journal’s table of contents that’s shown up in your inbox and realizing you’ve been scooped on a problem you’ve spent years working on. There is always that little bit of fear in the back of your head pushing you to publish your results before someone else does.

Where Lee gets the idea that professors “teach as many classes as they want and what they want to teach” is a mystery to me. Universities (and colleges within universities) have rules for the number of courses their faculty are expected to teach. Sometimes, a professor can buy out of some teaching by securing more research funding that specifically budgets for such buy-outs. Within departments, there is the dreaded curriculum committee. My department’s CC decided this year that I should teach all my courses in the Spring quarter. While it’s been nice to have large chunks of research time this Fall, Spring is going to be horrible. This is hardly teaching as much or what I want to teach. Departments have instructional needs (i.e., “service courses”) and someone needs to teach these. Junior faculty are often dumped upon to teach the service courses (e.g., history of the field, methodological courses) that very few students want to attend.

Writes Adams at Forbes, “The other thing most of the least stressful jobs have in common: At the end of the day, people in these professions can leave their work behind, and their hours tend to be the traditional nine to five.” This is just crazy talk. I work every night, some nights are more effective than others, for sure, but, like many professions, I take this as a given for my job.

So being a university professor is hardly a stress-free life. This doesn’t in any way mean that we don’t like our jobs. Being a tenured professor at a major research university is good work if you can get it. The job carries with it a great deal of autonomy, flexibility, and the ability to pursue one’s passion. As a professor, one interacts with interesting, curious people on a daily basis and helps shape future leaders. The job-related stress felt by a university professor is almost certainly not on par with, say, an infantry soldier or police officer, but the job is not stress-free. It never ceases to surprise me of how ignorant about the workings of universities critics often are. This is an instance where there is no obvious political agenda — the study just got some facts badly wrong — but studies like this contribute to disturbing anti-intellectualism (and concomitant disdain for empirical evidence) that has become a part of American public consciousness.

Thoughts on Black Swans and Antifragility

I have recently read the latest book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile. I read his famous The Black Swan a while back while in the field and wrote lots of notes. I never got around to posting those notes since they were quite telegraphic (and often not even electronic!), as they were written in the middle of the night while fighting insomnia under mosquito netting. The publication of his latest, along with the time afforded by my holiday displacement, gives me an excuse to formalize some of these notes here. Like Andy Gelman, I have so many things to say about this work on so many different topics, this will be a bit of a brain dump.

Taleb’s work is quite important for my thinking on risk management and human evolution so it is with great interest that I read both books. Nonetheless, I find his works maddening to say the least. Before presenting my critique, however, I will pay the author as big a compliment as I suppose can be made. He makes me think. He makes me think a lot, and I think that there are some extremely important ideas is his writings. From my rather unsystematic readings of other commentators, this seems to be a pretty common conclusion about his work. For example, Brown (2007) writes in The American Statistician, “I predict that you will disagree with much of what you read, but you’ll be smarter for having read it. And there is more to agree with than disagree. Whether you love it or hate it, it’s likely to change public attitudes, so you can’ t ignore it.” The problem is that I am so distracted by all the maddening bits that I regularly nearly miss the ideas, and it is the ideas that are important. There is so much ego and so little discipline on display in his books, The Black Swan and Antifragile.

Some of these sentiments have been captured in Michiko Kakutani’s excellent review of Antifragile. There are some even more hilarious sentiments communicated in Tom Bartlett’s non-profile in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

I suspect that if Taleb and I ever sat down over a bottle of wine, we would not only have much to discuss but we would find that we are annoyed — frequently to the point of apoplexy — by the same people. Nonetheless, I find one of the most frustrating things about reading his work the absurd stereotypes he deploys and broad generalizations he uses to dismiss the work of just about any academic researcher. His disdain for academic research interferes with his ability to make cogent critique. Perhaps I have spent too much time at Stanford, where the nerd is glorified, but, among other things, I find his pejorative use of the term “nerd” for people like Dr. John, as contrasted to man-of-his-wits Stereotyped, I mean, Fat Tony off-putting and rather behind the times. Gone are the days when being labeled a nerd is a devastating put down.

