Does anybody want to read a long paper?

August 27, 2020 • 11:00 am

I really did try to read this Science paper about urban ecology and systemic racism, first reading it quickly, as I’m wont to do, and then starting to delve in, “perusing” it in the proper sense. But I had to give up on several grounds:its  length (18 pages, one of the longest papers I’ve ever seen in Science), terrible academic writing in a postmodern style (dry as dust), an absence of original data, and, apparently, an explicitly political agenda that comes out in the end.

Given that I didn’t read the entire paper carefully, I can’t really assess its value, but I provide a link to the free paper below (pdf here, link at the bottom).  If you’d like to see it, I’ll send a pdf, but perhaps at least one reader can plow through it and put its message into plain English. To me the message seems to be: “Structural racism in America has affected minority communities in a way different from white communities with respect to their ecology (heat distribution, tree cover, etc.), and we need to take this into account this when doing urban ecology. And this also means that ecologists need to become anti-racism activists.”

Click on the screenshot to read it:

The abstract:

Here are two bits that put me off. The first is about intersectionality, which I don’t see as relevant to their question (bolding in text is mine).

Intersecting forms of inequality

Understanding the mechanisms shaping urban inequality and thus urban eco-evolutionary patterns and processes requires incorporating intersectional theories of inequality and evaluating accessibility to different spaces (34138139). The term “intersectionality” emphasizes that various marginalized identities of an individual or community more broadly intersect, compound, and interact, which ultimately impact the magnitude and severity of experienced social inequities (Fig. 1) (57). For example, discrimination for a queer Black woman in the United States may be intensified relative to individuals with similar racial, gender, and sexual orientation identities alone. Translating the concept of intersectionality onto the urban landscape can provide a more holistic understanding of the patterns and processes shaping urban ecosystems. For instance, we may hypothesize that characteristic differences between Indigenous ecological practices and forestland managers may contribute to variance in native species richness and community complexity. (140141). Similarly, we may predict that gender differences in land cultivation and homeownership shape plant species assemblages and species turnover rates. Further, vegetation removal and increased nighttime lighting to deter LGBTQIA+ communities (95) may have subsequent effects on disturbance regimes and local biodiversity that reduce habitat value for multiple species. Though such empirical links are currently speculative and not well established, integration of various inequities in cities may provide additional resolution to understanding how social drivers impact urban ecology and evolution. While our focus has been on racism and classism, we recognize the need for and encourage intersectional approaches in urban ecology.

It’s not clear to me that intersectionality as defined in the article has anything to do with the three hypothetical analyses they propose.

The bit below seems to me one of the real auns of the paper—to call for political change. That’s very different from doing the science, i.e., trying to understand how racial oppression, poverty, and class have affected patterns in urban ecology. One can say, for instance, that there are real effects, but ecologists might respond that there are other problems on their minds, like global warming and extinction of species outside of urban environment, that are also important, and reject the argument about what their activist priorities should be.

As urban ecologists and evolutionary biologists, we have a responsibility to implement anti-racist strategies that interrogate systems of oppression in how we perform our science. This necessarily means eradicating efforts that perpetuate inequities to knowledge access, neglect local community participation, or exploit community labor in the pursuit of academic knowledge (i.e., the practices of colonial and parachute science). Concurrently, increasing representation of individuals of diverse identities is inherently just and enhances our scholarship (166167). By directly including a diversity of scholars and incorporating an understanding of systemic racism and inequality, we can more holistically study urban ecosystems. We will not be able to successfully assess how racism and classism shape urban ecosystems – nor address their consequences – without a truly diverse and inclusive scientific community.

Again, I haven’t read the whole paper carefully, though I have read it quickly. I’d welcome anybody biting the bullet here.



Schell, C. J., K. Dyson, T. L. Fuentes, S. Des Roches, N. C. Harris, D. S. Miller, C. A. Woelfle-Erskine, and M. R. Lambert. 2020. The ecological and evolutionary consequences of systemic racism in urban environments.  Science,Published online 13 August, 2020. DOI: 10.1126/science.aay4497

42 thoughts on “Does anybody want to read a long paper?

      1. Okay, you’ve made four out of the seven comments here, most of them saying the same thing. That’s enough for now. Please read the Roolz about too-frequent posting and tone down your invective.

    1. That translates as deliberate gobbledegook to make the authors look terribly knowledgeable and discourage argument.

  1. Further, vegetation removal and increased nighttime lighting to deter LGBTQIA+ communities may have subsequent effects on disturbance regimes and local biodiversity that reduce habitat value for multiple species.

