Zombie ideas in ecology: my TREE paper is now online

Anyone who’s been ignoring my critiques of the intermediate disturbance hypothesis because they’re not peer reviewed will have to pay attention now: the Trends in Ecology and Evolution paper based on my posts is now available online here.

No zombie jokes or other inflammatory rhetoric in it. I leave it you to judge if that makes the paper better or worse than the blog posts.

So, what’s the over/under on how long it takes for an IDH defender to submit a rebuttal? ๐Ÿ˜‰

Also, any guesses as to what arguments any rebuttal will make? This is something I had to think about as I was writing the ms, because I was trying to do the best I could to anticipate and pre-refute arguments IDH defenders might make. Here are my guesses as to the arguments an IDH defender likely would make in a rebuttal to my paper. I think #’s 1, 2, 3, 6, and 9 are probably the most likely ones. I say that in part because 1, 2, 3, and 9 are basically the arguments appealed to by defenders of the zombie idea of humped diversity-productivity relationships in grasslands, and some of those same folks have worked on the IDH as well. Which is also why I wouldn’t be surprised to see #10 crop up.

  1. Argue that the available empirical evidence is all flawed and so doesn’t provide an adequate basis for rejecting or accepting the IDH.
  2. Cherry-pick empirical evidence: find some reason(s) to ignore the many empirical studies failing to find a humped diversity-disturbance relationship, and to focus on the few that do find a hump. Claim that the subset of the data on which we should be focusing strongly supports the IDH.
  3. Argue that humped diversity-disturbance relationships would occur, but lots of other factors intervene and obscure them. Cite the speculations of Hughes et al. 2007 in support. Perhaps even argue that I’m ignorant of the many refinements of the IDH over the years.
  4. Muddy the waters on the distinction between patterns (humped diversity-disturbance relationships) and the processes generating those patterns. Then combine this with cherry-picking empirical evidence to argue that zombie ideas about the processes driving the IDH must be right, because “empirical data show that the IDH is true”.
  5. Argue that the IDH has always been based largely or entirely on competition-colonization trade-offs models, so I’m attacking straw men in attacking other theories of the IDH.
  6. Argue that my favored models of diversity-disturbance relationships (like those of Roxburgh et al., Shea et al., and Miller et al.) are just minor refinements of the models I criticize, and so actually support the IDH. Cite Roxburgh et al., Shea et al., and Miller et al. in support, because this is the way they sometimes pitch their work. Ignore the fact that my paper explicitly addresses this argument.
  7. Argue that the IDH, even if it perhaps had some flaws in its original form, has sparked a lot of productive research and that we need to continue to build on that research, not discard it. Either ignore my argument for a new research program on diversity-disturbance relationships based on testing recent models, or else claim that that program would throw the baby out with the bathwater.
  8. Claim that all models are false, and the models I favor are no exception. Ignore or simply deny my point that zombie IDH models are logically invalid, not false in any of the ways most theoretical models are false.
  9. Argue that the IDH has been a “cornerstone” of community ecology and conservation biology for decades. It was developed by some of the greatest and most influential ecologists ever. Conservation practitioners have long relied on it. Key papers on it are citation classics. It’s in all the textbooks. It’s well established. Strategically fail to note the many examples from the history of science of well established, widely believed ideas proposed by famous people turning out to be wrong, dead ends, or otherwise fatally flawed.
  10. Ignore any contradictions between the different arguments you offer (e.g., 1 and 2 can’t both hold; it can’t simultaneously be true that the available data are inadequate, and that, properly interpreted, they strongly support the IDH)

Just to be clear: I don’t think all of these arguments are poor ones, even though I don’t agree with any of them. (Probably #2 CORRECTION: I meant #3 is the best argument, with #7 in second place) And I could be totally wrong about the arguments that any rebuttal might make. I’d actually be thrilled to hear strong rebuttal arguments I hadn’t thought of. I’d feel like I, and hopefully readers, would really have learned something if that happened, and that the science would really have advanced in an important way. But since I’m as convinced as I can be that I’m right, I’m as convinced as I can be that there aren’t any really strong rebuttal arguments to be made. Which is why I’m cautiously pessimistic about the strength of the arguments likely to be included in any rebuttal. Like I said, I sincerely hope my pessimism isn’t borne out.

Of course, another possibility, perhaps quite likely, is that the paper will just be ignored. Or perhaps only be cited in a pro forma way by people continuing to pursue research based on the zombie ideas I criticize. Such papers might begin by saying something like “The IDH is a central hypothesis about the maintenance of diversity (Connell 1978, Huston 1979, but see Fox in press)”, and then go on to discuss zombie ideas more or less as if they’d never been criticized. Scientists are a conservative bunch. Hardly ever does a single paper cause a popular line of research to shut down or change direction in a major way. So it’s quite possible my paper will just sink without much of a trace.