My reading of Taleb’s critiques of prediction and risk management is that the primary problem is hubris. Is there anything fundamentally wrong with risk assessment? I am not convinced there is, and there are quite likely substantial benefits to systematic inquiry. The problem is that the risk assessment models become reified into a kind of reality. I warn students – and try to regularly remind myself – never to fall in love with one’s own model. Something that many economists and risk modelers do is start to believe that their models are something more real than heuristic. George Box’s adage has become a bit cliche but nonetheless always bears repeating: all models are wrong, but some are useful. We need to bear in mind the wrongness of models without dismissing their usefulness.

One problem about both projection and risk analysis, that Taleb does not discuss, is that risk modelers, demographers, climate scientists, economists, etc. are constrained politically in their assessments. The unfortunate reality is that no one wants to hear how bad things can get and modelers get substantial push-back from various stakeholders when they try to account for real worst-case scenarios.

There are ways of building in more extreme events than have been observed historically (Westfall and Hilbe (2007), e.g., note the use of extreme-value modeling). I have written before about the ideas of Martin Weitzman in modeling the disutility of catastrophic climate change. While he may be a professor at Harvard, my sense is that his ideas on modeling the risks of catastrophic climate change are not exactly mainstream. There is the very tangible evidence that no one is rushing out to mitigate the risks of climate change despite the fact that Weitzman’s model makes it pretty clear that it would be prudent to do so. Weitzman uses a Bayesian approach which, as noted by Westfall and Hilbe, is a part of modern statistical reasoning that was missed by Taleb. While beyond the scope of this already hydra-esque post, briefly, Bayesian reasoning allows one to combine empirical observations with prior expectations based on theory, prior research, or scenario-building exercises. The outcome of a Bayesian analysis is a compromise between the observed data and prior expectations. By placing non-zero probability on extreme outcomes, a prior distribution allows one to incorporate some sense of a black swan into expected (dis)utility calculations.

Nor does the existence of black swans mean that planning is useless. By their very definition, black swans are rare — though highly consequential — events. Does it not make sense to have a plan for dealing with the 99% of the time when we are not experiencing a black swan event? To be certain, this planning should not interfere with our ability to respond to major events but I don’t see any evidence that planning for more-or-less likely outcomes necessarily trades-off with responding to unlikely outcomes.

Taleb is disdainful about explanations for why the bubonic plague didn’t kill more people: “People will supply quantities of cosmetic explanations involving theories about the intensity of the plague and ‘scientific models’ of epidemics.” (Black Swan, p. 120) Does he not understand that epidemic models are a variety of that lionized category of nonlinear processes he waxes about? He should know better. Epidemic models are not one of these false bell-curve models he so despises. Anyone who thinks hard about an epidemic process – in which an infectious individual must come in contact with a susceptible one in order for a transmission event to take place – should be able to infer that an epidemic can not infect everyone. Epidemic models work and make useful predictions. We should, naturally, exhibit a healthy skepticism about them as we should any model. But they are an important tool for understanding and even planning.

Indeed, our understanding gained from the study of (nonlinear) epidemic models has provided us with the most powerful tools we have for control and even eradication. As Hans Heesterbeek has noted, the idea that we could control malaria by targeting the mosquito vector of the disease is one that was considered ludicrous before Ross’s development of the first epidemic model. The logic was essentially that there are so many mosquitoes that it would be absurdly impractical to eliminate them all. But the Ross model revealed that epidemics – because of their nonlinearity – have thresholds. We don’t have to eliminate all the mosquitoes to break the malaria transmission cycle; we just need to eliminate enough to bring the system below the epidemic threshold. This was a powerful idea and it is central to contemporary public health. It is what allowed epidemiologists and public health officials to eliminate smallpox and it is what is allowing us to very nearly eliminate polio if political forces (black swans?) will permit.

Taleb’s ludic fallacy (i.e., games of chance are somehow an adequate model of randomness in the world) is great. Quite possibly the most interesting and illuminating section of The Black Swan happens on p. 130 where he illustrates the major risks faced by a casino. Empirical data make a much stronger argument than do snide stereotypes. This said, Lund (2007) makes the important point that we need to ask what exactly is being modeled in any risk assessment or projection? One of the most valuable outcomes of any formalized risk assessment (or formal model construction more generally) is that it forces the investigator to be very explicitly about what is being modeled. The output of the model is often of secondary importance.

