Someone* once said that scientists need to study philosophy of science about as much as birds need to study ornithology. And there’s definitely some truth to that, as evidenced by the fact that plenty of scientists do plenty of good science without any philosophical training.** But in this post I’ll argue that it’s not entirely true. There are reasons why scientists might want to read some philosophy of science.
Disclaimer: I am by no means a professional philosopher of science. I had several philosophy classes as an undergrad. My favorite two profs were both philosophers, so I took as many classes with them as I could. None of my classes were in philosophy of science, though. Since then, I’ve perhaps read a bit more philosophy of science than the average ecologist has; I’m not sure. But my reading is haphazard, not systematic. I also attend the philosophy seminars at Calgary when the topic of the talk interests me. I’m not saying I know a massive amount, but I have found what little I know to be valuable. There’s an old saying that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing–but as long as you recognize that you only know a little philosophy, I think knowing a little is worth a fair bit.
Disclaimer #2: I just went back and re-read this post and thought “Man, I really sound like I’m talking up my own philosophical chops here, what with all these links back to my own posts!” Sorry, I honestly didn’t mean this post to come off like that. It’s just that, when I was searching my memory for examples, I kept thinking of ones from my own posts. I’m too short on time to go back and rewrite the whole thing with different examples. So I’m just going to leave it as is. And if you want to make fun of me in the comments for apparently not being able to recall anybody’s blogging but my own, well, I can’t say I blame you. 🙂
Here are some reasons why
birds should study ornithology you, a practicing ecologist who only cares about doing good ecology, might want to read more philosophy of science.
- Because everybody has an implicit philosophy of science, and reading philosophy can help you make yours explicit. And by making it explicit, you make it better. All of us have opinions about what makes for good science–but we often aren’t aware of the implicit (and sometimes dubious) assumptions on which our own opinions are based. It’s good to be explicit and self-conscious about why you do science in the way you do. If nothing else, so that you can explain your work to others. For instance, I’m quite self-conscious about why I work in microcosms. At the risk of overgeneralizing from my own anecdotal experience, I think too much methodological debate in ecology is based on implicit, unexamined assumptions. I think methodological debate often is very useful–but not if it’s just people trying to elevate their own unexamined personal preferences to the level of general methodological principles. Along these lines, I was interested to read that evolutionary biologist Joan Strassmann is planning to do some philosophically-oriented posts on the role of predictions in science, in order to lay out and clarify her own thinking about how to do effective science.
- Because n-th hand knowledge of Popper and Kuhn isn’t really a “philosophy”. Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn are by far the two most famous philosophers of science in history. They’re the only ones whose work is widely familiar to scientists. Or rather, I should say that selective, simplified, n-th hand versions of their work are familiar to scientists, since I suspect the majority of scientists haven’t actually read Popper or Kuhn (full disclosure: I’ve read Kuhn’s Structure, but I haven’t read any Popper). In my experience, scientists mostly aren’t familiar with the full views of Popper and Kuhn, or the fact that both changed their views over time. For instance, many scientists are quite keen on Popper’s idea of falsifiability–scientific theories should be subjected to empirical tests and discarded if they don’t pass. But in practice few scientists are ever willing to give up an entire theory based on a single “critical test” that doesn’t come out as predicted, even though that’s exactly what a strict Popperian would do. And quite rightly too–there’s very good reason to think that a strict Popperian would be a bad scientist! Which doesn’t mean Popper was totally wrong (he wasn’t). It’s just to say that, if you think of yourself as a “Popperian”, well, are you sure you are? 🙂 To take another example, many practicing scientists aren’t aware of the many ambiguities in Kuhn’s concept of “paradigm”, and would probably disagree with Kuhn’s view that different paradigms are incommensurable (see this old post). Just as you wouldn’t take Darwin as the last word on anything to do with evolutionary biology, you really shouldn’t take Popper or Kuhn (especially n-th hand Popper or Kuhn) as the last word on anything to do with philosophy of science.
