Have any ecologists or evolutionary biologists ever switched from one sort of research to a totally different sort?

Nobel Laureate economist Robert Mundell recently passed away. I know nothing about Mundell, but I was interested to read that his intellectual legacy is complicated, apparently because he switched from doing one sort of economics to a completely different sort. It’s not merely that Mundell changed his mind about important economic matters. It’s that he changed his whole approach as well.

We’ve discussed scientists who’ve changed their minds about important scientific matters. But I don’t think we’ve ever discussed scientists changing their whole research approach. Are there any examples of this from ecology and evolutionary biology? The equivalent of me switching to, say, dinosaur paleontology or condor conservation or something?

Continue reading

Poll results: which ecological concepts are the equivalent of phlogiston?

In a recent post, I discussed scientific concepts that don’t actually exist, phlogiston being the classic example. I talked about the various reasons why X might not exist (or might as well not exist), besides, um, simply not existing: X might be many different things rather than one thing, it might be a thing that exists but can’t be measured, it might be too vaguely defined to exist, etc. And then I polled y’all on various ecological concepts, asking whether or not they exist, and if they don’t, why not.

Here are the results!

Continue reading

Poll: which ecological concepts are the equivalent of phlogiston?

The history of science is littered with cases in which a thing turned out not to be a thing.

Phlogiston, the substance purportedly released when something burns, is perhaps the most famous example. Phlogiston was once widely believed to be a thing. But it is not actually a thing. It doesn’t exist. As a modern day example, this piece argues that the famous Dunning-Kruger effect in psychology doesn’t actually exist, that it’s just a statistical artifact. And many ecologists would argue that there’s no such thing as a “pristine” habitat–that human impacts on the planet are so pervasive that no place is free of them.

There are other ways in which a thing can turn out not to be a thing, besides not existing.

  • The thing could be many things, rather than one. Think of scientific terms that have various different meanings, each referring to some distinct thing. In an old post, I argued that ecological “stability” is really many different things rather than one thing. As another example, a few ecologists have argued that the concept of “ecosystem engineering” is too broad to be useful. Ecosystem engineering, defined as any effect of an organism on its physical environment, is something in which every organism engages, but in such multifarious ways that it’s not helpful to put them all under the same umbrella. Ecosystem engineering is really a bunch of unrelated things that shouldn’t be lumped together.
  • The thing could be vaguely defined. X isn’t really a thing if nobody has any idea what X even is. For instance, philosopher of science Ken Waters has argued that “gene” is such a vague concept that it’s not really a thing (thought note that he also thinks that the vagueness of the “gene” concept is a virtue). As another example, Rohwer and Marris argued in a recent paper that “ecological integrity” is not a thing, because the concept is too vaguely defined. As a third example, Rees et al. (2012) argued that the heuristic concepts of “importance” and “intensity” of competition among plants were so vague as to be effectively undefined and thus unmeasurable. As a non-scientific example, think of mystic Henri Bergson’s idea of “qualitative multiplicity“.
  • The thing could be undefined or nonsensical. There was a time when some mathematicians thought that negative numbers weren’t a thing, for this reason. And a time when some thought that imaginary numbers weren’t a thing, for this reason. How could you have a negative amount of something? How can make any sense to speak of numbers that aren’t even on the real number line? And to this day, the fraction 2/0 is not a thing, because it’s undefined.
  • The thing could be a contradiction in terms, like an unmarried husband.
  • The thing could be a concept that’s useless, misleading, uninterpretable, or pointless. As a deliberately silly example, think of “zargledoodles”, which I just made up. Zargledoodles are housecats, pizzas, and the planet Mercury. A “zargledoodle” is not a thing, because there is no point to lumping together housecats, pizzas, and the planet Mercury into a single category. As a non-silly example, Chong et al. (2019) argued that the concepts of “stabilizing mechanisms” and “equalizing mechanisms” in modern coexistence theory are not things, because they are inextricably interdependent. So that treating them as two separate things is either misleading or uninterpretable. As a second non-silly example, I’ve seen some physicists argue that “dark matter” isn’t a thing. Rather, it’s just a name we’ve given to a placeholder or “fudge factor” that we’ve inserted into our model of the universe, to make the model fit the observed data.

