Putting writing in the daily schedule

If you do research, you probably enjoy it. Research is oddly fun. Talking about ideas and finding ways to test your ideas is intellectually gratifying. Data collection is enjoyable, too, especially when other people do it for you. Even data analysis is fun–it’s exciting to see if a study worked. But writing about research isn’t fun: Writing is frustrating, complicated, and un-fun. (p. 4)

Writing is grim business, much like repairing a sewer or running a mortuary. Although I’ve never dressed a corpse, I’m sure that it’s easier to embalm the dead than to write an article about it. (p. 11)

Only a fool… rewards productive writing with skipping a scheduled writing period. Never reward writing with not writing. Rewarding writing by abandoning your schedule is like rewarding yourself for quitting smoking by having a cigarette. (p. 44 – 45)

Paul J. Silvia
How to Write a Lot


Research parasites

…research synthesists in medicine have recently been described as “research parasites” of primary studies and the researchers who conduct them… ‘Research parasites’ can… serve to increase scientific diversity by adding another ‘trophic level’, thus improving the functioning of the scientific ‘ecosystem’.

Gurevitch et al. (2018)
Nature 555: 175

Whatever we still have

I was recently standing on a ridge in Borneo in a patch of forest that extended only 200 m in any direction, but I could not be sure I was not in a vast forest. If we relax our minds, forgetting temporarily that a patch is small, we can experience again the sense of wonder and desire to understand what we have at hand. These patches are the future of tropical rain forest, so let us treasure them, rather than seeing them as the dregs.

Cam Webb
Conservation Biology 19: 275

Energy-intensive local diversity

… humans tend to sacrifice ecological and geographic heterogeneity for an artificially maintained, energy-intensive, local species diversity. Take, for example, the large numbers of plant taxa maintained in the… cities of the world. Most of these species are horticultural varieties that do well in landscaped gardens and parks. One sees a great variety of such plants… But the roses, citrus, camellias, bougainvilleas, daffodils, eucalyptus, and begonias are everywhere similar.

This combination of local variety and geographic homogeneity produces several pleasant benefits for humans. Not only are the exotic species more spectacular, but the world traveler can always feel botanically at home… But the aesthetic benefits are costly. The price is low geographic diversity and ecological complexity.

-Soulé, M. (1985)
BioScience 35: 727

Tree identification

What are the leaves of the mango tree like? It’s enough to pick up one leaf and look at it to know. Even if you look at ten thousand leaves, you won’t see much more than you do looking at one. Essentially they are all the same. By looking at one leaf, you can know all mango leaves. If you look at the trunk of the mango tree, you only have to look at the trunk of one tree to know them all. All the other mango tree trunks are the same. Even if there were a hundred thousand of them, I would just have to look at one to really see them all. The Buddha taught to practise Dhamma in this way.

– Ajahn Chah
The Key to Liberation and the Path to Peace
p. 14

The aftermath of a war for talent

[Enron] epitomized the “talent mindset” approach to management… Demanding Enron employees prove that they were smarter than everyone else inadvertently contributed to a narcissistic culture, with an overrepresentation of employees who were both incredibly smug and driven by deep insecurity to keep showing off. It was a culture that encouraged short-term performance but discouraged long-term learning and growth.

The same point comes through in the postmortem documentary on Enron called, appropriately enough, The Smartest Guys in the Room. During the company’s ascendency, it was a brash and brilliant former McKinsey consultant named Jeff Skilling who was Enron’s CEO. Skilling developed a performance review system for Enron that consisted of grading employees annually and summarily firing the bottom 15 percent. In other words, no matter what your absolute level of performance, if you were weak, relative to others, you got fired. Inside Enron, this practice was known as “rank-and-yank”. Skilling considered it one of the most important strategies his company had. But ultimately, it may have contributed to a work environment that rewarded deception and discouraged integrity.

-Angela Lee Duckworth
p. 30

Is the current (conscious or subconscious) emphasis on “talent” in academia leading us down this path?

Pascal vs. the Buddha

Pascal’s Wager is sometimes said to be the first formal use of decision theory. Blaise Pascal of the 17th century reasoned thus: if one believes in the Christian God

  • and the belief turns out correct, one is rewarded with an eternity of gain (or, conversely, avoids an eternity in hell);
  • if the belief is wrong, one loses almost nothing.

The thought struck me that the lesser known second part of the Kalama Sutta is also a similar application of decision theory. This is about 2,200 years earlier than Pascal. But it was not as formally laid out, and is also a far more complicated (but therefore more realistic) case.

