Stats vs. scouts, polls vs. pundits, and ecology vs. natural history

Attention conservation notice: In case you find this tl;dr, here’s the bottom line: I consider lots of different reasons for worrying about the status or role of natural history within ecology. I conclude that there’s little reason to worry.

Attention conservation notice #2: I just discovered a sort of Rorschach test that will let you figure out how you feel about this post without having to read it! Just read this tweet aloud. If you find yourself emphasizing the third word from the end of the quoted passage, you’ll love this post. If you find yourself emphasizing the last two words in the quoted passage, you’ll hate this post. 🙂


You’ve probably seen the movie Moneyball, or at least heard of it. Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, the general manager who turns the underdog Oakland A’s baseball team into a winner by using newfangled statistical methods to make decisions. In many cases against the advice of his own scouts, experienced and traditional men who prefer to evaluate players and predict their future performance by carefully observing their play. If you’re a baseball fan, you may well have read the book on which the film was based. And if you’re a statistically-inclined baseball fan like me, you may also have read Bill James‘ old Baseball Abstracts, a pioneering effort to apply statistical approaches to explain and predict the performance of baseball players and teams.

If you follow US Presidential elections, you’re probably familiar with Nate Silver. He’s a former economist and baseball statistician who turned his attention to predicting election outcomes. His statistical models, based on polling data plus a bit of economic data, have predicted the outcome of the past two Presidential elections quite well, and much better than many professional political pundits with years of experience observing politics. His success has pundits afraid for their jobs. Silver went on to write a very good book on the general problem of making good predictions.

In baseball, the whole “stats vs. scouts” battle is now old news. Almost every major league team now employs several statisticians as well as numerous scouts (footnote 1), with everyone working closely together. For all the statistical information we now have about baseball, we don’t–and probably can’t–quantify everything relevant. So that, if you want to understand the past, and predict and control the future, you can often do better by combining information and ideas from statisticians and scouts. Further, the statisticians who analyze baseball are avid, knowledegable baseball fans pretty much without exception, and they all love just watching games (the oft-made joke that they’d prefer the games to be simulated on computers has no basis in reality). So with rare exceptions, it’s only people who don’t know what they’re talking about, and who have no real power or influence, who are still trying to fight the “stats vs. scouts” battle.

Similarly, when it comes to predicting election outcomes, “polls vs. pundits” is yesterday’s news. We have an increasingly good handle of the circumstances under which one can make very accurate, precise forecasts of election outcomes based just on polling data, and when it helps to also draw on other sources of information, including the qualitative impressions of experienced observers (e.g, Cook Political Report). It’s only those who don’t know what they’re talking about, or who have vested interests of various sorts, who deny this (fn 2).

But judging by “various random things I’ve seen on the internet in the last little while” (fn 3), ecology vs. natural history is still a live issue for numerous people (Lindenmayer & Likens, E. O. Wilson, Terry McGlynn, Jim Bouldin, Mark Bertness, Paul Dayton, Tom Webb, Alex Bond, others…). They express themselves differently and raise different issues (and indeed probably disagree on a lot). But it does seem like there’s a shared undercurrent of worry that ecologists as a group aren’t as grounded in natural history as they used to be, and that this has various negative consequences for both natural history and ecology. (At least, that’s my reading, sincere apologies if I’m putting words into anyone’s mouth here…)

Which puzzles me, because from my own perspective as an admittedly-crap natural historian, I see myself surrounded by colleagues who know lots of natural history! Indeed, I’ve had to work very hard to justify the sort of work I do, precisely because it’s not grounded in natural history. So have others whose work is only loosely anchored in natural history (e.g., R. A. Fisher, Simon Levin, Ben Bolker). As ant ecologist Mike Kaspari noted in a comment on an old post, and as statistical ecologist Ben Bolker wrote in a wonderful piece, different ecologists are drawn to ecology for very different and very personal reasons. I’m troubled that for some (far from all, but some), worries about the status of natural history-based work seem to go hand in hand with quite negative views about other sorts of work, particularly quantitative work like mathematical modeling and meta-analysis.

We’ve done several posts defending the value of various approaches to ecology, both singly and in combination (e.g., this and this). So rather than go over that ground again (which Robert MacArthur covered 50 years ago), I’m going to examine worries about the status of natural history itself, and about the status of ecology that’s strongly grounded in natural history. I’m trying to make a good faith effort to understand where the folks who hold those worries are coming from, while also subjecting their worries to a bit of a data-based reality check where that’s possible.

For purposes of this post, I’m going to define ecology operationally as “the sort of work that gets published in ecology journals”, and natural history as “close observation of specific types of organisms in their environments”. Obviously, one could quibble endlessly about definitions, but I think these are close enough for government work.

I suspect I’m not going to change many minds. But even if I don’t change many minds, I hope I’ll at least clarify why worries about the status of natural history mostly don’t resonate with me and folks like me. Maybe that will help the discussion move forward a bit, or else will identify issues on which no further progress is possible.

Below I’ve listed various concerns about the status of natural history and its relationship to ecology. I freely admit I have no idea how widely any of these concerns are felt. Probably some are felt by only a few people, while others are felt more widely. But the key thing is just that I’m focusing on concrete, specific concerns. Hopefully that cuts the issue down to size and allows some progress to be made. They’re not in any particular order–sorry about that. I tried to think of a sensible ordering, but failed.