Sometimes, a sign that X isn’t really a (single) thing is that no one can agree on how to measure it. Rees et al. (2012) discuss the many proposed indices of competitive “importance” in this context. Or think of the ongoing disagreement as to how to define and measure “alpha diversity” and “beta diversity”. Is that disagreement because we’re still figuring out how to measure a single, well-defined thing, like 19th century physicists trying to figure out how to measure the speed of light? Or is that disagreement because “alpha diversity” and “beta diversity” aren’t single things? Or maybe aren’t even well-defined things at all?

Often, there’s disagreement as to whether X is a thing or not. Plenty of ecologists disagree with Chong et al. (2019), and think that stabilizing and equalizing mechanisms are things. I’m sure some ecologists disagree with Rohwer and Marris and believe that ecological integrity is a thing. Etc. Those sorts of disagreements are what this post is really about! It seems like it’d be hard to make progress in ecology, if some of the things we’re trying to study aren’t actually things, or if there’s appreciable disagreement as to whether they’re things or not.

Please help me get some anecdata on this by completing the poll below. It’s a list of various ecological concepts. For each of them, indicate if you think it’s a thing that we can measure, a thing that we can’t measure, many things rather than one, or not a thing. If you think it’s not a thing, please choose the option that best captures your reason for thinking it’s not a thing. And if you don’t know or aren’t sure, there’s an option for that.

Friday links: Epstein fallout continues at Harvard, memes vs. intro biostats, and more (includes quick poll) (UPDATED)

Also this week: is ecological integrity a thing, when experts lie to the public, Stephen Hawking as self-promoter, is the American Sociological Association collapsing, many analysts vs. one dataset, Alan Turing vs. money, and more.

Continue reading

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately

Here’s an extended quote from pp. 95-96 of Ian Hacking’s The Social Construction of What?, a (very good) 1999 book on philosophy of science. I’ve been thinking about this passage a lot lately.

In terms of the unmasking of established order, constructionists are properly put on the left. Their political attitude is nevertheless very much not in harmony with those scientists who see themselves as allies of the oppressed, but also feel like the special guardians of the most important truths about the world, the true bastions of objectivity. The scientists insist that, in the end, objectivity has been the last support of the weak. Here is a disagreement. It is a rather messy matter, a sticky point involving deep-seated but ill-expressed attitudes. Who is on the left?

I take this question very seriously, for I am deeply sympathetic to both sides. Some years ago, after a talk of mine about verisimilitude, a freedom fighter of days gone by insisted on the extent to which objective truth is called for, as a virtue, when one is fighting tyranny. The enemy always tries to steal it (Pravda and Trud were once newspapers named after the noblest idea, truth). The villains never could get away with that, so long as the last words are: “that simply is not true, liar!” My fighter would’ve hated those who want to unmask the values of truth, reality, and fact. They want, as he sees it, to remove the last ledge upon which freedom and justice can stand. I saw what he meant, and feel humble towards a man who really worked for the liberation of his people.

Nevertheless, a serious issue is joined. Feminists feel most strongly that they well know about oppression. Left/right: what did that mean except an army of men in the French National Assembly? Forget it. They see objectivity and abstract truth as tools that have been used against them. They remind us of the old refrain: women are subjective, men are objective. They argue that those very values, and the word objectivity, are a gigantic confidence trick. If any kind of objectivity is to be be preserved, some argue, it must be one that strives for a multitude of standpoints.

I have nothing to contribute to this debate, precisely because I am torn. Perhaps it is a generational thing…I invite others to confess to these difficulties, and to refrain from dogmatism.

Best examples of moderator variables explaining variation in effect size in ecological meta-analyses?

I’ve been writing a lot lately about just how variable ecological effect sizes are (e.g., here, here, here). Different studies of the same effect often report very different effect sizes, and not just because of sampling error. That’s why most meta-analyses in ecology these days incorporate moderator variables–covariates that may explain some of that massive variation in effect size.

As I’ve written before, my anecdotal impression is that moderator variables rarely explain much variation in effect size in ecological meta-analyses. Even the moderator variables that explain a statistically significant fraction of the variation in effect size rarely explain all that much variation in an absolute sense.

But maybe there are some exceptions? I mean, ecologists have now done hundreds of meta-analyses, many of which included moderator variables. Surely, a few of them found moderator variables that explained a lot of variation in effect size. Which are they? What are the most successful applications of moderator variables in the history of ecological meta-analyses?

Continue reading