Commenting on my recent post on the need for more “short selling” (i.e. criticism) of ideas in ecology, Jeff Houlahan asks a good question:
When was the last time we had an in print debate that matched the heat and light of Diamond versus Connor & Simberloff? Or Andrewartha and Birch versus Nicholson? I’m sure there are more recent examples but they don’t come to my mind.
Let’s crowdsource the answer. Name some vociferous-but-productive (“heat and light”) debates in ecology, either historical or current. And just for comparative purposes, name some that were unproductive–all heat, no light. In the past I’ve speculated on why heated debates in ecology get started (it’s often not for any obvious scientific reason). But the productivity of the subsequent debate is a separate question.
A few opening bids:
Productive: the debate over whether effects of plant diversity on primary productivity are purely “sampling effects”. A narrow debate, to be sure. But a productive one. An important issue was raised, and then resolved to the satisfaction of pretty much everyone (there are always a few holdouts) through a combination of new data and new analytical techniques.
Unproductive: Tilman vs. Grime on plant competition along productivity gradients. I freely admit I never followed this debate very closely, so maybe lots of people will disagree with me on this and tell me what a rich, interesting, and productive debate it was (is? is it still going?) All I can say is that I didn’t follow it closely because when I looked into it briefly many years ago, my foxy sense* warned me off. The sort of mathematical framework that people like Dave Tilman (and me, and basically everyone I hang out with) use to think about competition is just so different from the sort of primarily-verbal models people like Phil Grime use. There has to be some sort of agreement on basic terms, concepts, and goals in order for a debate to be productive, and I’m not sure the necessary baseline agreement was there in this case (again, please enlighten me in the comments if I’m way off base here…) One offshoot of this debate (well, I think it’s an offshoot; maybe it’s a whole separate thing?) has been what is in my view a pointless side debate over alternative indices of the “strength” or “importance” of competition. In general, I think debates over alternative ways of measuring something that lacks a precise agreed definition run a higher-than-normal risk of being unproductive. See, e.g., the debate over alternative ways of measuring alpha and beta diversity. Such debates are arguments about definitions, disguised as (or mixed up with) arguments about substantive issues, and that’s a recipe for disaster.
Not sure: has the debate that Joan Roughgarden started about sexual conflict theory in evolution been at all productive? Early on, I had the impression that the answer was no, that Joan’s criticisms of established thinking were idiosyncratic and implausible at best. But I’m an ignorant outsider, and I haven’t followed subsequent developments in the field at all. Have any productive new lines of work emerged from Joan’s criticisms?
If we get enough responses, we can attempt a comparative analysis of the features associated with productive vs. unproductive debates in ecology. For instance, just from the examples suggested so far, the breadth of the topic under debate does not seem to predict the productivity of the debate. There are examples of both productive and unproductive debates over narrow issues, and over broad issues. Which is a little surprising. I might’ve thought that narrower, more “technical” debates would be more productive because it’d be more likely for all sides to agree on definitions, goals, background assumptions, etc.
*Foxy sense is like Spiderman’s “spidey sense“, only instead of warning me of physical danger, it warns me of unproductive arguments that would be a waste of time to follow. 😉