  • Natural history isn’t valued anymore. Ok, this is really too broad and vague a worry to be addressable (valued why? valued by whom? etc.) But for what it’s worth, if you search Google on “natural history” (without the quotes), you get about 872,000,000 hits. For comparison, if you do the same for “ecology” (again without the quotes), you get 28,800,000. Ok, this is kind of a silly measure of “value”–but I don’t think it’s totally silly. I mean, 872 million hits is a lot! 🙂 A very different and perhaps less silly measure of value is that the American Society of Naturalists has a major annual award that goes to an ecologist or evolutionary biologist whose work is firmly grounded in natural history. They have no equivalent award for, say, work grounded in mathematics.
  • Ecology has grown at the expense of natural history. Again, rather too broad and vague to productively discuss (see below for discussion of narrower and more specific versions of this worry). But for what it’s worth, according to Google Ngrams, mentions of natural history (and botany) in books peaked in the first half of the 19th century and declined well before there were any mentions of ecology. Mentions of natural history are flat or even slightly increasing since 1900, during which time mentions of ecology took off. So at least by this one admittedly-limited measure, it’s simply not true that ecology has grown at the expense of natural history.
  • People are publishing more ecology these days, instead of publishing natural history. The ecological literature, and citations of it, are not growing much faster than the natural history literature, at least not recently. Here’s a crude first pass. I used ISI’s Journal Citation Reports to look up data on number of journals, number of articles, and two measures of citation rate (median impact factor and aggregate impact factor) in each of several categories: ecology, plus four “natural historical” (well, organism-specific) categories: entomology, ornithology, mycology, and zoology. I picked those four just because they seemed like the most natural-historical categories ISI has; ISI doesn’t have a “natural history” category, or categories for other groups of organisms like mammalogy, herpetology, etc. I looked up data from the first and last years for which data are available: 2003 and 2012. Here’s what I found. In the ecology category, there were 30% more journals and 62% more articles indexed in 2012 than in 2003. The median impact factor of those journals increased by 58%, and the aggregate impact factor by 69%. The same numbers for the natural history categories: entomology: 36% more journals, 47% more articles, median and aggregate impact factor up by 39 and 48%, respectively. Mycology: 44% more journals, 64% more articles, median and aggregate impact factor up by 121 and 48%, respectively. Ornithology: 47% more journals, 52% more articles, median and aggregate impact factor up by 42 and 50%, respectively. Zoology: 36% more journals, 74% more articles, median and aggregate impact factor up by 35 and 17%, respectively. (note: I’m not differentiating here between growth in existing journals, founding of new journals, and ISI starting to index journals it previously didn’t index. But I don’t see why that should affect my point.)
  • It’s hard to publish natural history these days. Thanks to the internet, it’s now easier and cheaper than it’s ever been to publish at least some types of natural history observations and make them widely available in usable form. Think of online databases like eBird, and the growing efforts of museums to digitize much of the information in their collections. And thanks to the rise of Plos One and other open-access journals that only judge papers based on technical soundness, it’s easier than it’s ever been to publish natural history papers that can be found by anyone who wants to search for them. And if the concern is with publishing natural history in more selective journals, American Naturalist, long one of the top journals in ecology and evolution, has a special section devoted to natural history papers. Similarly, Journal of Ecology, another leading ecology journal, devotes a special section to natural history articles on the plant species of the British Isles. And see also previous bullet.
  • Ecology is now all about hypothesis testing, statistics, and mathematics, at the expense of natural history. It is true that, starting in the 1960s, ecological research began to put a greater emphasis on hypothesis development and testing, implying increasing emphasis on theoretical development, manipulative experiments, and statistical rigor. See data in Sam Scheiner’s recent piece, The Silwood Circle for a more narrative history, or this article by Jay Odenbaugh for a history focused more on the role of Robert MacArthur. But that trend is decades old now, plus it was one that absolutely needed to happen (fn 4). Ecology had to change in the way it did in order to become anything other than a semi-professional discipline of minor importance, especially compared to molecular biology. And it had to change in the way it did to respond to the increasing demands placed on it by the newly environmentally-conscious public. And don’t just take my word for it (or the word of The Silwood Circle, which tells this story well), see the Ecological Society of America’s own 1965 report on the future of ecology! (ht EEB and Flow). In other words, the choice (if that’s the right word) was not between “ecology remaining grounded in natural history” and “ecology placing increasing emphasis on hypothesis testing, statistics, and math”, it was between “ecology placing increasing emphasis on hypothesis testing, statistics, and math” and “ecology no longer existing as a professional activity.” (At least, that’s my reading of the history here; happy to be pointed to sources telling a different story) But here’s the thing: even though ecology is now more than just natural history, it’s hard to argue that it’s lost its roots and become divorced from natural history. Few of the papers published in ecology journals comprise nothing but natural history, but most certainly build on natural history. And just because the natural history knowledge on which most ecological studies are based isn’t spelled out in the resulting papers doesn’t mean it’s any less important to the conduct of those studies. I’d suggest that, for much of ecology, natural history is like the foundation or frame of a house: often out of sight, and valued for the purpose it serves rather than in its own right, but nevertheless essential to the house, which would otherwise fall down.
  • The ecological literature is increasingly filled with mathematics and meta-analyses, which are crowding out papers in which people report field data they collected themselves. This is flat-out false. Here’s the data: most ecology papers, even in leading ecology journals, are about single species. The majority of ecology papers, even in leading ecology journals, are based primarily on observational data never before published (!), and the bulk of the remainder are based on experimental data never before published. Only small minorities of papers in ecology journals are based on mathematics, or on statistical analyses of previously-published data, and the frequency of such papers is unchanging or only slowly growing. All of this has been true since at least the 1980s. So here at least is one concern that can be totally dismissed by data.
  • Ecologists these days care about generalities rather than the specifics that natural history is all about. Judging by a show of hands, the admittedly small (a few hundred people) and non-random sample of ecologists attending Tony Ives’ recent MacArthur Award lecture mostly don’t believe ecology is about the study of general laws. Which presumably implies that most ecologists think ecology is about specifics, such as the specifics of particular species in their particular environments. Anecdotal, I admit, but still. (see below for other versions of this worry)
  • Ecologists don’t know natural history anymore. I’ve never met an ecologist who wasn’t a good natural historian of their own study system, and often of other systems as well! That even goes for microcosmologists–Peter Morin for instance is an amazing natural historian. Even many theoreticians are good natural historians (The Silwood Circle notes several, for instance). And given the sort of ecology I do, I think it’s pretty unlikely that the ecologists I happen to know know more natural history than the typical ecologist! 🙂 Plus, even if ecologists as a group now know more math, stats, programming, etc. than they used to, and so know less natural history if only because nobody can know an infinite amount of stuff, I still don’t see why that’s a bad trade on balance (see following bullet).
