Note to readers: it took me 1.5 hours to write what’s below, so you’d better read it!
Somebody called this paper to my attention (I can’t recall who), and I read it even though I had to wade though prose about as tedious as I’ve ever seen in a scientific paper. I don’t know the authors, and I guess their results are somewhat interesting, but the paper is written so badly that it’s hard to distill its essence. I am talking about a new paper by P. W. Bateman and P. A. Fleming in Journal of Zoology (reference and link at bottom).
For example, have a gander at the title and then the abstract.
Both learning and natural selection predict that animals should balance their “flight” distance—the distance from which they flee an approaching animal that might be dangerous—against the benefits of remaining where they are. Animals who flee when the supposed danger is too far away risk losing food and wasting energy; those who flee only at the last second risk death. We tested this by observing squirrels at a housing project in Manhattan, New York. We found that when observers approached foraging squirrels on a well-marked footpath, the flight distance was smaller than when the observers left the footpath and walked toward the squirrels. Flight distance was also increased when the observers were looking directly at the squirrels. In other words, squirrels get freaked out when you deviate from what they consider a “normal” path and when you’re staring the little buggers down. Those are both cues that, in fact, an approaching animal might be a predator.
Well, that’s is a bit lighthearted, and I wrote it in about two minutes and could do much better with a couple of revisions, but compare that to the tangle of words above. Why not say “squirrels” instead of “successful urban exploiters,” for crying out loud?
This is the kind of writing that Steven Pinker warns against in his new book A Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, which I’ve just read in galleys. It’s very good, and anyone aspiring to clear writing should order it (it’ll be out September 30). I won’t give the contents away, but it is a guide to writing in what Pinker calls “the classic style,” an easygoing style that’s like having a conversation with the reader. There is also a list of many contentious words and grammatical usages, and Pinker’s judgement on whether they’re good or verboten. It’s a great book to have if you aspire to avoid writing like the authors above, and it’s already helped me with the prose in my own book (which, by the way, will be done by July 4).
I will summarize the results briefly, and am doing so only because this paper involves my favorite rodent. The researchers did a study approaching Eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinenesis; same species as Tufty E. and his two siblings) foraging on the grounds of Peter Cooper Village/Stuyvesant Town, an apartment project in lower Manhattan. The grounds are criss-crossed by footpaths. The observers were told to walk towards foraging squirrels, walking in a way that would take them 2 meters from the squirrel when they passed by. They used two variants of this design.
The first involved staying on the footpath, and approaching squirrels within 2m of the footpath versus straying from the footpath to approach the squirrel. (Most people stay on the footpaths.) The second was to stare at the squirrel while approaching it versus pretending to ignore it and watching it only with your peripheral vision. Observers then determined what proportion of squirrels fled before they were 2 m away from it. Here is the graph showing the proportion of squirrels fleeing (height of black bar) versus staying put (white bar) for all four combinations of staying/straying on footpath and looking/not looking.
No surprise here: squirrels stay put, by and large, when you stay on the footpath, but flee readily when you deviate from the footpath. In both cases they flee a lot more often when you’re looking at them. I suppose the second bit is mildly interesting, for it shows that the squirrels are aware of the direction of your gaze.
In the second part of the study (note that the sample sizes are small–about 20 sqrlz/replicate), they measured three things in each of the four treatments: “alert distance” (AD), the distance at which the squirrels sit up and take notice; the “flight initiation distance”” (FID), the distance from the observers at which the squirrels begin to flee; and the “distance fled” (DF), the distance that the squirrel ran before it started foraging again. Here are the data. The zero point for distance is actually 2 meters, the distance that the observers calculated that they would come closest to the rodent. In other words, they were instructed to get no closer than 2 meters, so that’s called “zero distance”:
Figure 2 Alert distance (AD), flight initiation distance (FID) and distance fled (DF) for squirrels approached by a pedestrian that was either looking or not looking at them, and either remained on footpaths or approached the squirrels directly (moving off the footpaths). Letters/ numerals indicate the results of post hoc analyses for each distance measure independently.
The salient results:
- If you don’t look at the squirrels and stay on the path (second group of results), they stay put. Being used to humans, they are brazen little things.
- If you look at them but stay on the footpath, they become alert when you’re about 5 meters away, but they don’t run away. That’s probably because everybody in the apartment complex stays on the footpaths, so it’s normal human behavior.
- If you go off the path and stare at the squirrels, they get alert when you’re about 7 meters away, and flee when you’re just a bit closer. They tend to run about 6 meters before resuming their activities.
- If you go off the path but pretend that you aren’t looking at the squirrels, they get alert when you’re even farther away: about 8 meters. But they don’t flee at all—they clearly perceive that your intentions are honorable.
The upshot is that it makes a big difference whether or not you’re looking at the squirrels, although staying on the footpaths also keeps them calmer. That’s an interesting result, so why did they bury it in contorted prose? Look how they finish the paper:
We have identified cues that are likely to be important for risk perception by an urban animal species monitoring its environment. Together with direction of attention of people, urban squirrels were more reactive to pedestrians that showed a divergence from ‘usual’ behaviour (e.g. pedestrians entering areas which are usually human-free), even when not associated with closer approach or changes in speed. In addition to being arboreal (which can include use of anthropogenic structures), which minimizes vulnerability to diurnal terrestrial ‘predators’ (see Herr, Schley & Roper, 2009), general trophic and social flexibility (Baumgartner, 1943; Don, 1983; Koprowski, 2005) may help explain why eastern grey squirrels are successful urban adapters.
Further research should consider how, despite habituation to human presence, urban taxa modulate their reactions according to subtle differences in human behaviour. Assessment of, and potentially habituation to, human activity is an important criterion for successful urban adapters and urban exploiters. In the face of increasing urbanization across the globe, the life history and behavioural attributes of those taxa that are good urban adapters.
This is how people write when they want to sound “science-y,” and it’s how we scientists are taught to write. But it needn’t be that way. In fact, when I read a paper this tedious, I tend to turn off and put it down. If you want people to read your scientific work (or anything you write), put it in clear language and, if you can, try to be a bit lively. Three people whose papers are consistently clear are David Sloan Wilson, Dick Lewontin (my Ph.D. adviser) and—in his earlier days—Stephen Jay Gould. If you know of others, name them in the comments.
But the authors of this squirrel paper need a lesson from Pinker! There is never a reason, I think, to use the kind of contorted language seen above, even in one’s most serious academic papers. You can, of course, write more formally for your colleagues (omitting, for example, contractions like “it’s”), but there’s no need to say stuff like “anthropogenic structures” or “how. . urban taxa modulate their reactions according to subtle differences in human behavior.” Academics are people, and like everyone we appreciate clear writing. The only ones who don’t are postmodernists, who use unreadable prose to hide their lack of ideas.
I won’t correct the language above as it would take forever. Let me just say that “showed a divergence from” could be changed to “altered” or “deviated from,” and “anthropogenic structures” (JEBUS!) could be “buildings” or “human constructions.”
All those words to show that squirrels pay attention to unusual human behavior and eye contact!
After all that, we need a LOLsquirrel (I wonder how this one was rescued):
Having interacted a lot with squirrels over the last two years, I can vouch that the males do indeed have prominent testicles.
Bateman, P. W. and P. A. Fleming. 2014. Does human pedestrian behavior influence risk or assessment in a successful urban adaptor? J. Zoology. Article first published online: 12 June, 2014; DOI: 10.1111/jzo.12156