Sunday, March 13, 2016

THE FIELD - unplugged

Back in the day, we didn’t have a choice. Field stations didn’t have wifi or cell phone access. Hell, those things pretty much didn’t exist – neither did practical laptops. We went into the field with our notebooks and sample bags and spent all of our time collecting data, talking, taking pictures, playing cards, and so on. Then, when we got back to civilization, we checked our email, called home, and spent months trying to decipher what was written in our note books. These days we check our messages between samples, we enter the data directly into our computers (immediately backed up on DropBox), and skype with the family on a daily basis. Progress?

This post was motivated by two experiences. First, while driving through the forest on the way back from camping in Trinidad last week, a colleague checking email on his phone received a message from a journal about a decision on his paper. No harm there, but it felt out of context for me, and - more to the point - it reminded me of the second experience. McGill has many field courses, and I have taught a number of them. One course is taught at the Gault Nature Reserve on Mt. St. Hilaire, the last remaining patch of primary forest in the St. Lawrence lowlands. I taught this  course twice with a ten year gap between – and the experience was dramatically different.

Gault Nature Reserve of McGill University.
The first time I taught the course, we didn't have cell phone or practical wifi. We (the profs) went for walks in the forest, played chess, drank beer, and argued argued argued about science. In fact, Andy Gonzalez and I even turned a never-ending argument we where having into a paper that we published in Biology and Philosophy. The students would often hang out with us in the evenings and just BS about life and science. The second time I taught the course, much of our “down time” was spent checking email, tweeting, texting, surfing the web, and so on. It was remarkable to look around the room and see five or six people all sitting separately working on something on their computer or phone. Some nights the students projected youtube “fail” videos on the screen for evening entertainment. Connectivity in the field obviously has merits (some of those fail videos are pretty funny); however, the point of this post is to argue that much greater merit attends connection-free field work and classes.

When we were unplugged. "Adaptation is everywhere." "No dummy, adaptation is nowhere."
We wanted to have an asterisk behind our names with the note "each author thinks the other contributed less" - but the journal wouldn't allow it.
What is the point of being in the field? If you are conducting research, then the goal is obviously to collected data. If you are teaching (or taking) a course, it is unarguably to observe and experience the natural world. Field courses allow yourself and your colleagues and students to sit back (or lean forward) to watch how insects pollinate plants or how cheetahs kill gazelles or how every tree in a tropical rainforest seems to be a different species. Observations like these have historically led to many new and novel hypotheses that have enriched our understanding of nature – think of Darwin watching and collecting Galapagos birds. Of course, such hypotheses can also be generated sitting in front of our computer but, even then, the best ideas are  motivated and informed by previous observation made in nature. Darwin didn’t think of natural selection until he got back but the observations he made were critical to his subsequent insights. The "origin of all my views" was how he referred to Galapagos in his autobiography.

Happily, my 10 summers of Alaskan field work were all 100% un-connected.
OK, so I do realize you can still get these sorts of insights if you spend the morning in nature without your phone and the afternoon surfing the web or tweeting about your observations. However, I would like to make the case that you can do much better if you just leave the phone (and the internet access) at home or in your drawer.

Check out Marc Johnson's impeccable demonstration of how to take a texting break (1:28)

My first supporting argument is simply that you have more time for observing nature if you don’t spend half of it in front of your computer. Time matters – and we never have enough of it. Deep insights about nature require spending extended periods of time with nature: sometimes the key observations are rare (how often does a cheetah kill a gazelle?), sometimes they are variable (pollinators differ from the morning to the afternoon), sometimes you have to walk for hours just to see a decent proportion of the tree species. Then, after it gets dark , staying off the internet allows more time for discussion with students and colleagues (assuming you are not studying nocturnal critters). These conversations can wind in circuitous ways and touch on many topics, and it might take two hours of debate before the eureka moment comes or until you get so annoyed by someone’s argument that you actually decide you need to do something serious about it. (If I hadn’t argued with Gonzalez for hours over multiple days, we would not have felt the need to write our Whither Adaptation? paper referred to above.)