  • Ecology students aren’t trained in natural history anymore. I’m sure undergraduate and graduate training in ecology now places more emphasis on statistics and mathematical theory than was the case decades ago. But surely that’s a good thing on balance! The wide availability of computers and software, and associated advances in computationally-intensive quantitative methods, has made it possible to use more and better quantitative methods than was the case previously. The training in every field of science changes as technology and techniques improve, and quite rightly so! Now, there’s always scope for discussion about precisely what things ecology students ought to be taught or trained in. And there are always hard choices and trade-offs to be made. There are many valuable things we could teach, and time spent teaching one thing is always time spent not teaching something else. But even if you think ecologists generally aren’t making the right trade-offs here, please do the world a favor and recognize that there are trade-offs! Rather than just talking as if changes over time in how ecology students are trained must be bad because students now spend less of their time learning natural history (as if students were sleeping or playing video games instead, rather than learning general concepts, statistics, theory, programming, etc.). Further, be aware that, anecdotally, lots of scientists, including ecologists, wish they’d learned more math, statistics, and programming as students, not less. So while it might be true that ecology curricula currently are suboptimal, that might be because they teach too little math, statistics, and programming! Personally I agree with what Jay Stachowicz said recently. I trust my colleagues to do their best at training the next generation of ecologists. And I trust the next generation to listen to the previous generation without taking it as gospel, and then go out and do the best ecology they can. And while I expect the next generation to make some mistakes (just as I would have), and to do some things differently than I would have, I also expect that, on balance, they’ll do things better than I would have.
  • We aren’t able to address practical conservation issues due to a lack of ecologists with natural historical knowledge and field training. Yes, many practical conservation issues are challenging to address. Yes, among those challenges often is a lack of basic data on the species concerned (though I wouldn’t venture to guess how important “lack of basic data” is relative to other challenges. In Canada for instance, the biggest obstacle to conserving numerous species at risk is political). But where is the evidence that lack of data is due to lack of people who have the training to collect it, as opposed to lack of funding or whatever? I mean, there surely are far more ecologists in the world now than there were decades ago! Can anyone point to funding for research or salaries not being spent because no one with the appropriate expertise can be found to spend the money on? Further, given that there will always be situations when we’re short on data, I’m awfully glad we have general guidance to fall back on, and that general guidance often comes from theoreticians.
  • There are no faculty jobs for natural historians anymore. It’s true that there aren’t many tenure-track jobs these days for, say, ornithologists or entomologists. But there aren’t many tenure-track jobs these days for population ecologists, or quantitative ecologists, or indeed any sort of ecologist, or any sort of non-ecologist. There aren’t many tenure-track jobs for anyone, relative to the demand for them, especially not at research universities (the supply-demand mismatch is less bad at teaching universities). You say that you, as a natural history-based, “muddy boots” field ecologist, are struggling to find a tenure track job at a research university? Well, so did I, and so did Brian, and neither one of us is a natural history-based, muddy boots field ecologist. (Indeed, one reason Brian struggled to get a job is because of the false impression that he couldn’t teach field courses!) And Meg was hired at Michigan in part because she is a muddy boots field ecologist. So if you find yourself often having to “pitch” yourself as something other than what you “really” are in order to compete for academic jobs, well, join the club! Everybody has to do that (I certainly did). Now, it’s true that you won’t get a job or tenure at a research university just by doing natural history. But how long has it been since you could? I doubt E. O. Wilson was tenured at Harvard back in the mid-1960s solely because of “pure” natural history work!
  • You can’t get grants to collect basic natural history data on specific species or systems anymore. Yes, it’s hard to get a grant to collect basic natural history data on particular species or systems. But it’s hard to get a grant to do field experiments, or theoretical modeling, or meta-analyses, or anything else. Success rates at the NSF Division of Environmental Biology are less than 10%. Nobody is finding it easy to get funding to do any sort of research these days, no matter how much or little natural history is involved. Having said that, yes, it’s true that in order for you to get funding from a basic science agency like NSF, you are going to have to have hypotheses, aim for general applicability rather than narrow specificity, use statistical tools, etc. But I guess I’d say the same thing about that that I said about the content of the ecology literature above. I don’t see how it’s a bad thing that ecologists have added hypothesis development and testing, sophisticated statistics, mathematical modeling, etc. to their “toolbox” along with natural history knowledge, and that they now use that toolbox to do the sorts of science one can’t do solely by doing natural history (or field experiments, or modeling, or any one thing). (Aside: I’m curious what percentage of funded NSF grants in ecology propose to collect field data, of whatever sort. Judging by data on the content of ecology journals discussed above, I bet the percentage is really high.)
  • You have to know a lot of natural history, and be out in the field collecting your own data, in order to be a good ecologist. Sorry, but this strikes me as an overly-restrictive definition. Not every ecologist is a great natural historian. Nor is every ecologist out in the field collecting their own data. But there’s nothing that every ecologist does! Surely everybody has their own strengths! And surely it’s better for ecology if ecologists, collectively, have more strengths rather than fewer. I mean, does anyone seriously think ecology would be better off if it somehow kept out those whose strengths lie in areas other than natural history (mathematics, programming, genetics…um, blogging…)? So that you couldn’t be an ecologist unless you were a good natural historian (or collected your own field data, or conducted your own experiments, or whatever)? Personally, I think we learn the most when we make effective use of all viable approaches (that’s true in science and elsewhere). And don’t just take my microcosmy word for it, or Brian’s statistically-sophisticated, meta-analytical word for it, or Robert MacArthur’s word for it–Meg’s a muddy boots field ecologist, and she agrees.
  • You have to know at least some natural history in order to be a good ecologist. And the evidence that lots of ecologists (or even any!) fail to clear this very low bar is…? Jeez, even I know some natural history! 🙂 Further, even if, say, a few ecological theoreticians or statisticians really don’t know any natural history, is it really plausible that their contributions to ecology (which comprise a very small part of the field as a whole; see data above) are seriously damaging the field as a whole rather than improving it by bringing in ideas and approaches that ecology wouldn’t otherwise include?
  • It can be helpful to know some natural history, or to have collected some of your own data at some point, in order to be a good ecologist. I agree 100%, but I’m not aware of anyone denying this modest and sensible claim. Also, it can be helpful to know some math and statistics to be a good ecologist. It can be helpful to know some programming. It can be helpful to conduct meta-analyses. It can be helpful to do laboratory microcosm experiments. Etc.
  • You have to know a lot about the natural history of a system in order to conserve or manage it. That’s true. But while that’s necessary, it’s generally not sufficient. See discussion here and at the end of this post. Further, even if the world does need more applied ecology research, it’s not clear that the top priority is more natural history work. I mean, maybe that’s true–but it’s far from obvious. For instance, here’s Georgina Mace’s vision of what ecology needs to be in order to be of applied relevance today.
  • Natural history is valuable for its own sake, not just as a means to the end of doing ecology. I’m happy to agree, and I’ve never met anyone who disagrees. But insofar as you think natural history is valuable for its own sake (or because of the pleasure it gives you, or the appreciation of nature it fosters, or for any other reason having nothing to do with its relevance to ecology), why do you care about whether ecologists know enough natural history, or value it sufficiently, or include it in their papers, or whatever? Art and literature are valuable for their own sake, but that’s no reason to think that ecologists should paint or write poetry. Plus, scientific research also is valuable for its own sake (and for other, instrumental reasons) and gives pleasure to its practitioners, even when it’s not based on natural history. For instance, see this passionate post from Hope Jahren. Sorry, maybe I’m being totally dense here (wouldn’t be the first time!). But I just can’t understand why the fact that natural history is valuable for its own sake (or gives pleasure to its practitioners, or whatever) has any implications for how ecologists should do ecology. It just seems like a total non sequitur to me. Indeed, insofar as natural history is valuable for its own sake, as an end in itself rather than as a means to the end of doing ecology, shouldn’t you worry that ecology will distort or degrade natural history by making use of it? Much as artists and writers worry that commercial pressures–which treat art and literature merely as a means to the end of making money–will distort and degrade art and literature?

