We’re all stupid to someone

I spend an increasing proportion of my time collaborating with engineers and theoretical physicists. It keeps me on my toes and I’ve had to adjust to very different research cultures. The engineers, for example, get particularly excited by designing a technical solution to a problem. The long haul of data collection and statistical analysis has less appeal; once they’ve proven it can be done then they’re itching to move on to the next challenge. Likewise physicists genuinely do spend meetings in front of whiteboards sketching equations, which leaves me feeling a bit frazzled. Nevertheless, I’ve learnt that if an idea can’t be expressed mathematically then it hasn’t been properly defined. That turns out to apply to a lot of verbal models in ecology.

Both engineers and physicists are ready to publish at an earlier stage than most ecologists would, and their papers are a model of efficiency in preparation. Not for them a lengthy waffle of an introduction, followed by an even more prolonged and rambling discussion. Cut to the point, make it clearly, then wrap up. It makes me wonder whether we’re doing something wrong in ecology. I certainly don’t enjoy either reading or writing long papers, and I can’t fully justify our practice.

I also find myself fielding questions or tackling issues that would never come up when chatting to an ecologist. One of the misapprehensions I’ve had to counter is that trees are not lollipops. It might be more computationally efficient to assume that trees are spheres of leaves on a stick, and it can lead to some elegant mathematical solutions, but the outcomes are going to depart from natural systems pretty rapidly. Our disciplinary training leads us to consider particular assumptions to be perfectly reasonable, despite them sounding ridiculous to others or bearing little resemblance to the real world. (Even within their own field, forest ecologists are not immune to this syndrome).

Understanding how another researcher arrived at their assumptions can be informative — sometimes it boils down to analytical frameworks, computational efficiency or technological limitations, all of which are valid reasons to consider accepting a proposition that on first hearing might sound far-fetched. Likewise it helps to have our own assumptions challenged. Sometimes we are able to justify and defend them. Other times they leave us exposed, which is when we know we’re onto something important.

It’s also a sad but common trait within all social groups to mock outsiders for making mistakes about things that appear self-evident to those on the inside. Ecologists can easily play the same game, but make no friends by doing so. I had a chat with one of my collaborators this week who was itching to find a small tree on campus, scan it using ground-based LiDAR, then strip and record the sizes of all its leaves. It’s a perfectly reasonable idea (if a lot of hard work). The main stumbling block is that it’s the middle of February and we’re a good three months at least from having full leaf canopies to play with. An obvious problem? Only to someone who spends their life thinking about trees the whole time. We had a laugh about it then moved back to our simulations, which have the considerable benefit of not shedding their leaves seasonally.

This kind of interaction only makes me wonder what crazy things I’m responsible for coming out with in our meetings. It also makes me grateful to my collaborators for their patience in humouring me, because I’m pretty sure that I come across as an idiot more often than I realise. This to me is the greatest pleasure of interdisciplinary collaborations. We could all spend the rest of our careers treading the same academic paths, publishing in the same journals, and not need to stretch ourselves quite as far. By heading way outside our comfort zones we all end up learning more than we expected to, so long as we don’t mind feeling stupid every now and again (which happens every time I get tangled in algebra). If you’re not willing to be wrong then you’re not willing to learn. And if I end up the subject of an amusing anecdote at a theoretical physics meeting? That’s fine by me. I hope it raises a good laugh. As a wise man once said, ridicule is nothing to be scared of.


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