The Buddha applied it to moral decisions in the context of the extent to which one believes in the cause and effect of one’s actions, or simply put, Kamma/Karma, the full extent of which is necessarily linked to rebirth.

Although how causes, moderated by conditions, lead to their effects is a highly complex matter, they are generally still apparent to us (think physics) and therefore believable… except for the catch that there might not be enough time for all effects to come to fruition within one lifetime. Therefore rebirth completes the idea of Karma by providing opportunity in the future for fruition of effects.

Ordinary people, however, do not have knowledge of their past lives or that of others’, so the idea of rebirth is not as apparent and believable.

According to the Buddha’s reasoning as re-told by the Kalama Sutta, if one acted accordingly to avoid unwholesome deeds and carry out wholesome ones throughout this life:

  • if rebirth were true, one benefits in this life as well as after the end of this life by having a better rebirth;
  • if rebirth were not true, one most probably still benefits by having lived blamelessly and avoided substantial suffering in this life.

I did a quick Google and found out that other people have linked this to Pascal’s Wager before. In fact, some folks online called this the Buddha’s Wager. There is also another scripture that is in the same spirit: the Apannaka Sutta.

The Buddha’s Wager is a far more complex application of decision theory, however, because:

  1. Pay-offs is positive (according to the formulation above; just like Pascal’s Wager, it can be formulated in the negative sense, i.e., living an unwholesome life) in both options, just that one (with afterlife) is on top of the other (this life only). In Pascal’s case, pay-off is usually taken as neutral (=zero) in the worse of the options (but see below).
  2. The degree of uncertainty is different between the two pay-offs. It seems to me that this is a critical part of the Buddha’s version. Cause and effect within this life is more believable (=lower uncertainty) because it is usually observable; rebirth (i.e., continuation of cause and effect after death) on the other hand is usually not observable and therefore highly uncertain. (In Pascal’s case, there is only one non-zero pay-off option so uncertainty is only relevant for that pay-off.)
  3. There is a cost involved, because this case, in contrast to Pascal’s in the context of Christian doctrine, is not just about belief but about taking action. Acting incurs opportunity cost in the process, e.g., effort invested, or “opportunities” missed from not taking advantage of others or not indulging oneself.

The Buddha’s case is therefore pitting a additional pay-out (P1) that has higher uncertainty (U1) together with a basic pay-out (P2) that has lower uncertainty (U2) against the cost of action (C). So one should only take action and incur the cost if one can be sure that the combined expected benefits are high enough:

P1* (1-U1)+ P2* (1-U2) – C > 0

The Buddha’s Wager is not so much of a wager as it is a statement of inequality: that P2* (1-U2) > C so that the value of U1 is irrelevant, i.e., the benefits of a wholesome life are sufficient in itself to justify us taking the trouble, whether or not there is an afterlife. In such a formulation, the Buddha portrays moral behaviour as cost-beneficial regardless of afterlife belief.

If we go strictly by the Kalama Sutta, U2 seems to be taken to be zero, which reduces the inequality condition to an even simpler one: P2 C. Herein lies the link back to the rest of the Kalama Sutta, and the difference between Pascal’s Wager and the Buddha’s version.

In Pascal’s Wager, the pay-off in choosing to believe is positive infinite. In such a system, nothing finite can be greater than positive infinite, so the pay-off for disbelief, even if positive and not zero, will never outweigh the pay-off for belief. This means that Pascal’s Wager, while logical, is still a non-falsifiable statement of theistic belief.

On the other hand, the Buddha’s inequality statement is possible to be false, and therefore can be subjected to testing; one just needs to estimate P2 and C. This is why it fits in with the first half of the Kalama Sutta: the Buddha’s exhortation to the Kalamas not to base their actions on the sole basis of belief, but to test it out for themselves and weigh the benefits and costs of their actions for themselves and others.

Rejections based on refusals to review

I was just browsing, and came across this piece in the Write Back section of Frontiers in Ecology & the Environment from 2015 (13:241). An excerpt:

…the shortage of available reviewers has started to push journal editors toward dangerous waters. For example, one possible response to this shortage is… if a large number of reviewers refuse to review a given manuscript beyond what is expected by chance, then that manuscript is of low quality and should not be reviewed.