My second argument is that you simply think differently when you have access to the web. Without such access, two people can spend hours arguing about something that they might find the resolution to in seconds if they just typed it into Google. In this case, I realize that connectivity has an immediate short term benefit – you don’t “waste your time” arguing about something that you can solve in seconds. The problem, however, is that simply looking up the answer changes your thought process. Instead of trying to argue your way around a topic, thinking at it from different angles, and listening the logic of other people, you simply get out the phone and KNOW the answer. In short, connectivity kills the art of argument, and the art of argument is a critical component of scientific discourse and insight. Indeed, every paper you write is simply an argument for or against some hypothesis. Arguing verbally about science (or anything else) is a great way to hone your ability to make a compelling case by marshaling arguments and corralling logic in the absence of an ability to actually PROVE what you are saying.

100% unplugged while camping for a month on this tiny island and doing stickleback field work in 1999.
In field courses, I suggest that connectivity be eliminated while outside observing or measuring or counting or experiencing nature. Moreover, connectivity should be eliminated for extend periods of time even while inside. For instance, cell phones and wifi access could be off from the start of dinner until the late evening, say 9 pm at the earliest. This after-dinner period is the optimal time for discussion and argument.

Thankfully, our field camps in Trinidad (here just last week) are not in the range of a cell phone signal.
When doing short bouts of field work (maybe one-week or less), I suggest that cell phones and the internet should be off the entire time. I say “the entire time” rather than “until late evening” because it is relative straightforward to dictate behavior in the context of a course (as above) but it is much harder to do the same thing for ourselves. Who wants to constantly police one’s own cell phone use – like trying to diet with a Chinese buffet in your house? You might argue “But I need to be connected because I coordinate this or that or because such and such deadline is looming or because …” I disagree. Every time I visit Trinidad, I don’t check messages or the internet for the entire week. I simply figure out what deadlines are coming and complete the task before I leave. It is certainly true that I have, when finally checking email after a trip, often seen messages something like “Professor Hendry. I absolutely need such or such by tomorrow or I need you to ...[fill in an annoying administrative task here].” The funny thing is that ALL of these crises seem to get solved without me as soon as they get my email reply that says “In the field without internet.” 

This picture depicts the scene from the movie The Matrix where the line shown below is uttered. It does not depict me or anyone I know or field work, which one reader seems to have thought (see comments). It is merely a well-known cultural reference to the merits of disconnecting occasionally from the online community, merits that I think you will agree accrued in the movie to Neo and to humanity. I can't promise similarly dramatic merits from unplugged field work.
Of course, I do recognize that connectivity might be needed for longer periods in the field. I also realize that connectivity is necessary in some instances, such as for safety reasons, or that it is a goal in other cases, such as outreach activities, or that it is sometimes needed for research. But, if not, I encourage you to unplug for just a little while. You won’t regret it.


  1. If you're going to encourage more field classes, I would also suggest encouraging more funding for students to take these field classes.

    Students are not made of money.

    1. Great idea. Although I am not here specifically trying to promote field work but rather field work unpluggged. Of course, the virtues of field work per se would be another great post.

  2. We are doomed. The recent college graduates I work with can't put their phones away on the job. Just last week I was showing one how to ID scianidae recruits. He kept interrupting me to check his phone for texts from his girlfriend. On the boats, between sites, they are looking down at their phones instead of learning their way around the shallow areas. If I talk to them while they text or check email on the boat they are offended. WTF!

  3. We are doomed. The recent college graduates I work with can't put their phones away on the job. Just last week I was showing one how to ID scianidae recruits. He kept interrupting me to check his phone for texts from his girlfriend. On the boats, between sites, they are looking down at their phones instead of learning their way around the shallow areas. If I talk to them while they text or check email on the boat they are offended. WTF!

    1. I was in a meeting with the Prime Minister of Canada while another prof was looking at his cell phone.

    2. Who cares! Quit name dropping.

      If you mean Justin, just a few years ago, you probably would have found him occasionally goofing off, doing the same thing, looking on his cell phone in a meeting.

