Ecologists Can't Handle Their Beer Like Physicists

A New York Times article has appeared about a study on the effects of excessive beer drinking on scientific productivity. The study, (Tomas Grim, “A possible role of social activity to explain differences in publication output among ecologists.” Oikos 117 (4), 484-487) done by the aptly named ecologist, Dr. Thomas Grim, claimed that scientific productivity among Czech avian ecologists and behavioral ecologists (as measured by number of publications, citation rate per paper, etc.) dropped according to how many beers the ecologists drank.

Now first of all, I find it kind of annoying that the New York Times, considers “avian ecologists” a proxy for all “scientists.” And, well, to carry about a stereotype who validity is as good as most other stereotypes, I mean, come on, has anyone ever heard of bird watchers being known for their beer drinking abilities? I suspect if I had to pick the group of scientists least likely to be able to take their beer, avian ecologists would be right up there on my list. Show me a study about Czech physicists damaging their publication record by too much beer consumption, and then you’ll get my attention.
I’d also note that the study covers the amazingly huge sample size of less than twenty, that the beer consumption rates are huge for the outliers (Czech, burp!), that there was no description of the methodology for choosing the survey sample (were they his friends, his colleagues? Since the sample was chosen from the author’s field, it sure sounds like it), that any effect, if it is there, is coming from the very high end of the beer consumption spectra (which is fairly spectacular consumption), and certainly a linear regression seems like a spectacularly poor notion of how beer drinking has an effect on scientific output., and that no attempt to separate out the effect of different quality universities and the different geographic consumption levels was made.

17 Replies to “Ecologists Can't Handle Their Beer Like Physicists”

  1. I actually *would* like to see this study done properly (a crossover lifestyle intervention setup)… inquiring minds want to know!

  2. It should also be noted that the subjects are all Czechs, so presumably the beer they were consuming was lager/Pilsner. I think we really need to determine whether consumption of good ale/porter/stout makes a difference. Who knows, it could just be a matter of which brewers’ yeast is being used.

  3. “… New York Times, considers ‘avian ecologists’ a proxy for all ‘scientists.'”
    Insert joke about “bird brains” here.
    Insert hotlink about birds being very intelligent here.
    Conclude, here, with NY Times article wherein Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg quotes approvingly Richard Feynman’s dictum that “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.”

  4. I think that upon reading the paper the conclusions do not fit the data, the linear relationship is weak at best, and there are too few data points. It’s yet another annoying pop-press pickup of weak science that says something silly that will inevitably be repeated forever. It irritates me greatly.

  5. Physicists? The geologists’ll take you on any day!
    That said, yeah, this is a weak study. The linear regression didn’t even work that well, and 20 data points, you’ve gotta be kidding me…

  6. Could it be because practical avian ecology ideally needs its researchers “on the job” from before dawn. I typically start at 0430, and any alcohol the night before is bound to affect my ability in the field.
    That said, I notice the month scheduled for publication is April. I recall some kind of tradition involving the opening day of that month…….

  7. I suspect that archaeologists could drink any of our colleagues under the table.
    Sounds like some interdisciplinary study of this issue is warranted.

  8. Nope, it’s all about the marine biologists, especially us fishy types.
    I agree with CTM — how does one call for an interdisciplinary “beerlymics” to settle this once and for all?

  9. Actually the maritime archaeologists are the ones who are really outstanding at beer consumption. Sometimes we let marine biologists hang out with us. Then again my publication record could use some work.

  10. I make the claim that botanists are the best beer drinkers, while physicists are the best binge drinkers. Why? Simple:
    1. Plants are in the field, so you’re out camping, a natural beer consuming habitat.
    2. Botanists can’t work without daylight, so they start drinking beer in the late afternoon after a long few hours of hiking around looking at plants.
    3. Plants don’t get up at 4:30 AM every day like birds do, and they certainly don’t move around so much. An important fact if you’re a botanist with a hangover.
    4. If the weather’s bad, you can sleep in and drink beer with your breakfast.
    Physicists are unfortunately limited by their profession to working long and mostly regular hours, and forced into crunch mode from time to time. Therefore physicists make the best binge drinkers.
    Birders? Forget it – they have to be up at the crack of dawn chasing quick little animals.
    The only ones who could claim the drinking throne across the board are the philosophers, but they’re on the fringe of the science arena and so excluded from our experimental population.

  11. Has anyone here read this study (I haven’t)? It sounds like this is what is called an ecological design (group outcomes and group exposures), a design well known to be subject to potentially severe biases that can even reverse the direction of association at the individual level. In particular confounding by region and effect modification by region can lead to severe biases. This is over and above the question whether the regression was appropriate or done properly or whether the parameter estimates were statistically stable (aka statistically significant, although this is a bad and easily misunderstood phrase that should be banned).
    One even gets the idea, reading the abstract, that this is some kind of send-up, meant as a joke.

  12. Someone I knew that attended an AAAS meeting once a few years back was surprised when, around 9 PM one evening, in a group of mixed scientists, the physicists, chemists, botanists, etc. all announced that they were headed back to their rooms to crash, and the geologist in the group was abandoned, asking “Doesn’t anyone want to go drink?!?”

  13. ANyone wanting to really study this should attend the annual meetings of the American Fisheries Scoiety and the Society of Ichthyologists and Herpatoligists. Collectively, they will do you all in. AFS once drank Anchorage dry . . . or at least on bar in Anchorage completely dry.

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