    I don’t know what this is referencing, and I am not sure why it would deter LGBTQIA+ communities. It sounds insulting, though.

    1. I can’t believe that the authors missed out the “P” from LGBTQIAP+, thereby dismissing the recognition of the pansexual community!

  2. I’m not surprised that you found that paper to be heavy going. From what little I could understand of it, it seems to be ignoring the fact that poverty and its concomitant miseries strikes all people, not just “of color”. In other words, it’s subtly Marxist and racially bigoted, and should be denounced on precisely those grounds — and in the same grandiose, obfuscatory shop-talk in which it is written.

    1. My conclusion increasingly is that Anti-Racism as practiced by BLM is Marxist. They’ve just crossed out Class and written in Race. Where once there was the Bourgeoisie (remember them?) as the oppressor class of the Proletariat, now there are Whites (is White?) as the oppressor class of Blacks. (Of course, there are other oppressed races, but when the revolution comes, they’ll be lucky if they don’t wind up as the “rich kulaks”.) As was historically the case with Marxists, the categories allow for no innocents; what you are determines your guilt (or innocence). Allies today are just Fellow Travelers and Useful Idiots. Reforms like “defunding the police” are just tactics to destroy barriers to revolution.

  3. Does anybody want to read a long paper?

    Sorry, boss. I’d gladly take on 18 pages for you. But I’d as lief read “academic writing in a postmodern style” as open an artery and go for a long saltwater swim.

    1. open an artery and go for a long saltwater swim – If you change your mind, be careful of the sharks. They home in on spilling blood.

      1. As between a sharknado and the prose of, say, Judith Butler, I’ll take my chances with the former. 🙂

  4. For data, they seem to just pull together lots of studies on ecological diversity from various sources. But they have no hard data in their paper. Not a single table. Even though there are co-authors that seem to have credentials for being able to put one together.

  5. I read the paper and wrote this, then realized it is only a little shorter than the paper itself. You can think of it as a plain-language version with some critical commentary.

    tl;dr The authors argue that urban ecology should incorporate the effects of racism and other bigotries into its explanatory approach to understanding distribution and abundance in cities. The underlying mechanisms that would justify this expansion of urban ecology are not carefully explained and seem to have been deliberately left out or obscured. This flaw makes the authors’ argument susceptible to other interpretations.

    The paper is organized into 8 sections. The untitled introduction defines urban ecosystems and urban ecology. The authors describe the geographical distribution of human groups defined by race or wealth across different parts of cities, and explain how this is linked to the distribution of ecological variables like temperature and plant species diversity.

    This section has some important definitions. “Social inequality is the unequal distribution or allocation of wealth and resources to specific socio-cultural groups.” This is helpful and clear.

    “Urban social inequality stems from historical and contemporary power imbalances, producing deleterious effects that are often intersectional, involving race, economic class, gender, language, sexuality, nationality, ability, religion, and age.” This is also helpful and clear and easy to agree with: social inequality is caused by racism and other biases or bigotries. Ok so far.

    Unfortunately in the very next sentence the authors carefully (or carelessly, hard to tell) elide the specific mechanisms that they think are working to create associations between wealth, race, and ecological variables. They write (sorry for the long quote):

    “For example, various ecological attributes in cities are principally governed by the spatial and temporal scale of social inequities (23). For instance, the uneven distribution of urban heat islands (35–39), vegetation and tree canopy cover (27, 28, 40, 41), environmental hazards and pollutants (42–46), access to healthy waterways (47, 48), and the relative proportion of native to introduced species (49, 50) are strongly dictated by structural racism and classism.”

    What does it mean that “ecological attributes in cities are principally governed by…social inequities”? I think what the authors mean is that different racial groups on average experience different values for those ecological attributes (e.g., Black people experience higher temperatures than white people because heat islands tend to occur in Black neighbourhoods). But the word “governed” implies causation: for example, that heat islands are created in the neighbourhoods where Black people live. In general, the authors avoid making clear statements about the things that are clearly and directly caused by racism and other bigotries (e.g., unequal wealth distribution, restricted access to housing) and avoid distinguishing those from other things that are clearly only indirectly correlated with racism because they are in fact caused by other factors associated with racism (e.g., Black people experience higher temperatures in heat islands because poverty and redlining forced Black people to live in low-quality industrial neighbourhoods with low real estate prices that were already heat islands). In this simplified example, racism does not cause heat islands, because the heat islands already exist (due to industrial and civic infrastructure that eliminates tree cover and other ecological traits that mitigate heat). Racism indirectly causes Black people to suffer in heat islands because racism forces black people to live in the worst parts of cities including in heat islands. But racism does not cause heat islands to exist.