Followed by an example:

Recently, an editor of a prestigious ecological journal declined to publish a manuscript because 15 potential reviewers in a row had refused to review it. The editor’s argument relied on the fact that for every 10 potential reviewers invited to review a manuscript submitted to this journal, seven typically decline; at the stated 7/10 or 0.7 refusal probability, the probability of consecutive refusal by 15 reviewers is 0.5% (where [0.7]15 = 0.005 or 0.5%). The editor then argued that this probability of refusal was much lower than would occur by chance, which the editor defined as any probability that was less than 5% (or, nine refusals in a row, where [0.7]9 = 0.04 or 4%).

No citation was given for the example, so it might have been a personal experience of the author. One problem in using such a heuristic to reject articles is: why 5%? Or why 0.5%, or any other number? And the author also later argues that refusal to review is dependent on so many factors not related to manuscript quality, and also, reviewer decline rates are temporally variable. Are you going to adjust the cut-off rate according to seasonal patterns in reviewer availability? Are you going to base this year’s cut-off on last year’s reviewer decline rates? Or last x years? Or on a rate projected for this year?

In all, a poor criteria to rely on, however tempting it may be. But interesting to read someone write about it.

The Future of Conservation

An electronic survey came in the email, and as I went through the questions, I found them very thought-provoking.

The infamous New vs. Traditional Conservation debate has been raging on for some time now, and as the survey designers write:

Recent debates about the future of conservation have been dominated by a few high-profile individuals, whose views seem to fit fairly neatly into polarised positions. In this survey, we are exploring the range of views that exist within the conservation movement globally, and how this varies by key demographic characteristics such as age, gender, geography and educational background.

Which really hooked me into answering it.

It’s indeed different to be reading the views of the authors of those back-and-forth pieces while trying to be as objective as possible, and actually having to answer questions that force you to think about where you stand.

The end of the survey even profiles a profile and neat data visualisations to show you where you stand (something that I’ve always wanted to know!).



How to interpret your results
Your position is weakly negative along the people & nature axis and weakly positive along the conservation & capitalism axis.

Your position on the two axes above reflects your survey answers. A move from left to right along the horizontal axis (people/nature) implies a shift from seeing conservation as a means of improving human welfare to conservation for nature’s own sake.

The vertical axis (conservation & capitalism) indicates a spectrum of willingness to embrace markets and capitalism as conservation tools: the higher up the graph your score is, the more pro-markets it is. This places you in the top left quadrant of the graph – a position suggesting your views on these particular dimensions of the debate are most closely related to those of ‘new conservationists’ as set out in the literature.

Your thinking most closely aligns with: New Conservation
Central to the ‘new conservation’ position is a shift towards framing conservation as being about protecting nature in order to improve human wellbeing (especially that of the poor), rather than for biodiversity’s own sake. ‘New conservationists’ believe that win-win situations in which people benefit from conservation can often be achieved by promoting economic growth and partnering with corporations.

Although new conservation advocates have been criticised for doing away with nature’s intrinsic value, key authors within the movement have responded by clarifying that their motive is not so much an ethical as a strategic or pragmatic one. In other words, they claim that conservation needs to emphasise nature’s instrumental value to people because this better promotes support for conservation compared to arguments based solely on species’ rights to exist.

The Buddha in the forest

The Buddha was born in the forest. Born in the forest, he studied Dhamma in the forest. He taught Dhamma in the forest, beginning with the Discourse on the Turning of the Wheel of Dhamma. He entered Nibbana in the forest.

It’s important for those of us who live in the forest to understand the forest. Living in the forest doesn’t mean that our minds become wild, like those of forest animals. Our minds can become elevated and spiritually noble. This is what the Buddha said. Living in the city we live among distraction and disturbance. In the forest, there is quiet and tranquility. We can contemplate things clearly and develop wisdom. So we take this quiet and tranquility as our friend and helper. Such an environment is conducive to Dhamma practice, so we take it as our dwelling place; we take the mountains and caves for our refuge. Observing natural phenomena, wisdom comes about in such places. We learn from and understand trees and everything else, and it brings about a state of joy. The sounds of nature we hear don’t disturb us. We hear the birds calling, as they will, and it is actually a great enjoyment. We don’t react with any aversion and we aren’t thinking harmful thoughts. We aren’t speaking harshly or acting aggressively towards anyone or anything. Hearing the sounds of the forest gives delight to the mind; even as we are hearing sounds the mind is tranquil.

– Ajahn Chah
Everything Is Teaching Us
p. 69

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