Much of the evidence deployed in his books is what Herb Gintis has called “stylized facts” and, of course, is subject to Taleb’s own critique of “hidden evidence.” Because the stylized facts are presented anecdotally, there is no way to judge what is being left out. A fair rejoinder to this critique might be that these are trade publications meant for a mass market and are therefore not going to be rich in data regardless. However, the tone of books – ripping on economists and bankers but also statisticians, historians, neuroscientists, and any number of other professionals who have the audacity to make a prediction or provide a causal explanation – makes the need for more measured empirical claims more important. I suspect that many of these people actually believe things that are quite compatible with the conclusions of both The Black Swan and Antifragile.

On Stress

The notion of antifragility turns on systems getting stronger when exposed to stressors. But we know that not all stressors are created equally. This is where the work of Robert Sapolsky really comes into play. In his book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Sapolsky, citing the foundational work of Hans Seyle, notes that some stressors certainly make the organism stronger. Certain types of stress (“good stress”) improves the state of the organism, making it more resistant to subsequent stressors. Rising to a physical or intellectual challenge, meeting a deadline, competing in an athletic competition, working out: these are examples of good stresses. They train body, mind, and emotions and improve the state of the individual. It is not difficult to imagine that there could be similar types of good stressors at levels of organization higher than the individual too. The way the United States come together as a society to rise to the challenge of World War II and emerge as the world’s preeminent industrial power comes to mind. An important commonality of these good stressors is the time scale over which they act. They are all acute stressors that allow recovery and therefore permit the subsequently improved performance.

However, as Sapolsky argues so nicely, when stress becomes chronic, it is no longer good for the organism. The same glucocorticoids (i.e., “stress hormones”) that liberate glucose and focus attention during an acute crisis induce fatigue, exhaustion, and chronic disease when the are secreted at high levels chronically.

Any coherent theory of antifragility will need to deal with the types of stress to which systems are resistent and, importantly, have a strengthening effect. Using the idea of hormesis – that a positive biological outcome can arise from taking low doses of toxins – is scientifically hokey and boarders on mysticism. It unfortunately detracts from the good ideas buried in Antifragile.

I think that Taleb is on to something with the notion of antifragility but I worry that the policy implications end up being just so much orthodox laissez-faire conservatism. There is the idea that interventions – presumably by the State – can do nothing but make systems more fragile and generally worse. One area where the evidence very convincingly suggests that intervention works is public health. Life expectancy has doubled in the rich countries of the developed world from the beginning of the twentieth century to today. Many of the gains were made before the sort of dramatic things that come to mind when many people think about modern medicine. It turns out that sanitation and clean water went an awful long way toward decreasing mortality well before we had antibiotics or MRIs. Have these interventions made us more fragile? I don’t think so. The jury is still out, but it seems that reducing the infectious disease burden early in life (as improved sanitation does) seems to have synergistic effects on later-life mortality, an effect is mediated by inflammation.

On The Academy

Taleb drips derision throughout his work on university researchers. There is a lot to criticize in the contemporary university, however, as with so many other external critics of the university, I think that Taleb misses essential features and his criticisms end up being off base. Echoing one of the standard talking points of right-wing critics, Taleb belittles university researchers as being writers rather than doers (echoing the H.L. Menken witticism  “Those who can do; those who can’t teach”). Skin in the game purifies thought and action, a point with which I actually agree, however, thinking that that university researchers live in a world lacking consequences is nonsense. Writing is skin in the game. Because we live in a quite free society – and because of important institutional protections on intellectual freedom like tenure (another popular point of criticism from the right) – it is easy to forget that expressing opinions – especially when one speaks truth to power – can be dangerous. Literally. Note that intellectuals are often the first ones to go to the gallows when there are revolutions from both the right and the left: Nazis, Bolsheviks, and Mao’s Cultural Revolution to name a few. I occasionally get, for lack of a better term, unbalanced letters from people who are offended by the study of evolution and I know that some of my colleagues get this a lot more than I. Intellectuals get regular hate mail, a phenomenon amplified by the ubiquity of electronic communication. Writers receive death threats for their ideas (think Salman Rushdie). Ideas are dangerous and communicating them publicly is not always easy, comfortable, or even safe, yet it is the professional obligation of the academic.