    This deliberate or careless misuse of language about causation is found throughout the subsequent sections of the paper. The closer I read the text the less I found I trusted what the authors were writing, and the more I suspected them of deliberately obtuse writing in order to convey a meaning that is not quite true. But I digress.

    The second major section called “Socio-ecological effects of wealth” lays out the evidence for what is called the luxury effect: greater plant diversity and other desirable values of ecological variables associated with wealthy neighborhoods in cities. This section is mostly well written, and it includes a careful explanation of how the luxury effect can work: wealthy people may prefer to live in and buy property in parts of cities that already have particular values of ecological variables like tree cover or plant diversity (especially native plant diversity); but wealthy people can also increase the values of those variables in their own neighbourhoods (e.g., tree planting). This is a really important detail, because one of those mechanisms (preexisting biodiversity or other ecological variable values) can determine where wealthy people (or white people) choose to live, but the other mechanism (alterations to biodiversity after segregation by wealth or race is established) seems unlikely to explain why poor or Black people live in parts of cities with poorer values of ecological variables. The relationship could work this way, if for example wealthy white people force poor Black neighborhoods to accept increased industrialization or major infrastructure construction (e.g., freeways) in poor Black neighborhoods after segregation is established. The authors are careful not to argue that poor of Black people directly cause heat islands or other ecological phenomena, so only the former mechanism should be relevant to associations between race or class and ecological variables. However, these different mechanisms for creating the correlations between wealth, race, and ecological variables are never clearly explained or distinguished from each other. This is a big weakness of the paper (or possibly a clever tactical approach by the authors) because without identifying which mechanism is at work in a particular instance it is hard to know how one would go about remedying a particularly objectionable pattern. Only those patterns directly caused by racist behavior are likely amenable to political action that addresses racism; other patterns that are only indirectly associated with racism need to be addressed by other means, and are not likely to be improved by antiracist rhetoric or action. But again I digress.

    Subsections called “Vegetation cover and biodiversity”, “Impacts on animal communities”, “Urban heat islands and air pollution”, and “Limitations of the luxury effect” unpack the details of the luxury effect. An important feature of these subsections is that they seem to deliberately conflate the ecological variables themselves (e.g., plant biodiversity, temperature variation) with the experience of those variables by the people living in different parts of cities. The subsection “Impacts on animal communities” simply describes patterns of variation in animal community structure across wealthy and poor neighborhoods, and says nothing about how poor or Black people in those neighborhoods are affected by living in different communities of animals; by contrast, the subsection “Urban heat islands and air pollution” is closely focused on the problem that “Heat is unevenly distributed within a city,…[l]ow-income neighborhoods have reduced tree and vegetation cover and…[g]iven the cooling capacity of trees, apparent luxury effects on tree and vegetation cover can significantly impede environmental cooling in low-income neighborhoods, making those residents particularly vulnerable to heat-related illnesses.” Most urban ecology studies focus on the former type of pattern (variation in ecological variables across different parts of cities), but intersectioinalists (more to come about that) really care about the latter type of pattern. Here I think the authors’ real goal is subtly implied but not directly revealed: to link all aspects of urban ecology to intersectionalist ideas about racism, and to make racism central to the everyday work of ecologists and evolutionary biologists. But again I’m getting ahead of myself.

    The last subsection “Limitations of the luxury effect” might have included admissions by the authors that their thesis actually has some limits. Here the authors do highlight one confounding feature of previous studies that conflicts with their general emphasis on the correlation between wealth, race, and ecological variables. They emphasize that “[I]n some cities, wealthier neighborhoods may have a higher relative proportion of high rises and built downtowns that severely limit the amount of vegetated cover, reducing functional habitat space and biodiversity.” But rather than simply accepting that some wealthy people live in green suburbs with desirable ecological variables while other wealthy people live in urban concrete deserts, and accepting that there is no simple direct correlation between where rich people live and how biodiversity or heat or other ecological variables are distributed, the authors characterize this as a “distort[ion]” of the natural or expected association between local ecology and wealth or race. This seems like a highly misleading way to characterize these exceptions to the luxury effect.

    The third major section called “Beyond wealth: Structural racism, ecology, and evolution” makes the case for adopting intersectionality in urban ecology. Here the authors go back and forth between different mechanistic interpretations of the luxury effect. They note that “determining the true influence systemic and structural racism exerts on ecological dynamics remains a novel area of investigation”, which clearly implies that racism causes (has a “true influence” on) ecological patterns. But in the same paragraph they also emphasize that “[k]nowing the relative contribution of structural racism to wealth disparities informs our understanding of complex temporal dynamics in cities, which is untenable in approaches lacking historical contexts,” which seems to clearly acknowledge that race and wealth influence where Black or poor people are forced to live, but does not directly affect the ecological properties of Black or poor neighborhoods.