- Because a lot of philosophy of science today is closely linked to, and can inform, actual scientific practice. If your mental image of philosophy is of abstract, abstruse debates far removed from real-world issues, you should get out more. Yes, there’s philosophy like that–but plenty of philosophers dislike that sort of philosophy just as much as you do (e.g., here and here). There’s a whole school of thought in contemporary philosophy of science (sometimes dubbed “new experimentalism“) that pays very close attention to the nitty-gritty details of actual scientific practice, with the goal of figuring out why that practice works (and why, sometimes, it doesn’t). For me, reading this sort of philosophical work is a bit like looking at myself in the mirror–it helps me see more clearly what I’m actually doing. For instance, Meg recently posted on the power of combining diverse approaches in science. There’s actually a philosophical literature on that–on the role of independent lines of evidence in scientific inference. Or see this old post for discussion of the very tight, direct links between one’s philosophy of Bayesian statistics and one’s actual statistical practice. Deborah Mayo and William Wimsatt are two philosophers who are very grounded in actual scientific practice (there are many others).
- To help you critique problematic philosophy of science, some of which comes from ecologists. For instance, Robert Peters’ A Critique for Ecology lays out Peters’ version of “instrumentalism”, a long-standing (and currently minority) viewpoint in philosophy of science. Briefly, and very roughly, instrumentalism says that scientific theories should make no claims about anything that can’t be directly observed, or at least that any such claims can’t be said to be either true or false. For this reason, the only feasible and legitimate goal of scientific theories is to make purely phenomenological predictions, as opposed to, say, explaining what we observe. You don’t have to be a philosopher to see obvious problems with Peters’ views. For instance, Brian’s noted in the comments on old posts that Peters questioned the reality of genes! But many of those obvious problems are sort of superficial–they’re symptoms of deeper problems. Knowing a bit about philosophy of science helps you diagnose problematic philosophical claims. Knowing a bit about philosophy of science also helps you separate the wheat from the chaff, helps you recognize the good bits of a problematic philosophy. For instance, there are specific contexts in which it makes sense to aim for purely phenomenological predictions (e.g., this old post of Brian’s, or this post from theoretical ecologist Florian Hartig).
- To help you recognize when what appears to be a scientific debate is actually a philosophical debate. At least some debates in ecology, and science more broadly, are really philosophical debates rather than scientific debates. And while scientific debates that are really philosophical debates may not be common (although see following bullet), they tend to be among the most important debates, I think. They tend to have big and widespread implications for how science is done (physicist Sean Carroll is good on this). In ecology, I think Tilman vs. Grime on how to think about plant competition is ultimately a philosophical debate (or maybe they’re just talking past one another because they can’t agree on what the question is or what would count as an answer). The “null model wars” over how to study interspecific competition famously turned into an explicitly philosophical debate. Debates about the role of mathematics in ecology are philosophical debates. There’s a huge philosophical literature on how mathematics can help us understand, explain, and predict the empirical world. Debates over whether ecology should seek predictions, explanations, or both are philosophical. Should ecologists seek to discover and explain general laws? That’s a philosophical debate. Further afield, I think the ongoing inclusive fitness kerfuffle mostly is a philosophical debate (and not a particularly helpful one). Bayesian vs. frequentist statistics is a philosophical debate (one which is showing signs of progress). But conversely, I think much (not all) of the top-down vs. bottom-up debate in ecology was an empirical scientific debate, and that data settled the biggest issues. It’s very helpful to be able to recognize and separate different sorts of debates. For instance, Abrams and Ginzburg (2000) does a nice job of teasing apart the debate over “ratio dependent” predator functional responses into empirical issues vs. conceptual/philosophical issues.
- Because ecology is a young discipline, and so is naturally prone to conceptual and methodological arguments. Ecology is a pretty young discipline, one still in the process of figuring out what it wants to be. That process has only been going on in a big way since roughly the 1960s, and many of the people who were most influential in that process are still alive. It’s only to be expected that ecologists are still going to be debating what ecology is and how to do it. Such debates are philosophical.