In conclusion, I freely admit that I may well have missed, or mis-described, some issues. And maybe this whole post is just kind of misdirected (I really struggled with how, and even whether, to write it). Looking forward to your comments, as always.

fn 1: Sadly, my own Philadelphia Phillies are the last old-school, purely scout-reliant holdouts. Or at least they were until a few weeks ago. 😦

fn 2: Interestingly, “people who don’t know what they’re talking about, or who have vested interests of various sorts”, still includes lots of people with political power and influence, in contrast to what’s been the case for years in baseball.

fn 3: As usual, you get the background research you pay for on this blog. In seriousness, I actually have no idea whether concerns about the status of natural history, or field-based studies more generally, are at all widespread.

fn 4: Full disclosure: there’s a part of me–the snarky, nasty part–that just wants to respond to this particular worry by going “Come on, are we still having this discussion?!” But for better or worse we are still having it. And as someone who’s on record as saying that there are some discussions we need to keep having even if they never get resolved, I’m certainly in no position to tell anyone else “Just give it up already!” 🙂

86 thoughts on “Stats vs. scouts, polls vs. pundits, and ecology vs. natural history

  1. Jeremy a very nice and carefully reasoned (and researched piece).

    The thing I don’t get is why academics who are usually so good at recognizing and championing diversity in areas like race and gender and sexual orientation then become complete bigots in modes of ecological/scientific thinking? Business has done a surprisingly good job of recognizing that one of the (many) reasons to value things like diversity in race or gender is because it leads to diversity of thinking which is a good thing. An academic who can’t appreciate the value of diversity of thinking is kind of embarrassing in my book.

    Physicists are very successful in conceiving of their field as covering a continuum from very pure theorists (string theory, or 50 years ago Peter Higg’s Boson) to the very applied (the PhD physicists who effectively served as engineers designing the particle accelerators to test Higg’s theory). I don’t generally suffer from physics envy (indeed most of their approaches don’t work very well in ecology), but in this one area they are way ahead of and therefore way more effective than ecologists.

    • Thanks for the kind words Brian. The Canadian Field Naturalists Society “liked” it on Twitter, so maybe I needn’t have worried so much that this would annoy a lot of natural historians. But it’s early, so we’ll see. EDIT: I kind of meant that remark as tongue in cheek, but it’s come to my attention that it could be misleading, so I’ve deleted it. Thank you to the CFNS for commenting on this.

      I too am surprised and very disappointed in extreme views on this expressed by certain prominent individuals (L&L for instance). But I definitely wouldn’t assume that they’re voicing views that lots of ecologists (even senior ones) share. One of my hopes in writing this post is that the comments will provide a bit better sense of the range of views out there and how widely they’re held. My hope (and even expectation, if you forced me to guess) is that most natural history-oriented “muddy boots” ecologists are much closer to someone like Mike Kaspari or John Stachowicz in their attitudes than to L&L.

      • Hi Jeremy,

        A couple small clarifications about me “liking” your tweet about this blog post (tweeting as Journal Manager). We’re The Canadian Field-Naturalist (journal) – our publisher is The Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club. And I favourited your tweet as a bookmark to read later, not necessarily as a “like”. That’s not to say I dislike your post, though.

        I disagree with some of your points, but I am glad that you raise the topic and deal with it rationally. The fate of natural history is important, and discussion on the subject can be fruitful.

        Jay Fitzsimmons

      • Yes, my terminology was imprecise, and while I hope it was clear that I was speaking tongue-in-cheek, I certainly wouldn’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth. I’ll update my comment to clarify.

        Would of course welcome any comments you have. It’s been a very good thread so far and I’d like to see it continue. I know there are other readers who disagree with parts of the post who are also planning to comment as soon as they are able.

  2. I think we should make Muddy Boots Field Ecologist a certification that can go after someone’s name: Meg Duffy, PhD, MBFE. There’s gotta be a good one for microcosm extraordinaire, too, right?

    Have you seen this paper?

    I bet having math in your paper is more detrimental to citation rates than having natural history in your paper. So, at least the natural history camp has that going for them.

  3. It is an amazing experience to be out in the field with an expert Natural Historian. I would say that I have learned a lot from such people. The problem is that sometimes the stories (conceptual models?) don’t seem quite right. Expert judgment can be self-reinforcing with people telling each other the same stories. Without hypothesis testing, natural history progreeses slowly. Observation is useful, but it doesn’t answer all of the interesting questions.

    • “The problem is that sometimes the stories (conceptual models?) don’t seem quite right. Expert judgment can be self-reinforcing with people telling each other the same stories.”

