Posted by: Jeremy Fox | November 17, 2011

A subtler, funnier “Spandrels”

Ace evolutionary biologist and blogger Jeremy Yoder pops up in the comments on my post taking down “Spandrels of San Marco,” pointing us to a 1983 paper by Norman Ellstrand that makes the same point as Gould and Lewontin, but in a much funnier and more subtle way.

I should probably take some lessons in scientific rhetoric from Ellstrand. I just had an ms based on my zombie ideas post rejected, in part because the referees found the language off-putting and arrogant. I still believe it was appropriate for me to include rhetoric in the ms, for reasons discussed here. But I’m wondering if perhaps I should’ve chosen a rhetorical “rapier”, a la Ellstrand, rather than a “chainsaw”.


  1. I’ve shown that to my former professor/supervisor in 2000. He was not able to take it as a joke, even though I told him it was just a joke and not to worry about, but got very irritated. (He had published a lot on the adaptive significance of size differences in certain insects.)

    So, chances are that you will irritate the establishment at best and put them off against you at worst, while the folks laughing will only be students.

    • It has occurred to me that, because the readership of the Oikos blog likely skews towards people my age and younger, I may be able to write things on the Oikos blog that likely would irritate some older readers.

  2. Glad you liked it! According to legend (received via someone who spoke to Ellstrand), that article only made it into evolution because of a friendly editor. And then only because Ellstrand agreed to remove a figure he’d made, which would’ve been, at the time, too expensive to print just for a laugh. I believe it was a scatterplot comparing parental and offspring size.

    • It would appear that I will need to get similarly lucky if any of my zombie ideas posts is ever to see print! A lot of *very* good ecologists *love* my first zombie ideas post–but one referee *hated* the ms based on the post, and the other was only lukewarm. I do think the range of reactions here is considerably wider than it would be for a typical paper, which is not really surprising.

      Ellstrand’s experience makes me wonder about the backstory of other papers with really strong rhetoric, or satirical elements, or etc. I’m sure someone must have researched the backstory of “Spandrels of San Marco”. I guess I could just email Brian Dennis and ask if he had a hard time getting his anti-Bayesian polemic published in Ecological Applications. And heck, Ecology just published a paper titled “The arcsine is asinine”–surely there’s a good story about how that title got into print!

      All this has been making me wonder about the customs of scientific writing, how they vary, and whether any of that variation has any rational basis. For instance, is it ok for me to refer to the IDH as a “zombie idea” on a blog, but not in a peer-reviewed paper? If not, why not? In seeing a legitimate place for rhetoric and even satire in the scientific literature, have I been over-influenced by reading too many economics blogs, where strong criticism of your opponents’ ideas (and your opponents themselves!) is commonplace? Is the audience of this blog (which probably is heavily skewed towards ecologists my age or younger), and their views about what’s appropriate, different than that of older ecologists?

      I wonder about all this because any issue on which people strongly disagree despite sharing many similarities (in background, training, etc.) is interesting to me. And I wonder about all this in part because I don’t think scientific writing should be governed by mere custom. There are good, rational reasons for many of the major conventions of scientific writing (e.g., separating “results” from “discussion”). So what are the rational arguments for or against a place for rhetoric and satire in the scientific literature?

  3. I would guess that a “forum” piece would be the place for rhetoric. In a way I think the real virtue of getting it into forums is to legitimize it as idea among more established scientists, given the author I would put just as much credo in an opinion piece in a journal forum as to a well written blog post, but I’m just a nobody post-doc. Its similar to the reaction I got from my faculty last week when I gave a talk on blogs and twitter. “Waste of time” I was told. I think your point is well taken either way and if nothing else would hopefully inspire some people to craft experiments with the express purpose of “chainsawing” those zombie ideas. About chainsaws and rapiers, well, everyone knows you can’t kill a zombie with a rapier. 🙂

    • I would’ve guessed that a Forum piece would be the place for rhetoric–which is why I submitted the ms to the Oikos Forum section. 😉

      • How about WebEcology? It’s a peer reviesed online journal belonging to the Oikos family. I’m very much in favour of this kind of new forms of scientific publishing and WebEcology deserves more attention.

        Also, if you started with the differential disturbance hypothesis as your point of departure, the IDH zomby would be vortexed, IMHO, before you even introduced it.

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