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March 26th, 2013 by Rachael Martin

Constructing Criticism

Last week David gave a lecture on a method called ancestral state reconstruction and Romina gave us a tutorial on how to perform this method, which many of us will use for our projects. The homework assignments for the class have been completed, and now the focus has shifted to discussion of papers. We are still learning new methods and now we are working on applying these methods to our projects which are due in a month!

Yesterday we discussed a paper which used ancestral state reconstruction. As predicted in my last post, I was selected as discussion leader today. I remained calm and it seemed to go well. Alexis and I discuss the articles before each class and we usually manage to help each other better understand the research and come up with points for discussion. In phylogenetic studies incomplete taxon sampling is a constant problem. Spotting methodological problems can be more difficult. Yesterday was a little frustrating because we missed a few of the major problems David identified within the article. That is why discussing articles in class is so beneficial. I find that it is almost more important than lectures. Passively listening to someone lecture can give you an inflated sense of your understanding of a topic. Evaluating today’s paper required more than just knowing about the topic (ancestral state reconstruction). We needed to know how the method works and what assumptions it makes, how to apply the method appropriately, and how to interpret the results of such an analysis.

Yesterday’s discussion reminded me that I need to read more thoroughly and really think critically about each statement the authors make. This ability to critically evaluate articles is essential in science, but it is also a useful skill for life in general. I think we all have a tendency to be lazy or impatient readers and give statements made in published articles the benefit of the doubt without thoroughly evaluating the claims.

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