- To help you recognize philosophical debates in ecology as just instances of much larger debates. When philosophical debates in ecology do arise (whether or not they’re recognized as such), they’re hardly ever unique to ecology. Instead, they address in an ecological context the same philosophical issues that crop up in other fields of science. For instance, consider the debate over whether “neutral models” should be treated as “null” models, which must be rejected before we’re entitled to infer the operation of any process not included in neutral models. The same issue crops up in other fields (e.g., evolutionary biology), and is just a special case of the much broader issue of how false models (such as neutral models) can help us learn the truth. Jay Odenbaugh is one philosopher who’s done a lot of work connecting philosophical debates in ecology to larger philosophical issues that crop up in many fields. Christopher Eliot is another.
- To keep you from mixing up philosophical debates, long-standing debates, and pointless debates. Some ecologists feel that any long-standing debate must be pointless. Some ecologists also feel that philosophical debates are pointless, because philosophical debates can’t be settled solely by empirical data and any debate that can’t be settled by data is pointless. I strongly disagree (see here, here, and here).
- It trains you to be precise, explicit, and logical. Philosophers, at least in the “analytic” tradition, are trained to make valid logical arguments: to make precise, explicit assumptions, and then derive the conclusions that follow logically from those assumptions. I’m a big fan of being precise, explicit, and logical. A lot of unnecessary confusion and pointless argument, in ecology and elsewhere, arises from failure to be explicit and precise. For instance, as longtime readers know, I think one big problem with the “intermediate disturbance hypothesis” (IDH) is that it’s very unclear exactly what the hypothesis assumes. Another big problem is that, insofar as the assumptions are clear, those assumptions don’t actually imply the predictions they’re widely thought to imply. (Here is the first post in my long series on the IDH). As another example, I’ve written in the past about the confusion that’s resulted from ecologists failing to be precise in their use of the term “stability”. As a third example, there’s currently debate over how “objective” pre-publication peer review is. But that debate unfortunately is somewhat confused because different authors use the word “objective” to mean different things, often without seeming to realize it. Worries about the extent to which peer reviewers agree are quite different from (albeit related to) worries about whether it’s appropriate for reviewers judge papers based on their importance. Yet many people, including me, often describe both as worries about the “objectivity” of peer review (see this old post). The point is not that there’s a single correct definition of “objectivity” (there’s not), or that substantive debates can be settled by appeal to a dictionary (they can’t). The point is simply that it’s confusing when different authors use the same word in different ways without recognizing that they’ve done so.
- It encourages some useful mental habits. For instance, paying attention to one’s choice of words. Choice of words can mislead us in science, often in quite subtle ways. Another useful mental habit I’ve picked up from philosophy is taking arguments to their logical conclusions. For instance, in this old post I consider Jim Brown’s suggestion that macroecology is like astronomy, and try to pursue that analogy as far as it will go. It was a very helpful exercise that taught me a lot about macroecology. I’ve also found that reading philosophy encourages me to think broadly, and helps me see analogies and connections between apparently-different situations. I’m sure that habit of looking for analogies helped me recognize the relevance of the Price equation to ecology, a topic on which I’ve written several papers. It’s also why I do so many posts based on what might seem to be rather off-the-wall analogies (e.g., this, this, and this).
- UPDATE: It teaches you how to have a productive argument. One thing philosophers (again, at least in the “analytic” tradition) are good at is having productive arguments. In my experience, you don’t see philosophers just repeating the same points and ignoring the arguments of their opponents, hoping to win the argument by sheer force of repetition. Instead, philosophical debates consist of interative back-and-forth. Philosopher A makes an argument. Philosopher B shows that that argument is invalid. Philosopher A responds by modifying his premises so as to make a new, valid argument for the same conclusion. Philosopher B argues that that new, modified argument now is question-begging and therefore unhelpful. Philosopher A partially grants the point but notes that his argument still establishes a weaker but still-useful conclusion. And so on, until either agreement is reached or the remaining points of irresolvable disagreement are clearly delineated. That’s a productive argument. Unfortunately, ecologists engaged in debates too often simply repeat the same “talking points” and ignore their opponents’ arguments, unless they’re forced to do otherwise by peer review and strong editors (note: I’ve since been made aware that the specific example that inspired that post isn’t a good example, but the general points made in the post still stand, I think). There’ve been several times when as a peer reviewer I’ve had to tell authors making some argument (often criticism of previous work by others) to acknowledge and respond to published counter-arguments that they could not possibly have been unaware of, and so presumably had simply chosen to ignore.
