Contrarian ecology and why we need it

It is better to know nothing than to know what ain’t so’Josh Billings, American humorist

The most serious errors in science don’t arise from ignorance of what’s true, they arise from believing what’s false. The most important false beliefs are the ones that are widely-held (because the beliefs of any one scientist don’t usually matter much), and that concern foundational issues. They’re the sorts of beliefs that everyone takes for granted, and which comprise unquestioned background assumptions on which much else depends. Building a house on sand is a bad idea, which is why no one ever does it–unless they are under the mistaken impression that they are building on solid ground.

That’s why contrarian ecology is so important. By contrarian ecology, I mean work that questions widely-held, fundamental assumptions. Note that I’m not talking about work showing that the consequences of some fundamental assumption can depend on, or be overriden by, other assumptions. That’s almost always the case. For instance, the fact that organisms don’t always evolve optimal phenotypes doesn’t show that evolution by natural selection doesn’t work the way everyone thinks it does, it just shows that other factors matter too. I’m talking about work showing that some fundamental assumption is just false, or that it never has the consequences it’s widely believed to have.

Contrarian ecology doesn’t often get undertaken. Contrarianism is difficult, because widely-held assumptions don’t get that way without good reason. Unless an assumption was once controversial, it can be hard to think of reasons to question it (especially good reasons; frivolous reasons are easier to come by). Contrarianism can seem pointless: questioning what everyone ‘knows’ seems like a waste of time, especially if what everyone ‘knows’ turns out to be true after all. And if contrarian work does get undertaken, the reception is uncertain. It’s quite likely to be ignored, misunderstood, or dismissed, unless it is seen to open up some new and tractable line of research.

But the payoff to contrarian research is quite high. Bob May’s classic work showing that, in the simplest models, complexity is actually destabilizing, is perhaps the most famous and important example of contrarian ecology. (It’s telling that May was a physicist by training; he wasn’t taught to share the intuitions of ecologists) Steve Hubbell’s neutral theory, questioning whether niche differences are necessary to explain many macroecological patterns in community ecology, looks like it might become a classic. It’s an example of a contrarian theory being initially dismissed: Steve’s first publication of the theory was in 1997 in the relatively obscure venue of Coral Reefs; it’s my understanding the ms had previously been rejected by Nature. It’s also an example of a contrarian theory that might well not hold up, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t valuable in forcing ecologists to put some key assumptions on a firmer foundation. A personal contrarian favorite of mine is Chesson and Huntly 1997 Am Nat (no, disturbances and harsh environmental conditions do not generally promote competitive coexistence in and of themselves). Mayfield and Levine 2010 Ecol. Lett. is a nice recent example, questioning the assumptions underpinning much ‘phylogenetic community ecology’. Peter Abrams has made a career out of contrarianism. In Oikos, John Lawton’s View from the Park column often was quite contrarian.

One common feature of most of the above examples of contrarianism is that the assumptions being questioned were primarily verbal, and the attacks on those assumptions were mathematically grounded. Words are imprecise, and so purely verbal models and verbal arguments often are ambiguous or even invalid, even if apparently supported by empirical data (like Elton’s verbal arguments about why diversity and complexity beget stability). Mathematics has the virtue of forcing precise definitions of terms, precise and complete specification of assumptions, and rigorous derivation of conclusions.

What are your favorite examples of contrarian ecology? Do we need more of it, and if so, are there ways to encourage it? Are there any areas of ecology that could use some contrarian pushback against the conventional wisdom?

11 thoughts on “Contrarian ecology and why we need it

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