      I think there’s something to that. It’s certainly something I’ve run into in trying to explain what’s wrong with the standard stories about how disturbance can maintain diversity of competing species.

  4. I like the post (and I also emphasized the third word from the end of the quote in that tweet).

    I have had the same dismay as Brian that it seems hard for us to embrace a diversity of approaches. As I’ve expressed before, it boggles my mind that we think a single approach can grapple with all the complexity of nature.

    I suspect that that the increased rejection rates in lots of things (high reject rates for proposals, higher reject rates at the top journals, etc) are skewing our perceptions on ‘who is doing well’. If everyone I know who does approach X like me (and since I do that approach, I probably know a lot of them) is getting rejected, but I hear of one person getting funded/accepted doing approach y, I think it can create a perception of bias. Since I do a diversity of approaches, I get to hear the complaints of a lot of camps! Seems like everyone thinks their type of science is being hit hardest.

    • “I suspect that that the increased rejection rates in lots of things (high reject rates for proposals, higher reject rates at the top journals, etc) are skewing our perceptions on ‘who is doing well’. If everyone I know who does approach X like me (and since I do that approach, I probably know a lot of them) is getting rejected, but I hear of one person getting funded/accepted doing approach y, I think it can create a perception of bias.”

      Hmm–except that the exact same complaints seem to have been made more or less continuously since the 1960s at least.

      A related thought–I wonder if there’s a tendency for everybody to see whatever they do as harder than what everybody else does. Just because you know firsthand how hard your own stuff is, but you only see the “finished product” from other people. One purpose of my old post on microcosms in ecology was to disabuse people unfamiliar with the system of the idea that it’s easy. That any fool can just “crank the handle” and churn out microcosm papers, no technical skill, background knowledge, or “feel for the system” required. On the other hand, I find that I’m often most impressed by stuff I could never do. That I’d never have thought of myself, or that I lack the skills to do. I love NutNet, in part because I’d never have thought of it and am daunted by the thought of trying to organize something like that. I was blown away by the original West et al. paper explaining allometric scaling, because the idea (whether it’s right or not) was just so far from anything that would’ve ever occurred to me. A big reason my ongoing collaborations with Dave Vasseur have been so great is that he is tremendously clever in ways I’m not, and a great programmer to boot. I could keep going with examples like this all day. I’m actually much less likely to be really blown away by, say, a microcosm paper.

    • Morgan, who is we in “we think a single approach can grapple with all the complexity of nature”? I, for example, do not. And I guess a lot of other people do not, either.
      Sometimes I think that other researchers are doing not very valuable things, and I am sure other scientists think I am doing “worthless” things. But, I never thought that a single approach can grapple the complexity you are referring to.
      To me it seems in the whole discussion math-natural history-verbal model-experiment-model etc. there are a lot of strawmen.

      • “My hope is that this ‘one way’ to do science perspective is found less frequently in the emerging younger generation of ecologists. That’s my hope anyway.”

        I’m not sure that’s quite true, though I really have no idea. *Purely* anecdotally, I have the impression that the frequency of extreme, my-way-or-the-highway views within academia doesn’t vary much with age. It’s just that people of different ages tend to have extreme views about different things. So maybe young ecologists mostly don’t have extreme, my-way-or-the-highway views on how to do ecological research. But on the other hand, there certainly are young academics with quite extreme, my-way-or-the-highway views about things like open access publishing or the value of selective journals.

        And in every generation you can find odd ducks with extreme views about, oh, I dunno…[searches brain for suitably-weird example]…whether the intermediate disturbance hypothesis should still be pursued. 🙂

        I guess the other thing I wonder about (and this is something Simone raised) is the extent to which hanging around online gives one a mistaken impression of the general level of extremism and polarization in a field, about anything. Just because people who engage in lots of online conversations on any given topic tend to have more extreme views than people who don’t. Just spitballin’, I have no idea.

      • I can’t speak for Morgan. But I think it’s hard to read Lindenmayer & Likens as saying anything other than “there’s one right way to do ecology, and everyone else is doing it wrong.” I really wish I was being unfair, but sadly I do think that’s an entirely fair summary of their piece, indeed a summary with which they’d agree. Now, they’re the clearest and most extreme example that I’ve seen, and I sure hope (and suspect) that they’re an isolated example to which we pay a lot of attention just because they’re both famous. As I hope the post and my comments make clear, I *definitely* don’t think that most, or even many, of my colleagues agree with L&L! But sadly, I don’t think they’re a *totally* unique example either. In comments here and on Twitter for instance, I certainly have gotten the sense that Mark Bertness sees quite broad swathes of ecological research that are different than what he personally does as bad science. Or follow the links to my old post defending microcosms in ecology, responding in part to a peer-reviewed article in which Steve Carpenter makes quite clear that, as a blanket statement, the sort of microcosm work I do is valueless. Or see E. O. Wilson’s editorial (which I acknowledge may have been deliberately provocative) in which he makes abundantly clear that he sees mathematics as a purely technical exercise, elaborating and confirming insights that come from other, more valuable sources.

        I confess I’m unsure whether it’s helpful or unhelpful to even acknowledge and reply to the most extreme, unfortunate instances of strawmanning, like L&L. I have a sense that people who do the sort of work folks like L&L & Wilson have criticized feel more threatened than perhaps they should. Taking pieces like L&L’s seriously enough to reply at length tends to lend them legitimacy and perhaps gives the folks L&L were attacking further reason to feel threatened. But I don’t have any easy answers here.

        I certainly agree 100% that strawmanning is unhelpful at best. Strawmanning tends to beget strawmanning, and crowd out productive discussion. My hope is that posts like this help move the discussion away from strawmanning by focusing on concrete, specific issues. One thing that leads to strawmanning, I think, is focusing too much on broad brush characterisations of different kinds of work and the people who do it. So maybe let’s get away from talking about “natural history vs. ecology”, or “empiricism vs. theory” or whatever. Instead, maybe it would be more useful to talk about the sort of narrower, granular questions raised in the post–especially those on which we can collect some data.