    The subsections of “Beyond wealth” lay out the argument for how urban ecology should be extended to incorporate intersectionality. In “Residential segregation and redlining” the authors lay out the main historical mechanism that restricted Black and poor people to specific neighborhoods in many cities. This is very helpful.

    But in “Ecological effects of structural racism” the authors leap from correlation to causation by arguing that “[Racist r]edlining may greatly contribute to the asymmetric distribution of habitat that structures bottom-up processes influencing biodiversity.” The rest of the section explains how Black and poor people live in ecologically depauperate neighborhoods (pace the widespread occurrence of expensive urban deserts occupied by wealthy people living in high-rise condos surrounded by concrete and roads).

    The weakness of this argument is that the authors avoid admitting that this asymmetric distribution of habitat quality in cities would exist even if racism did not: if wealthy and poor populations of cities were both made up of the same distribution of white, Black, and other races, wealthy people would still insist that industrial development, civic infrastructure, and other aspects of urbanization that decrease biodiversity and generate heat islands and have other undesirable ecological effects not be placed in the wealthy neighborhoods where wealthy people live. City planners would still insist that some kinds of urban infrastructure need to be concentrated in specific places, and this would still inevitably make those places less desirable to live in, and make property values lower in those places, leading to less expensive housing where poor people would be forced to live. It seemed clear (at least to me) that these are class problems, not race problems.

    Ironically (at least for this web site), the longest subsection of the whole paper, called “Evolutionary impacts of structural racism”, is actually mislabelled and relatively uninteresting. By “evolutionary impacts” the authors really mean population genetic effects, and in fact the authors don’t really mean population genetics broadly construed, but instead they really mean just lower gene flow between populations of organisms in urban habitat islands. This section draws heavily on an area of study called landscape genetics, which is dominated by the idea that the main effect of ecology on genetics is the promotion or restriction of gene flow. Other population genetic processes are given much less consideration. And like other sections of the paper, this one does not argue that poor or Black people suffer directly from the effects of these population genetic differences (like the direct negative effects of heat islands on poor or Black people), it simply documents associations between the distribution of poor and Black people and the distribution of habitats that are well-connected (with high gene flow) or poorly connected (with low gene flow) due to obstacles to animal movement associated with low-quality neighborhoods where poor Black people live. And again the authors don’t (and perhaps can’t) make a clear argument for the “impacts” of structural racism on evolution.

    A notable feature of this subsection is the use of the term “diverse”. In ecology and evolutionary biology, “diverse” refers to a statistical property of the distribution of values for some trait in the organisms within that sample. A “diverse” sample has a large range, or a large variance (which has a specific statistical meaning), or some other measure of large differences in the value among individuals. Here the authors write that “Racially diverse neighborhoods consistently receive inadequate sanitation services that are compounded with aging infrastructure and overgrown vegetation.” The authors do not say what they mean by “racially diverse” but from the context it is clear that they do not mean a neighborhood with many different races living together; instead from the context it seems clear that the authors have adopted the intersectionalist meaning of “diverse”: different from white people, or non-white. Under this meaning, a neighborhood in which Black, white, and other racial groups lived together would be less “diverse” than a neighborhood in which only Black people lived. This is a pernicious kind of subtle language change that should be called out and mocked wherever it occurs, and resisted by working ecologists and evolutionary biologists.

    The last subsection called “Intersecting forms of inequality” is a speculative essay on how other identities may contribute to the way individuals interact with their neighborhoods. It includes questions but not answers.

    The last major section called “Intersecting forms of inequality” is an appeal to other ways of knowing, and a call to incorporate them into urban ecology. The authors emphasize the racism of 19th century conservationists and what they see as the legacy of this racism in the exclusion of Black and other people from natural spaces and from conservation practice. The authors argue for improving access to neighborhoods and other spaces with desirable ecological traits, and argue that doing so will lead to environmental and ecological improvements. All of this is easy to agree with.

    Unfortunately this section ends with a series of directives that are not supported by any of the preceding parts of the paper. The authors assert that “urban ecologists and evolutionary biologists [must] implement anti-racist strategies that interrogate systems of oppression in how we perform our science.” In particular, this means “increasing representation of individuals of diverse identities [because w]e will not be able to successfully assess how racism and classism shape urban ecosystems – nor address their consequences – without a truly diverse and inclusive scientific community.” This seems to assume that it is impossible for white or wealthy ecologists and evolutionary biologists to study urban ecosystems and their correlations with racist redlining and other practices without having Black and other “diverse” coresearchers. This might be true, but none of the preceding parts of the article provide evidence that this is likely to be true.