    3. Actually, you will note I dropped a title, not a name. It was, in fact, Harper. So you can see why I dropped the name. In reality, I suppose it would have been better to look at my phone than listen to Harper

  4. Somehow, I don't feel sorry for you, and don't fear for the next generation of scientists either.

    I was at a Pikani Blackfoot organized "fish rescue" last fall on the Old Man River. There were many young people there, some Blackfoot, and some not, netting fish out of a viaduct that is drained for the winter.

    A number of scientists with fish and wildlife backgrounds were there to document the types and ages of the fish being captured.

    Nobody was scanning their cell phone or computer. A few people did call their families during the day.

    My daughter held a twenty pound bull trout in her arms for a bit, before it was taken up to the tank and then dumped back in the Oldman River.

    I also notice in your post that you refer first to your intense buddy relationship with other male scientists. Then, you have a picture of a man and a woman, with the woman in highly sexualized attire.

    If that's your world view, then I can honestly say that if I was in the field with you, I would probably not be terribly inclined to spend time talking with you, and might instead prefer to spend my time chatting with my more open minded buddies online.

    1. Sounds like a fantastic field trip. Awesome.

      As for the picture, it is from the movie The Matrix, with the well-known line "sounds to me like you just need to unplug man" which is the closest cultural reference to the wording I used. The picture does not depict me or anyone I know or field work.

    2. Yes, I've seen the Matrix. Like most Hollywood movies (more media, hey) it's laced with sexualized images of women, and hyper masculinized, unrealistic images of men.

      My impression when I saw the Matrix? Phoney, and the images of women were phoney and subjugated.

      Look, I do get the central message of what you're saying, but it is not as if all those media free trips in the back woods by scientists were not without their problems.

      First of all, mostly men took/take these trips, leaving their wives at home with the kids (all courtesy of the Canadian tax payer mind you.)

      And it is not as if men don't notice this problem. I was recently talking with several archaeologists (men) and they were quite annoyed that their Summer field work required them to be away from their families.

      It's a very synthetic and presumptuous imposition on families.

    3. I am very relieved to hear the Matrix is fake. I was kind of worried.

      My experience nowadays is that men and women are equally likely to do field work - both plugged and unplugged.

      Anyway, thanks for your comments

    4. I do agree with your central point that email and iphones are an impediment to more reflective thought and highly engaged conversation.

      It's a problem in the everyday work place, not just in the field.

      Even email can be highly distracting.

      Maybe I'm somewhat hardened to the situation, because in my field (integrated circuit design) much of the work is now being outsourced. It is common to spend all day on the phone, WebEx, email outsourcing a design to Singapore, Shanghai, or Minnesota (you name it, I've done it). We never meet, but are just slaves to the machine.

      I didn't sign up for this when I decided to be an electrical engineer and would definitely like to return to the days of yore having face to face discussions about integrated circuit design.

      Alas, the days of Nortel Networks (Ottawa) and grown up face to face interactions with colleagues are now a rarity.

      So count yourself lucky.

  5. Thanks for the interesting post! I'm ~lucky that my fieldwork occurs in a pretty remote region of the world; it takes a day and a half of boating and then hiking to get there. There are points around camp where we can use local cellphones, but since credit costs money, they're only used in emergencies. I just store up my thoughts and observations until I get back in town where I can access the internet...unless a huge storm knocks out the cell network for an entire region :)

  6. Agreed. Particularly with the point that having access to an immediate answer (via internet) inhibits our broader ability to learn. Going through the process of being wrong and using our reasoning abilities to work through problems gives us a greater understanding of the system than simply "knowing" the immediate answer.

    As a rule I don't bring anyone into the field that can't unplug. Generally, they just suck at their job. I'm strongly confident that there's an inverse correlation between competence in the field and one's ability to get off the damn phone. Additionally, they're boring. They'd rather spend time online than engage with the natural world and people around them. Why go to the field if you're escaping it on your phone? The best field seasons I've had were ones too remote for internet access, where you create your own adventures and get to know the people you're with.


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