In a follow-up post I’ll be providing an annotated bibliography of philosophy of science for ecologists.
*Sorry, can’t recall who. Feynman? As usual, if you want background research you should be reading Brian’s posts. 🙂
**It’s funny that practicing scientists routinely bemoan “cookbook statistics”, complaining about those who just follow statistical “recipes” without really understanding what their chosen statistical method is doing and why. But many of the same scientists are more than happy to do “cookbook science”, without knowing any philosophy of science.
My own personal experience was that I learned more about how to do science reading history and philosophy of science, than from my advisor. Unfortunately all of that reading began after grad school.
Good point re: *history* and philosophy of science. Besides being enjoyable, I find reading history of science is helpful for many of the same reasons reading philosophy of science is.
As you know, Jeremy, I strongly agree with this post. What might be less obvious is I think most grad students agree. I teach a grad stats class and the first two weeks out of 13-15 so a real chunk of the class is on philosophy of science and scientific inference. The first time I taught this, I was nervous that students would think it was a waste of their time. But year after year, school after school where I’ve taught, this is the most popular piece of the course.
You have left out my (and I think many ecologist’s) favorite philosopher of science – Lakatos. He was a student of Popper that sort of turned on Popper in several ways, including really hammering home the point that not only do scientists not but shouldn’t reject a major theory after one failure.
You can find an incredibly easy (public lecture) introduction to his work at : http://www.lse.ac.uk/philosophy/About/lakatos/scienceandpseudoscience.aspx
(with links to read or listen to his lecture)
I left out Lakatos because I knew you’d bring him up. 🙂 Just kidding. I left him out because I’ve never read him and have only read a bit about him. I might toss him into that annotated bibliography I’m hoping to put up before Christmas.
In this era of “big data”, I would add Francis Bacon to the mix. Not as an example to follow, but as philosophy of science I fear a growing number of ecologists are using, and maybe should think more carefully about.
Sorry, missed this at the time, here’s a very belated reply.
In light of your comment, I’m guessing this would be right up your alley:
Although personally, I don’t think many ecologists make the sort of mistake that’s satirized in this post. I don’t think open ended, hypothesis-free “mining” of big datasets is yet much of a problem in ecology. I used to worry about that, but comments from Brian and others convinced me that at least at the moment, there’s not really much reason to worry.
I’m also oddly proud to note that this isn’t the first time Bacon’s name has come up on this blog. 🙂
Just to note that Popper would never advocate rejecting a major theory after one failure, or even several. He emphasized the importance of a certain degree of “dogmatism” so that one doesn’t give up too easily on a theory, until really understanding and developing it. It might even become well-tested once developed sufficiently.
Thank you for the correction. Apparently the post illustrated ecologists’ limited knowledge of Popper even better than I intended!
Excellent post. I totally agree that all scientists need at least baseline knowledge of philosophy, especially philosophy of science and epistemology, although we don’t need to be professional philosophers to do science. In my case, philosophy has helped much to see things from a broader perspective and to sharpen my scientific thinking and communication.
All scientists should read and study some philosophy.
Nice post, Jeremy.
