Deep archives: The joys (and pains) of number-gathering

One of the best things about biology is that it means you might get to work outdoors. This is especially wonderful when it involves heading somewhere warm, or at least somewhere warmer than home.

But field work in evolutionary biology is fraught with difficulties; it’s not all “binoculars and gorillas” as David Quammen has said (he’s one of my favourite nonfiction writers, and well worth looking into if you haven’t heard of him already). Field work can be lonely and uncomfortable, often horribly so, and is almost always tedious.

Field work has taught me what it feels like to sleep in a house where the scorpions outnumber the people. It has taught me the psychological terror of infestation with tiny biting mites that give you new welts daily, when other people working in the same environment receive not a single bite. It has taught me that I’m willing to wear my pants tucked into my socks, and keep them that way even if it includes a stop at the grocery store on the way home from work. But it has also taught me that most bugs really aren’t anything to be afraid of, and that not having to worry about what other people think can be a luxury.

As for the tedium, coming to terms with that is another thing entirely. As Quammen puts it, raw number-gathering can be dull even for the biologist with the “soul of a mathematician”, and the risk of boredom is one that will certainly increase with time. Absence of scorpions, centipedes, and tropical diseases in California aside, I still have to contend with the painful task of sitting still for hours and watching, even when the birds aren’t doing anything. I realize now that this kind of prolonged tedium is not unique to field work (perhaps it’s a defining characteristic of graduate research in general).

During the more inactive lek watches, I get myself through by thinking about what I’m going to eat for lunch, write in my next letter home, or do when I get back to Kingston. My friend Mike has described his endless hours of microscopy (for his Master’s research) as intellectually unstimulating yet strangely rewarding. I find the same is true of number-gathering in the field. As boring as it can be, I enjoy the fact that it gives me a chance think about the things I’m looking forward to in the future as well as reflect on those that I’m lucky to have now.

There’s one final difficulty – this is one that I fear more than centipedes, and still haven’t figured out how to reconcile. I’ll let Quammen describe it since he does it so well:

Besides tedium and reductionism, snakebite and dysentary, one other danger faces the biological fieldworker. This one is so large and scary, so terrifyingly amorphous, that it’s best described in the negative: lack of validity. Are you really measuring what you think you’re measuring? Are you really counting what you think you’re counting? Are you really therefore proving what you claim to be proving? Or possibly not? Maybe you’re rowing like hell but your oars aren’t in the water.

Quantification must be meaningful as well as precise, and the assumptions by which number are linked to biological realities must be correct. If so, you have not only precision but validity. If not, you’re wasting your time. Does the number of rings in a tree trunk really represent years of age? In most cases, yes. Does the number of wolf sightings in Glacier National Park really represent the current wolf population in that area? Possibly. Does the number of UFO stories in The National Enquirer, this year compared with last year, really represent the trend in visits by alien spacecraft? Uh, maybe not. Mathematized meaning, like any other kind, can be illusory.

I think I’ll make it mandatory reading for future field assistants.

David Quammen. 2000. “Certainty and Doubt in Baja” in The boilerplate rhino: Nature in the eye of the beholder. Simon & Schuster.