      • Jeremy, I agree with what you wrote. But, as you know, the dog biting a man is not news, the man biting the dog is kinda funny.
        The scientists you are referring to wrote things that are “funny”, in the sense of initially curious, why are they saying that? And some of their points that are middle way are generally agreeable, but let’s say I write a paper on the importance of math modeling while also having some (a lot?) knowledge of the species/system, do you think it will get published? Editor: it is common sense, we do not publish common sense, we want extreme views for the Opinion papers, like math modeling is wrong, there is no theory in ecology. Next one will be: Is climate change “real” (or whatever)? Extreme views “sell” (look up at the Amazon best selling list).

        And you provided, IMO, a perfect answer “focusing too much on broad brush characterisations of different kinds of work and the people who do it”. Some things are always wrong, some are always right, a lot of middle ways.

        I find your post very interesting.

      • “Editor: it is common sense, we do not publish common sense, we want extreme views for the Opinion papers”

        Yes, I’m sure there’s some of that going on. And Twitter and blogs are kind of infamous for sometimes favoring the extreme over the boringly nuanced. And yeah, that can be a problem if extreme opposing views crowd out the middle ground. There are some topics that are widely discussed by academics online that I avoid for precisely that reason–I have middleground views that I think will be misunderstood, attacked, or ignored by extremists on both sides.

        But on the other hand (see, look, nuance! :-)), I wouldn’t go so far as to bemoan extreme views in general. For instance, my argument that the intermediate disturbance hypothesis should be abandoned is a pretty extreme view, I think. And I’ve intentionally expressed it in attention-grabbing language (“zombie ideas” and all that). But it’s my sincere hope that I backed up my extreme view with good evidence and arguments. That’s the key, at least for me. Personally, what bugs me isn’t polarization, extremism, or attention-grabbing language per se, though they undoubtedly all have their downsides. It’s when those things aren’t backed up by good evidence and arguments. I’m perfectly happy if someone wants to argue that ecology as a whole is totally going to hell in a handbasket–but they’ve got to *make the argument*! Our recent post on the formal debate at the Am Nat meeting kind of talks more about this:

        See also this old post on “choosing your own path in science”:

        Protip: the secret to good blogging is to treat repeating yourself as a feature, not a bug. 🙂

  5. Interesting post. I agree with most of your points Jeremy.

    One thing though that is perhaps not so clear: the way students are taught nowadays is certainly not the way students were taught 50 years ago. Now, with so many knowledge sources (digitalized books, scientific papers online, even wikipedia), it’s far more important to be able to “find” information than to “know” information. In other words, if the burden of learning goes from learning a few things by heart to learning many things superficially (but with fast access to the reliable knowledge sources), I think it naturally deters students from pursuing natural history. Again, it is not necessarily a bad thing overall if students are more information-retrieving than information-knowing, but this might be the one key reason why the proportion of über-naturalists has steadily declined among ecologists (except in areas where natural history knowledge is associated to boyish competitions, like ornithology).

    • “except in areas where natural history knowledge is associated to boyish competitions, like ornithology”

      Personal anecdote: in grad school I spend a couple of years living with an ornithology student who was a serious birder. And I think even he thought the sorts of people who do World Series of Birding competitions were a little over the top. 🙂

  6. Nice post. I’m the poster of the Rorschach test tweet you mention above. I think Elton would have agreed with you, and I like to think he’d be pretty happy with the current state of ecology. In the first chapter of Animal Ecology, he complains bitterly about how natural history societies, initially productive groups, had fallen to collecting useless data: “At the present day, local natural history societies, however much pleasure they may give to their members, usually perform no scientific function, and in many cases the records which are made are of less value than the paper upon which they are written.” At the same time, he worries that “it has become such a normal proceeding for a zoologist to take up either a morphological or physiological problem that he finds it rather a disconcerting and disturbing experience to go out of doors and study animals in their natural conditions.” By “scientific natural history” Elton wasn’t telling ecologists to learn more natural history, he was telling natural historians to become more scientific and zoologists to become ecologists. The “scientific natural history” he describes in Animal Ecology sounds more or less like present day ecology.

    • Thanks Will! And that Elton quote is a great find. I’ve long wanted to take the time to go back and read a bunch of famous old stuff that most people only know n-th hand and see what it actually says. Elton’s Animal Ecology is on my list (along with Karl Popper, and many others). It was tremendously interesting and a lot of fun to read the first edition of the Origin of Species. And in the past I’ve recommended that ecologists read Gause’s little 1934 volume on the struggle for existence.

  7. “I’m going to define ecology operationally as “the sort of work that gets published in ecology journals”, and natural history as “close observation of specific types of organisms in their environments”. Obviously, one could quibble…..but I think these are close enough.”

    Sorry Jeremy, I think those definitions simply don’t work. Your definition of ecology is circular: it’s ecology if it’s published in ecology journals, and ecology journals only publish ecology. Really? Lots of papers published in ecology journals I’d class as “close observation of specific types of organisms in their environments”. The ecological literature is full of such work. Likewise, are “ornithology”, “mycology”, etc. solely natural history categories? It’s not possible to study ecology from an ornithological perspective? Having just read David Lack’s biography, it’s clear that he had no trouble defining himself as an ornithologist who studied ecology (and evolution).

    Perhaps it’s a peculiarity of my field, but I don’t know many people who would really categorise “natural history” and “ecology” as two distinct, categorical things. They merge seamlessly, even in the same study. For example, if I collect data on the diversity and abundance of an assemblage of plants and their flower visitors, when does it move from “natural history” to “ecology”? When I apply statistics to the observational data? When I compare the structure of the interaction web against randomised null models? When I start playing around with the relative abundance of the plants?

    Perhaps we should just call it all biology…. 😉

    • Well, all I can say is that the operational division I drew in the post is one drawn by lots of people, at least some of whom are unhappy about it. By no means all, of course. As you quite correctly note, there are lots of people who see no division, or maybe a seamless gradient or something. Or who maybe see some sort of division or distinction, but nevertheless have no problem “straddling the fence” or “integrating different approaches”. But it sure seems like there are people who do see a division, more or less along the lines I’ve drawn. At least, it seems that way to me. How would you characterize the common threads among the various pieces I linked to, worrying about the status of something called “natural history” and its relationship with some other thing called “ecology”? (honest question)

      • I’m not really sure what to make of it, to be honest, because I don’t think in those terms and I find it hard to understand the “people who do see a division” as you put it. But then there are people who see divisions/camps/factions in all kinds of areas and perhaps feel more secure knowing that they belong to a particular group.

