Lab Rats

Ecology meets physics envy

On keeping up in the jargon race

Tom Mahony 7 June 2009

Wide open spaces: even scientific disciplines can have identity crises

Maybe field ecology will never match the fussy precision of the laboratory sciences – but I can live with that

Back in grad school, I took a seminar called “Ecology and Physics Envy.” It involved a lot of smug pontificating about whether ecology was a “real” science or just descriptive natural history stuff: glorified species cataloging and qualitative chin stroking. The question was never resolved in class, and I didn’t much care either way.

After years of field work, I realized ecology did occasionally feel “unscientific,” but not because ecologists are quantitatively lazy (okay, maybe some of us are), but because of the diffuse continuum found in nature and the harsh realities of field work. You can never control your study area like you would a lab experiment, and have to adjust the sampling design and study objectives for realities on the ground.

But, as a result, the language of field ecology rarely sounds as precise, concrete, and downright cool as that offered by the laboratory sciences. So, to be taken seriously, the ecologist must incorporate appropriate jargon when writing a report.

For example, when the report says, “vegetation was quantified using ocular cover estimates,” the translation is: I just eyeballed the plant cover and might be off by an order of magnitude. When the report says, “sample points were subjectively placed using the relevé method,” the reality is: I’d already made my conclusions, and needed some data to support them. When the report says, “the site was surveyed using random meander transects and prioritized based on habitat,” the translation is: there was no way in hell I was going to crawl through that poison oak looking for rare plants. And when the report says, “some areas were not surveyed due to difficult or dangerous access,” the reality is: I cut the survey short because an angry bum was following me around, yelling, and brandishing a forty-ounce bottle of malt liquor.

So, yeah, maybe field ecology will never match the fussy precision of the laboratory sciences. But I can live with that. At least I get plenty of time outside to breathe fresh air and hike through gorgeous open spaces.

Or, in report jargon: I get to conduct random sampling of oxygen/nitrogen ratios in undeveloped, visually symmetrical terrestrial ecosystems.