    The last major section is a “Conclusion” in which the authors argue strongly for “the need to radically dismantle systems of racial and economic oppression.” Again this is easy to agree with, but hardly justifies the publication of the rest of the article. We would need to dismantle these systems of racial and economic oppression (which objectively exist and are awful) even if urban ecology were to disappear as a research discipline.

    So by the end of the article I was left wondering what the point was. One suspects of course that the point was to display the authors’ collective and individual virtue as antiracists, but that would be an uncharitable assumption for which I don’t have any evidence. Instead it seems better to conclude that the authors just want to help, and this seemed like one avenue for them to at least try to help. I don’t think they really succeeded, and their introduction of the social justice term “diversity” in place of the well-understood ecological term “diversity” is a net negative, and left me with the thought that the urban ecology literature would be better off without this paper than with it. Of course your mileage may differ.

      1. It would be fun to publish something like this. But the senior administrators at my university are deeply and publicly committed to intersectionalism. Unfortunately I think I would be at risk of losing my job if I were to put my name to a critique like this. I would certainly be unable to obtain grant funding, because major research funding organizations in my country are also deeply committed to antiracism in biological research and especially in research training.

        1. Damn, that’s pretty bad. Also completely contrary to one of the most basic features of science (both formal and broadly construed), criticism. And your criticisms seem to me to be pretty constructive.

    1. Whoops sorry the last major section of the paper is called “Centering justice in urban ecology and conservation”. Posted in haste.

    2. I have not read the paper, and only lightly skimmed your summary. But I would expect that in the usual sense of ecology, blighted urban environments would have more ecological diversity of plants and animals, while wealthier enclaves, with intensive gardening and the like, would have less diversity of plants and animals.

      1. Yes “lightly skimmed” is all that’s needed. About diversity wrt wealthy vs. blighted it’s my understanding that the data are all over the place. Some suburban enclaves have low diversity because lawns but others have high diversity of plants and animals due to preservation of natural habitat (forest patches, ravines, creeks, etc.), and some ‘blighted’ neighborhoods have high diversity but with lots of introduced species (weeds etc.). But I really don’t know, it’s not my area of research or teaching.

    3. The authors argue that urban ecology should incorporate the effects of racism and other bigotries into its explanatory approach to understanding distribution and abundance in cities. The underlying mechanisms that would justify this expansion of urban ecology are not carefully explained and seem to have been deliberately left out or obscured. This flaw makes the authors’ argument susceptible to other interpretations.

      That implies that urban ecology does not already take into account racism and other bigotries already. How could you explain, for example, the existstence black ghettos without at least considering racism?

    4. Thanks, you really took one for the team there.

      The misuse of the word diverse/diversity that you point out is something that has bugged me for years.

    1. If I was a reviewer, I might have rejected it. There is 0 hard data. And they report on the bloody obvious by really just summarizing the work of other people. I would think a Science paper in particular should say something new.

  6. “As urban ecologists and evolutionary biologists, we have a responsibility to implement anti-racist strategies that interrogate systems of oppression in how we perform our science.”

    POCSOTs (postmodern critical social theorists) reject the ideal of value-free science and practice “activism-scholarship”/”scholarship-activism” (Pluckrose&Lindsay) instead, which is anything but ideologically/politically neutral. In fact, POCSOT scholarship is basically antiscientific by rejecting scientific objectivity and rationality.

  7. Mark S twice criticizes the paper for no hard data, just summarizing the work of others. Isn’t that what review papers do? It is clearly labelled a review paper.

    Review papers will also tend to be longish?

    Does Science normally publish review papers at all? If not, it would seem the editors are climbing on the woke train.

  8. I’d like to know whether they’ve made any effort to disentangle the race variable from the poverty variable.

    But then I’d have to read the whole paper, and I find that prospect just too dispiriting.

  9. I’m sorry but I must respectfully decline your request.

    I have read the abstract and it looks as if they took a piece of English text and ran it through a program that looks up each word in a thesaurus and replaces it with the longest synonym found.

    If the rest of the paper is like that, I don’t think I could stand it.

    1. I have read the abstract and it looks as if they took a piece of English text and ran it through a program that looks up each word in a thesaurus and replaces it with the longest synonym found.

      Very good characterization of this type of writing. I hope you don’t mind if I steal the gist of it?

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