  8. About time you discussed a little baseball on this blog. Some of the natives were getting a bit restless.

    This post is so good, I’m considering overlooking the fact that you’re a Phillies fan. I mean, everyone makes mistakes after all.

    • Thanks Jim, that’s good to hear as I wasn’t sure how this one would go over with you. But perhaps that’s because the baseball references distracted you from all the other bits. 🙂

      • Ha, ha, indeed, but then again I’m perfectly capable of distracting myself for various other reasons, thereby missing the point.

        Although I’m strongly in favor of natural history knowledge, for several reasons, I am far, far, far from holding any kid of anti-math, or anti-theory or anything like that. Both are very highly important in my view. Essential’s the word I’m looking for. We humans are silly creatures with our false dichotomies.

        I really hope to get some time to respond at length to points you make, and that others do the same.

      • I too would be curious to get some replies from folks who (I think) disagree with this post. But if it hasn’t happened already, I’m cautiously pessimistic that it will. In part because most of our comment threads (and any Twitter conversations about our posts) peter out after the first day or so. And also because there’ve been times in the past when folks who probably disagree with this post have turned down opportunities to comment. Mark Bertness for instance (and I’m not picking on him, just using him as an illustrative example) has commented a couple of times here if memory serves. But just to say his piece. He’s never engaged in the conversations in which Brian and I have tried to engage him. I don’t mean that as a criticism of him at all, everyone is entitled to make their own time allocation decisions, and it’s not like anyone’s ever obliged to comment. Plus, Mark is on Twitter and I know he’s engaged in debate on Twitter at least once…Anyway, would certainly be interested to read your reaction. And Terry McGlynn’s traveling at the moment I believe, but I’m hoping he’ll find time to reply at some point (this post is very much in his sweet spot). But there’s no ecology blogosphere (, and so I’d be pleasantly surprised if this post generated a bunch of responses. 🙂

  9. Even as someone who cares a lot about natural history, I agree that distinguishing it from, and putting it into competition with, ecology doesn’t seem terribly useful. I suspect the difference that is actually of concern is between studies that test broad hypotheses (conveniently called “ecology”) vs. studies that don’t (“natural history”). Classified this way, it becomes apparent that natural history, which documents patterns and generates hypotheses, is incredibly important–ecological hypotheses must come from somewhere! But then, the feeling that “natural history” is being neglected can be attributed to the very real, and in my opinion harmful, disdain for studies that don’t test hypotheses but are instead exploratory. The dichotomy between maths and natural history also becomes false–if the goal of natural history is in fact to document patterns and generate hypotheses, it can benefit hugely from embracing mathematics/statistics, exploratory statistics in particular.

    • Interesting suggestion, I’m curious what other natural history-oriented ecologists would think of it. It’s an interesting observation (and something I deliberately elided in the post) that ecologists who believe strongly in the value of having a “feel for the ecosystem” and in the value of collecting one’s own field data actually span the gamut in terms of their views on exploratory vs. hypothesis-testing approaches. Some see a lot of value in hypothesis-free science, either in its own right or as you suggest a source of new hypotheses. On the other end are folks who believe strongly in the value of hypothesis-testing field experiments, and think you’re not doing good science if you don’t have hypotheses (Bob Paine is one example here, and I have the sense that Mark Bertness may be another).

      Re: exploratory statistics (both their value in their own right, and the importance of keeping them separate from hypothesis testing), see this old post of Brian’s:

    • If natural history – as a field distinct from ecology – is needed to generate hypotheses, then what serves a similar role in, say, physics?

      • Well, I don’t think natural history is the *only* source of ecology’s hypotheses!

        At a guess, I’d say physicists get their hypotheses from physics theory and physics data, at least mostly. As opposed to from some other distinct field.

  10. I confess that I don’t understand how someone even chooses to become an ecologist with little-to-no interest in natural history. Even if one’s research interests lean toward the highly-abstract, what, if not a basic knowledge of natural history, will motivate new, useful questions and keep them grounded in reality?

    • Hi Dave,

      I’m guessing that you’re asking about interests and motivations for entirely innocent reasons, and purely out of curiosity. Which is totally fine. But the question of motivations you raise is one I’ve seen raised a few times elsewhere. And when I’ve seen it raised elsewhere I’ve sometimes gotten the sense that the author is *bothered* by what he imagines the motivations of other ecologists to be. So I’ll take this opportunity both to address the “Just out of curiosity, why do you do ecology if not because of enthusiasm for natural history?” question. And the “Aren’t you doing ecology for the *wrong* reasons, and therefore at serious risk of doing it badly?” question.

      The Ben Bolker piece I linked to in the post explains better than I could myself why I got into ecology. Do give it a look if you haven’t yet, it really is a wonderful read. So that’s the answer to the “just curious” question.

      As for the answer to the other version of the question…I’d respond by asking my own question: Why are you asking? I mean, as an ecologist, why should you care about anyone else’s motivations for studying ecology? Why should my motivations *bother* you? After all, people do the science they do for all sorts of personal reasons–none of which I need to know anything about in order to evaluate their science. I mean, if I lied to you and told you that I work in the protist microcosm system I work in because of my deep and abiding love of the fascinating but sadly obscure organisms known as protists, would that change your opinion of my papers? I sure hope not! As scientists, I think we do our jobs best when we focus on doing good science, and evaluating the science others do. Worrying about people’s personal motivations is irrelevant. If one day we discover that all this time E. O. Wilson has been doing the natural history-based science he does because he thought he was following the orders of the Martians who talk to him through his tv, would island biogeography suddenly become a terrible scientific idea? 🙂

      And if you say personal motivations matter because some motivations might tend to lead one to do bad science, I have two responses. First is, prove it. Give me the data and the logical arguments to demonstrate the association between personal motivation and quality of science. Because the only motivations I can think of that tend to lead to bad science are things like “I have a strong urge to falsify data.” Second, bad science can be done for all sorts of reasons–none of which have anything to do with *why* it’s bad. So why not just stick to talking about and evaluating science, rather than making what looks rather like an attempt at an illegitimate shortcut by trying to look at people’s motivations rather than the science they produced?