There are more prosaic risks that academics face that suggest to me that they do indeed have substantial skin in the game. There is a tendency for critics from outside the academy to see universities as ossified places where people who “can’t do” go to live out their lives, the university is a dynamic place. Professors do not emerge fully formed from the ivory tower. They must be trained and promoted. This is the most obvious and ubiquitous way that what academics write has “real world” consequences – i.e., for themselves. If peers don’t like your work, you won’t get tenure. One particularly strident critic can sink a tenure case. Both the trader and the assistant professor have skin in their respective games – their continued livelihoods depend upon their trading decisions and their writing. That’s pretty real. By the way, it is a huge sunk investment that is being risked when an assistant professor comes up for tenure. Not much fun to be forty and let go from your first “real” job since you graduated with your terminal degree… (I should note that there are problems with this – it can lead to particularly conservative scholarship by junior faculty, among other things, but this is a topic for its own post.)

Now, I certainly think that are more and less consequential things to write about. I have gotten more interested in applied problems in health and the environment as I’ve moved through my career because I think that these are important topics about which I have potentially important things to say (and, yes, do). However, I also think it is of utmost importance to promote the free flow of ideas, whether or not they have obvious applications. Instrumentally, the ability to pursue ideas freely is what trains people to solve the sort of unknown and unforecastable problems that Taleb discusses in The Black Swan. One never knows what will be relevant and playing with ideas (in the personally and professionally consequential world of the academy) is a type of stress that makes academics better at playing with ideas and solving problems.

One of the major policy suggestions of Atifragile is that tinkering with complex systems will be superior to top-down management. I am largely sympathetic to this idea and to the idea that high-frequency-of-failure tinkering is also the source of innovation. Taleb contrasts this idea of tinkering is “top-down” or “directed” research, which he argues regularly fails to produce innovations or solutions to important problems. This notion of “top-down,” “directed” research is among the worst of his various straw men and a fundamental misunderstanding of the way that science works. A scientist writes a grant with specific scientific questions in mind, but the real benefit of a funded research program is the unexpected results one discovers while pursuing the directed goals. As a simple example, my colleague Tony Goldberg has discovered two novel simian hemorrhagic viruses in the red colobus monkeys of western Uganda as a result of our big grant to study the transmission dynamics and spillover potential of primate retroviruses. In the grant proposal, we discussed studying SIV, SFV, and STLV. We didn’t discuss the simian hemorrhagic fever viruses because we didn’t know they existed! That’s what discovery means. Their not being explicitly in the grant didn’t stop Tony and his collaborators from the Wisconsin Regional Primate Center from discovering these viruses but the systematic research meant that they were in a position to discover them.

The recommendation of adaptive, decentralized tinkering in complex systems is in keeping with work in resilience (another area about which Taleb is scornful because it is the poor step-child of antifragility). Because of the difficulty of making long-range predictions that arises from nonlinear, coupled systems, adaptive management is the best option for dealing with complex environmental problems. I have written about this before here.

So, there is a lot that is good in the works of Taleb. He makes you think, even if spend a lot of time rolling your eyes at the trite stereotypes and stylized facts that make up much of the rhetoric of his books. Importantly, he draws attention to probabilistic thinking for a general audience. Too much popular communication of science trades in false certainties and the mega-success of The Black Swan in particular has done a great service to increasing awareness among decision-makers and the reading public about the centrality of uncertainty. Antifragility is an interesting idea though not as broadly applicable as Taleb seems to think it is. The inspiration for antifragility seem to lie in largely biological systems. Unfortunately, basing an argument on general principles drawn from physiology, ecology, and evolutionary biology pushes Taleb’s knowledge base a bit beyond its limit. Too often, the analogies in this book fall flat or are simply on shaky ground empirically. Nonetheless, recommendations for adaptive management and bricolage are sensible for promoting resilient systems and innovation. Thinking about the world as an evolving complex system rather than the result of some engineering design is important and if throwing his intellectual cachet behind this notion helps it to get as ingrained into the general consciousness as the idea of a black swan has become, then Taleb has done another major service.