Ranitomeya imitator giving his tadpole a piggy-back ride. Photo by John Clare*
You can find poison frogs at zoos, aquaria, and some museums now: tiny and colorful, often hard to see in the vegetation-rich tank until— oh! all those little blue things, that’s them! They’re so pretty! You watch for a while, and they sit on their leaves unmoving, doing accurate impressions of the plastic toy frogs being sold in the gift shop, until you get bored and move on to the next exhibit.
They have a secret: they have rich lives full of interesting behaviors. They just aren’t interested in doing those behaviors in front of you.
Recently I was discussing my dissertation progress with another volunteer at the bird banding station. “I have all the data,” I said, “I just need to figure out how to spin it.”
She looked taken aback. “Well, it’s data,” she said. “It’s information. You don’t spin it; it just is.”
“Right,” I agreed quickly, in my best Objective Scientist voice. “Of course.”
I thought about this exchange a lot over the next few weeks. It had been a while since I had talked about my research at length with a non-scientist, and her reaction to my word choice made an impression. Why had I said “spin”? Did I mean “spin”?
“Spin” your data? Outrageous!
I paid more attention than usual to the word choices my colleagues made, and quickly realized that we all talk about spinning our data. We also talk about interpreting our data, and framing our data: similar and related concepts, but not exact synonyms for spinning the data. “Spinning” sounds underhanded, deceitful. It sounds like we are making the data say what we want it to say. Shouldn’t the data speak for itself?
Today was my first day volunteering at a local bird banding station. This place is great: they have been banding birds for decades, recording population changes and individual measurements, and they care a lot about both the birds and the data.
More importantly, though: I finally got my hands on some birds again.
Lincoln’s Sparrow, obviously delighted to be involved.
It’s been a while. I had an abbreviated field season this summer, so I haven’t held a bird since July. Since then I’ve been applying for postdocs and writing my dissertation, both of which involve a lot of sitting inside and staring at a computer screen. I need some bird time. That is, after all, the whole reason why I’m applying for postdocs and writing a dissertation: because I love these guys.
Male Ruby-crowned Kinglet showing his “crown”.