‘#Elementary’ ecology and the value of red herrings


At first, I resented the postmodernism of Elementary. However, I now enjoy the human dimension associated with character development and for its challenges to my thinking about the science of interactions and hypothesis testing. The most recent episode was a brilliant piece for me in terms of my struggles with a paper I am working on with a collaborator that includes contrasting predictions. The episode was entitled ‘Hemlock’, and it is a very apt metaphor (for me at least) for some of the challenges that modern ecologists face.

Here are the elements that inspired me to think about how we sometimes approach ecological interpretations to evidence.

1. Sherlock and Watson investigate the disappearance of a lawyer. Unlike most episodes in contemporary detective/police shows (and even this show), this episode does not begin with a macabre crime scene or body. We never do see the body. Sounds like ecology. Species disappear, and we need to know why. Dramatic global change is occurring, but frequently, the effects are evident only in the gradual loss of a species or process and not through a disaster with a grisly, photographic opportunity for collection of evidence or political leverage. There is no smoking gun. In ecology, we rarely happen upon outcomes that are not driven by complexity or sets of interactions with processes emergent from interdependence.  There can be a smoking gun, but sometimes, it is the indirect interactions with the gun/agent that are real driver of change and not the direct effects. Positive interactions can also have negative effects on ecosystems (i.e. no gun at all but smoke).

smoking gun

2. Sherlock generates both numerous hypotheses (explanations of how the system/phenomenon works) and associated predictions (testable, specific outcomes with evidence) that are refuted as mostly immaterial evidence accumulates in this episode. This is fascinating to me. There are many more failures to support predictions than the usual episode, and it is refreshing. I get the sense that many contemporary experimental community ecology studies certainly generate the hypothesis a priori but refine/adjust the predictions post hoc. I recognize that we have moved beyond strict Popperian falsification, but we are talking about single studies that have associated prediction sets within each paper reported as perfectly satisfied. This seems a bit convenient. My collaborator and I set up the particular experiment we are writing up now with a hypothesis to describe the system but with opposing predictions. Given that ecology embraces complexity, I realized that I have read few papers recently that have contrasting predictions sets that alternatively support or refute the hypothesis. I want that complexity back, and I want to include some of it my papers from now on to highlight the importance of judgment and fair evidence handling alongside appropriate statistics. I know there is a very real bias against non-statistically significant findings and failure to support dominant hypothesis within a subdiscipline, nonetheless, the red herrings we chase make the instances of support all the more robust, honest, and reproducible.

I propose there are at least conceptions of the red herring from the detective genre for ecology.

1. Red herring as distraction. RED HERRING

In the most reviled sense from a publication-bias perspective, failure to support is a distraction at best, a hindrance to scientific progress at worst.  I disagree. Distractions provide insight, illuminate errors, and highlight the importance of effective methods in detecting and reporting false positives.

2. Red herring as Bayesian calibration tool.


Our capacity to assess relative frequency, importance, and experience from a procedural/effective experimental design paradigm is enhanced and accelerated by a clear sense of the red-herring effect within sets of factors or within the manifestations of ecological processes of interest.

3. Red herring as a source of creative inquiry.


Ecology is both science and art. Explicitly seeking the red herring can provide information on processes that are difficult to measure directly, and in imagining and designing experiments wherein a factor does not apply, we better understand the context when it does. The red herring moments are also often synonymous with eureka moments – perhaps not even for you but for the reader in enjoying your narrative of how you solved the ecological mystery at hand.

Failure in science is not a crime, and false leads provide necessary scientific truths.