Science is full of debates. Some are productive, some aren’t. What makes for a productive debate?
First, a few remarks about what I mean by a “productive” debate. I don’t mean a debate that leads to agreement on all or even any points, either among the main participants or among non-participants. For instance, consider a debate on some matter of empirical fact. If round-earthers and flat-earthers debate the shape of the Earth, and eventually agree that it’s flat (or “compromise” and agree the Earth is hemispherical), does that make their debate productive? I’m not saying that one side or the other is always right, or that compromise positions are never right, merely that resolution of any sort is not a marker of a productive debate. Now, it’s always unproductive if participants can’t agree on what questions they’re debating.* But there are lots of reasons why a debate might fail to settle on an agreed resolution, and being “unproductive” is only one of those reasons.
What I mean by a productive debate is a debate in which the participants engage with one another, meaning that they pay close attention to and understand the other side, and respond to the other side’s evidence and arguments rather than strategically ignoring them. A productive debate also is one in which all relevant evidence and argument gets fully aired, and arguments are pursued to their logical conclusions and their full implications considered. A productive debate also is one that doesn’t get sidetracked by misunderstandings. This means that the participants need to choose their words carefully and precisely, be clear and explicit, and expect the same from other participants. A productive debate also is one in which no one engages in personal attacks, and in which no one takes criticism of anyone’s views (no matter how strong) to be a personal attack.** Productive debates may not reach an agreed resolution—but if they don’t, they at least make the issues crystal-clear. That clarification of the issues is both a very useful outcome (especially to students and others learning for the first time about the subject of the debate), and the most that can be expected.
By that standard, there are lots of productive debates in ecology. Recent debates over MaxEnt, aired in part in Oikos, are an excellent example. Debates over “sampling effects” in biodiversity-ecosystem function research, sparked in part by an Oikos paper (Aarssen 1997), led to productive development of new experimental designs and statistical techniques that resolved the issue (Loreau et al. 2001). The big debate over ratio-dependent functional responses eventually led to agreement on some issues and “agreement to disagree” on others (Abrams and Ginzburg 2000).***
Actually, probably most “tit for tat” exchanges of comments in the literature are productive by my standard. After all, that’s what “tit for tat” means—you raise a point, and I respond to it rather than ignoring it or dodging it. Indeed, there’s a productive debate in ecology every time reviewers do a good job reviewing a ms and the authors respond. Of course, in such cases there’s an editor involved, who effectively can force both sides to debate productively, on pain of having their comment go unpublished, their review ignored, or their ms rejected. 😉
Notably, in the examples I listed where the protagonists eventually came to partial or complete agreement, this was only after a lengthy period of vociferous disagreement. If you are the sort of person who wants to see agreement at the end of a debate (like my fellow editor Dustin), well, I think you can only get that, if at all, by first letting the debate run its natural, debate-y course.
Which isn’t to say all debates in ecology and evolution are productive. The recent spat over inclusive fitness in evolutionary biology hasn’t, as far as I can tell, raised any issues that weren’t already familiar, and seems if anything to have muddied the waters rather than clarifying them. Further back, while I don’t know the punctuated equilibrium literature well, my impression is that that debate had both productive and unproductive elements. Productive in that it sparked interest in some important issues and prompted some new empirical research. Unproductive in that it proved difficult for the protagonists to agree on the questions at issue, and on what would count as an answer. IIRC, the punctuationists were rather shifty and difficult to pin down on what exactly they were claiming, and the same data were infamously interpreted as evidence for and against punctuated equilibrium by the opposing sides.
Anyway, that’s what I would argue. Who wants to debate me? 😉
*It’s fine, and often necessary, to debate the choice and framing of the question, and what counts as evidence for a given answer. But at some point, all sides do need to come to an agreement as to what questions are at issue and what would count as an answer if debate is to be productive.
**Which means, among other things, that “politeness” can be the enemy of productive debate, if by “politeness” you mean “not saying exactly what you mean, in order to avoid possibly offending someone.” That’s not what I mean by “politeness”. In my view, empirical evidence and logical argument are never impolite, and if anyone else takes them that way, that’s their problem. This doesn’t mean you can’t try to phrase what you have to say in a polite way, but you can’t do so at the expense of clarity and explicitness if you really want to have a productive debate.
***Note to youngsters: yes, there once was a massive debate in ecology over a particular functional response model.