I finished my PhD and realized that I was a Doctor of Philosophy and yet had received no formal tuition or training in philosophy! And this, after having obtained a PhD from an institution famous for its theory and theoretical ecologists. I emerged from my PhD posing serious questions about the epistemology and philosophy of ecology and evolution (e.g. the machine metaphor in ecology, interpretation of knowledge from simulation, representation of time in ecological models, the limits of analogy, microcosms…the list is long). I wanted to address that gap in my training front on and so I spent the next 3 years devouring philosophy and epistemology. The things I learnt greatly enriched my worldview. It is without doubt the best investment of my time as a researcher. It far exceeds the returns I have made by learning R, experimental design, modeling etc. Explaining why would take a much longer comment.
At the moment I am thinking a lot about Knorr-Cetina’s (1999) ideas on epistemic cultures. Epistemic cultures are an “amalgam of arrangements and mechanisms — bonded through affinity, necessity and historical coincidence — which in a given field, make up how we know what we know”. I can’t help thinking we should be teaching these ideas as a core part of our graduate curriculum. But, without any formal training, I would feel like an imposter offering such a course. I wonder how many of us with academic positions feel the same.
Knorr-Cetina, K. (1999). Epistemic Cultures: How the Sciences Make Knowledge. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Thanks Andy. A couple of your papers are going to make it into that annotated bibliography I’m planning.
Re: teaching these ideas, one approach is to teach a seminar jointly with a philosopher. At Calgary I bring up some philosophical topics in my seminar on Darwin’s Origin (the Origin is a great vehicle for that), and my philosopher colleague Marc Ereshefsky leads one of the class sessions. That’s worked especially well in the years when I’ve managed to get some philosophy and history students to take the course along with the biology students.
Just to follow up: I have an old post on some (not all) of the philosophical topics that have come up in my seminar on Darwin’s Origin: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2012/06/21/darwins-origin-of-species-notes-for-your-reading-group/
Great post, when I began my PhD studies 4 years ago I realise that I should have some notion of phylosophy of science for better understanding of how scientists works. I read several books but my favourite books is:
– Phylosophical foundations of Ecological practices. Reiners and Lockwood.
But I also enjoyed with:
– The background of ecology. McIntosh
– The phylosophy of ecology. Keller and Golley
– Method in Ecology. Shrader-Frechette and McCoy
– Scientific method for ecological research. Ford
– A third window. Natural life beyond Newton and Darwin. Ulanowicz
But yes, now I should go to more foundamentals of phylosophy of science and read Kuhn, Popper, Lakatos…
And congratulations for your blog, you share a lot of interesting staff!!
I also use those three outstanding books (“The background of ecology”, “The phylosophy of ecology”, and “Scientific method for ecological research”) in my grad course on Scientific Method for Ecologists. They are very helpful, especially when used together with other classics, such as “What is this thing called science”, “Foundations of ecology”, the Popper-Kuhn-Russel books, and some local text-books.
Some good points Jeremy. Thank you.
This is a wonderful article, and I totally agree about the value of philosophy of science. For what it is worth, I wrote a my first (and as yet only) blog post summarizing some ideas in philosophy of science: http://ggmcnickle.tumblr.com/post/65362479811/ive-started-a-blog-heres-my-philosophy-of-science
That’s a nice post Gordon, thanks for sharing.
Did you intentionally avoid mentioning science vs. religion here?
Anyone who teaches a non-majors bio course that touches on evolution, and who also thinks there are no creationists in their classroom, is very likely to be fooling themselves. Most ecologists eventually find themselves talking to students (or policy makers, or etc.) about evolutionary biology, and how effectively they deal with those conflicts (whether real, or born of misunderstanding) probably has a lot to do with whether or not they’re familiar with these issues. A little philosophical context can be quite helpful in navigating these situations.
The post was focused mostly on ecology, that’s the only reason I didn’t bring it up. I certainly agree that some philosophical background is helpful for addressing issues of science vs. religion.
More broadly, questions of values certainly come up in ecology as well. Any management or policy decision is implicitly a value decision, really.
From my forthcoming book with Malte Ebach:
Most likely due to Steven Weinberg although it may have been coined in a review by McHenry 2000, summarizing Weinberg. In any case it is a reuse of a much older saying about aesthetics and artists by Barnett Newman:
“I feel that even if aesthetics is established as a science, it doesn’t affect me as an artist. I’ve done quite a bit of work in ornithology; I have never met an ornithologist who ever thought that ornithology was for the birds.” He would later hone this remark into the famous quip, “Aesthetics is for the artist as ornithology is for the birds.”