25 thoughts on “Zombie ideas in ecology: my TREE paper is now online

  1. Great work, Jeremy. I like how you have used blogging to advance your research. I’m inspired to make blog posts that could turn into publications! Also, in relation to all of the recent discussion about arXiv, blogging seems like an alternative approach to getting rapid and general feedback on an idea without producing a pre-print or formal draft.

    • Thanks Aaron. And good point re: blogging and arXiv both being ways to quick feedback on ideas. Interesting to think about the strengths and weaknesses of each for that purpose. For instance, this blog has an audience, and it’s big. People are much more likely to comment on my ideas if I post them here, rather than on arXiv. Blog posts can be written in an entertaining style that may well attract some readers and encourage them to comment, but may well put others off (there are plenty of people who don’t read blogs at all because they think it’s just people ranting). Blog posts can be written much faster than even draft mss intended for arXiv because blog posts can omit lots of details. But conversely if you care at all about feedback on the details you probably have to spell them out in a draft ms. And in saying that blog posts can be written faster than draft mss and blogs can have an audience, I’m not allowing for the cumulative time and effort required to write all the posts needed to build that audience. And of course, the two can work together: if I wanted, I could put a draft ms on arXiv, and then plug it on the blog in an attempt to have my cake and eat it too.

  2. I found the article to be a really accessible, enjoyable summary, thanks Jeremy. I’ll also look forward to seeing what responses (if any) come out!

    I find trying to prepare an article based on anticipated referee criticism is an awful way to approach things, from the writing point of view. You seem to have used this as the backbone of your article ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Does this Oikos paper mean that your fellow Editors have actually been paying attention to your blogging? Or is it more than coincidence that it appears in print at the same time as your TREE article comes online?

    • Thanks Mike, glad you liked it!

      Re: writing based on anticipated criticism, recall that Darwin devoted a whole chapter of the Origin to refuting objections to his theory! Now, those weren’t anticipated objections–they were mostly objections that had been raised to Darwin in correspondence with close friends and colleagues while he was working on the Origin. But the basic idea is the same–you’re not just making your positive case, you’re also heading off objections to that case.

      The link to that Oikos paper didn’t work, there’s no link there. Can you try again?

      • Sorry, it’s this paper.
        DOI: 10.1111/j.1600-0706.2011.19863.x

        But the basic idea is the sameโ€“youโ€™re not just making your positive case, youโ€™re also heading off objections to that case.

        Not only do I despise any reference to Darwin in the first sentence of a paper (luckily you saved yours for the 2nd of your comment), I hope you realise I wasn’t criticising you. Simply noting that if I start going down the road of worrying about potential criticisms, >half of my Intro and Discussion quickly become confused, tedious and hyper-paranoid. But I understand your aim here was to specifically criticise an idea and it’s foundations, therefore the “attack is the best form of” defence is totally acceptable.

      • Sorry Mike, I knew you weren’t criticizing me, didn’t mean to come off as if I was defending myself. My bad. I just tossed Darwin out as another example of someone trying to rebut anticipated objections to their argument. In tossing that example out there, all I meant to say was “There are other folks besides me who’ve written this way, so don’t make too much of my example”, not “This is the only correct way to write papers” or “This way of writing papers must be teh awwsum because that’s how Darwin wrote.” You know me Mike–you know I’d never resort to proof by authority! ๐Ÿ˜‰

        I totally agree that there are some papers that work great when written this way, and others that don’t work. Absolutely, lots of papers would come off as over-defensive if written this way. My own microcosm papers often used to come off that way to referees–they’d tell me to axe the long defensive passages discussing and refuting objections to microcosm experiments. Of course, sometimes I’d have to actually expand rather than drop those defensive sections in order to deal with objections from the other referee. ๐Ÿ˜‰

        We should probably call this writing strategy “prophylaxis”. In chess, a “prophylactic” move is one intended to prevent your opponent from making a move or series of moves he hasn’t made yet. It’s not really the same thing as attack being the best form of defense, as prophylactic moves typically are non-aggressive, positional moves which reduce your chances of losing at the cost of also reducing your chances of winning. In chess, you can’t really combine prophylactic defense and attack (although you might switch from one to the other during a game), but of course in writing sometimes you can.

    • No, I hadn’t seen that. Just looking at the abstract, I see that the authors assume density-dependent mortality, so based on that I’d guess that their model can produce stable coexistence under some conditions. It looks like they’ve simply assumed a stabilizing mechanism, rather than asking how one might or might not emerge from the effects of disturbance.

      But that’s just based on a quick glance. And I may not be the best person to ask about this sort of paper anyway. I didn’t realize people were still writing “How do we reconcile Grime and Tilman?” papers after 30 years, and I don’t even get why they ever wanted to write such papers in the first place. But that’s a whole ‘nother conversation… ๐Ÿ˜‰

  3. Great paper Jeremy! I hope it has the desired effect! As Mike Fowler says…it’ll be interesting to read some of the comments from the IDH proponents.

    I remember in a previous post dealing with IDH issues you offered that you might put up some R code…did anything ever come of that?

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