Ah, thank you John!
Reblogged this on Error Statistics Philosophy and commented:
Jeremy Fox often publishes interesting blogposts like today’s. I’m “reblogging” straight from his site as an experiment.
This article was born in an ecology conference: Mayo, D. (2004). “An Error-Statistical Philosophy of Evidence,” in M. Taper and S. Lele (eds.) The Nature of Scientific Evidence: Statistical, Philosophical and Empirical Considerations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 79-118.
Click to access Mayo_Evidence_Taper&Lele_rotated.pdf
I’m not at all sure that there’s any clear demarcation line between what constitutes “philosophy” and what constitutes “science”. In fact I don’t think there is and will argue that any such line is subjective and open to argument. Our job as scientists is to describe and explain the world as accurately as we can, and if what one conceives of as being “philosophy” helps one to do that somehow, then by all means, read it.
But I sure as hell am not going to be reading Kant, Bacon or Popper to help me figure out how to address *any* of the particular scientific topics I’m working on, have worked on, or will work on in the future. Not that I wouldn’t *mind* reading such stuff, but I also wouldn’t mind reading a little more Popular Mechanics, Baseball Prospectus, or various NASA web pages if I had the time either.
“But I sure as hell am not going to be reading Kant, Bacon or Popper to help me figure out how to address *any* of the particular scientific topics I’m working on”
As I hope the post made clear, I don’t think philosophy will help you solve just any *specific* scientific problem. I don’t think philosophy has any specific relevance to reconstructing past climates from tree ring data, or whatever! I think you read some philosophy because it’s relevant to helping you do science in general, and because there are *some* specific scientific problems that are really philosophical problems.
Philosophy of science can address different kinds of question.
1. Questions concerning the nature of science (e.g., Kuhn and successors on scientific change).
2. Particularly recalcitrant conceptual issues, where philosophers can make a clear contribution to scientific advance by clearing up a conceptual mess (Sober, Godfrey-Smith, Okasha etc. on group/kin and multilevel selection for example).
3. Questions about the nature of the world using science as a source for a philosophy of nature (here, I guess, Kant etc.).
Could it be that you, Jeremy, are thinking about type 1 in your post above, whereas Jim Bouldin thinks of type 2 when stating that there is no clear demarcation between science and philosophy, and both of you think of type 3 when keeping philosophy at arms length?
That’s where I disagree with you pretty strongly. That stuff is *not* really relevant, not even really close in fact, compared to all the other things we have to know to do science well in 2013.
Feynman’s point with the bird analogy, or whoever said it, was that scientists know a lot more about the “philosophy of science” than philosophers of science do, because **they have to**, that’s what they do. And I agree with him. Everything we do, almost every decision we make, moment by moment, has epistemological considerations stamped all over it if we’re trying to do conscientious work and actually advance the field (as opposed to scheming on how to get another publication, grant or position).
Ecologists in particular have to know an enormous amount of subject matter, plus statistics, plus math, plus programming, plus database management, plus field sampling methods, plus the history of the field, plus existing available data sets and their characteristics, plus…
And we’re supposed to sit around reading Popper tell us how it’s all about “falsification”. Please.
Ok Jim. In that case, what do you make of the various examples cited in the post of ecological debates that became explicitly philosophical? For instance, why did the debates in community ecology over the use of randomized null models turn into an explicitly philosophical debate? Why have debates over the role of mathematics in ecology repeatedly become explicitly philosophical? Isn’t it kind of hard to explain why there would ever be any debate at all about the methods or goals of ecology if ecologists really do all “know” all this stuff already?
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Excellent post! Mark Taper and Subhash Lele’s book was helpful while studying for the statistics portion of my comps, even if it can be a bit cosmic at times.
Regarding the philosophy of ecology (and not statistics)…. Too often I see and hear ecologists use philosophical terms and concepts (sometimes in publications) without understanding what a strict interpretation of their own rhetoric actually means. Also, I think scientists are often unaware of the ontological and epistemological assumptions they adhere to. I don’t think trained philosophers have these problems, and scientific discourse will often be more productive if scientists have an understanding and appreciation for philosophical discourse.
Christopher H. Eliot, a philosopher at Hofstra University, compiled a wonderful and comprehensive “Philosophy of Ecology Bibliography”. There is so much worth reading here: http://people.hofstra.edu/christopher_h_eliot/poebib.html
Lastly, here’s a relevant quote I like:
“…the philosopher can neither determine how the theologian or the scientist must answer his questions, nor what these answers will be. Rather, the philosopher is the interpreter and the critic (as Socrates has urged) who constantly calls each discipline to account for its assertions.”
-Donald R. Burrill
One more tidbit – Drake and Kramer 2012 use a philosophical approach (logic proof included) to find support for the role of microcosm experiments in ecology. It’s a tough read, but I’d love to hear others though on this someday. See here: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs12080-011-0134-0
I actually reviewed Drake and Kramer (which is no secret; I’m pretty sure I signed the review). I like it a lot and agree with much of it though perhaps not all of it. It’s a thoughtful piece, and a nice example of ecologists drawing on philosophical ideas that aren’t widely familiar to scientists (but maybe should be).
I’ve always been curious what prompted or inspired it–in particular, was it basically written as a way of refuting (or preempting) poorly-reasoned negative reviews of their microcosm work? That’s a big part of why I wrote my own post on microcosms in ecology–to refute objections to my science that I’d been getting in peer reviews.
I’ve enjoyed your posts on microcosms here and on the Oikos blog, because I’m using microcosms for a large part of my dissertation work (effects of community composition and structure on parasite transmission). Thanks for those…
A couple of points in regards to Drake and Kramer 2012 (D&K):
1) Steve Carpenter’s 1999 paper, “Microcosm experiments have limited relevance for community and ecosystem ecology”, has been cited more than 400 times. Interestingly, one of Carpenter’s all-star grad students was Pieter Johnson, and Johnson has and continues to publish influential disease/community ecology papers based on microcosm experiments (one just came out in PNAS!). I wonder how Carpenter feels about this…
2) I never thought formally about analogical reasoning before reading D&K, so I appreciate this paper for making me do so. Now that I have, I can see how science eduction and science research are quite similar at times. The pedagogical technique of “teaching for conceptual change” in science has been a big deal for a while now, and it originated from Kuhn’s concept of a “paradigm shift” (check out the Wiki page for “conceptual change” – very interesting). Nancy J. Nersessian’s cognitive-historical analyses (cited by D&K) show how analogical reasoning and model-based reasoning processes led to some important theoretical changes in science. Even further, Douglas Hofstadter asserts that analogy is at the core of cognition and consciousness itself (human or otherwise): http://news.stanford.edu/news/2006/february22/hofstadter-021506.html . We know model-based reasoning can help students learn new concepts that are at odds with how they view the world. As scientists we are engaged in a life-long learning process ourselves, where we often attempt to “learn” something that nobody can teach us – new and perhaps novel insights to nature. Microcosm studies and in silico experiments can give us insights to how nature can work, because model-based reasoning is an intuitive method for learning about systems (even if these are not the only means of doing so). D&K make this point well enough, but I wish they got there quicker and more clearly.
Great post, and I fully agree in the value of philosophy for scientists. I agree with Brian about Lakatos as essential reading (and fun to read in relation to Feyerabend). A couple of other comments have recommended the volume edited by Taper and Lele, and I second this (on the connections between philosophy, ecology and statistics). Off the top of my head, I also want to recommend “The disorder of things: Metaphysical Foundations of the Disunity of Science” by Dupré (on hierarchy and reductionism) and “Ecological paradigms lost: routes of theory change” edited by Cuddington & Beisner.
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