      Don’t get me wrong, I’m as curious as the next person about what makes my fellow humans tick. I love that plenty of people are drawn into ecology through their love of natural history, and I have no problem with that shaping the science they do. Even though their motivations–like *any* motivations–*sometimes* lead to bad science (e.g., trying to ask a question in a system that you love, but that is poorly-suited for addressing the question you asked).

      But we have to be careful when we start talking about people’s motivations–our own, and others’. As soon as you start talking about people’s motivations, or your own, you’re necessarily making things personal. Which easily leads to misunderstandings and bad blood when you intermingle the personal and impersonal. In this post, I was intentionally trying to shy away from any question that could be taken personally, in order to focus on impersonal issues that everyone ought to be able to talk about productively without feeling like their motives are being questioned.

      p.s. As for where our new questions will come from, I’d answer “From both natural history and other sources, just as has been the case for longer than I’ve been alive.” 🙂

      p.p.s. As for what will keep our questions “grounded in reality”, two remarks. First, I deny that our questions *have* to be “grounded in reality”, at least if you mean that phrase the way I think you mean it. See Caswell 1988 Ecological Modelling, and this old post: Second, why can’t the usual sorts of hypothesis testing keep ecology grounded in reality? I deny the (unintended?) implication that ecology can only remain grounded in reality if all ecologists know at least X amount of natural history, or care about natural history at least Y much. I believe in division of labor and people playing to their strengths. If some people want to come up with ideas, and other people want to test them (and some people want to do some of both), ecology will remain grounded in reality. No matter how the people who come up with the ideas come up with them.

      • To be honest, I have a hard time thinking of ecologists, highly theoretical or otherwise, who don’t have at least a passing interest in natural history. I know this to be true of Ben and his students (who used to share lab space and meetings with field ecologists).

        I don’t perceive any divide in ecology along the lines you mention in your post, but I do think that bad science can result from ignoring specific details of a systems’s natural history. However, I suspect the ultimate causes of poor scholarship are laziness and haste, which can manifest in any avenue of research. I think that is what L&L should actually trying to critique in their papers.

        To address your assertion that science need not be grounded in reality: I think you misinterpret my meaning. Mathematical abstractions of the type made by Fisher, Caswell, and others were designed in ways clever enough to address real-world phenomena. The abstraction of such theory is secondary to the goal: an improved intellectual grasp of a real-world process. Without such motivation to work on real phenomena, wouldn’t it cease being scientific theory and instead be considered pure mathematics? That is not to say there aren’t worthwhile intersections of pure math and ecological theory. While I can’t speak for Hal, the motivations for Fisher’s theoretical research seemed to be very deeply rooted in agriculture, biometrics, and genetics, among other things (such as tea consumption), with his abstract theory serving very specific purposes.

        This leads me back to the idea of motivations. I sincerely hope my comment wasn’t interpreted as “there are right and wrong motivations for doing science.” Science is science, and good quality science will stand the test of time no matter how it was done. Instead, from a psychological perspective, it seems like it would be quite difficult to come up with ecological questions without at least a passing knowledge of natural history – notice I use the word “knowledge” here and not “interest”. It just seems improbable that there are many people pursuing ecological research today who aren’t fascinated by biology on at least a basic level.

        Anyway, this is slightly off-topic from the original post, which I very-much agree with.

      • @Dave:

        Apologies for misinterpreting you re: grounding in reality. Though it still does sound like there’s perhaps a mild disagreement here (?) For instance, Caswell 1988 emphasizes that one legitimate goal of theoretical ecology is to solve theoretical problems, which may be divorced from empirical concerns. An example he gives is “What is the simplest food web model capable of reproducing certain observed features of natural food webs?” While this isn’t a *pure* math question–the question does make reference to empirical data–it’s a little hard to see why any empirically-oriented ecologist would care about the answer. So in that sense it’s a theoretical question with a life of its own, divorced from empirical concerns (but it’s still a theoretical ecology question, as opposed to a pure math question, since the mathematics underpinning that simple food web model and its analysis might not be very interesting when viewed as pure mathematics). None of which is to deny your point that even very abstract models can be grounded in and help us understand empirical reality. You’re right about that. Fisher’s geometrical model of adaptation is one classic example that comes to mind of a highly-abstract model that nevertheless makes empirically-testable predictions that often are borne out.

        No, I didn’t interpret you as suggesting that there are right and wrong motivations for doing ecology. That’s why in talking about motivations I tried to carefully distinguish different reasons for asking about them.

        I agree with you 100% that most anybody doing biology professionally is going to have some level of interest in and knowledge of the subject.

  11. “A very different and perhaps less silly measure of value is that the American Society of Naturalists has a major annual award that goes to an ecologist or evolutionary biologist whose work is firmly grounded in natural history. They have no equivalent award for, say, work grounded in mathematics.”

    This sounds a lot like the classic scenario A child asks her parents why there is a Mother’s Day and a Father’s Day but not a Kids’ Day. The parents then reply that there is no Kids’ Day because *everyday* is kids’ day.

    Every day is a mathematical ecologists’ day. Natural historians have day, in which an award happens.

    • Yeah, I was wondering when someone would make that argument, which is fair enough.

      Any further thoughts? I’ve been waiting all day to hear what you think of this post! (seriously)

      • I have lots of thoughts. I think I agree with about every other statement in this post. But I need to read and think more carefully about them, and this is a really bad time (mostly because of a travel schedule), so I probably can’t engage in the conversation more for a while, until I can write a whole post about it in the coming couple weeks.

      • “I probably can’t engage in the conversation more for a while, until I can write a whole post about it”

        Who says there’s no back and forth between ecology blogs? Oh, wait… 🙂

        And if you agree with every other statement, well, a .500 batting average is *great* in baseball! #callback 🙂

      • “I think I agree with about every other statement in this post.”

        While I’m waiting for your full reply, I’m going to entertain myself by guessing which statements in the post you disagree with, and which you agree with. 🙂 I already know a few b/c of the old comment threads that I shamelessly rebottled into this post…

      • Ok, here are my guesses, totally just for fun. 🙂 In a few cases based on memory of things you’ve said in past comment threads, in others based on my internal mental Terry McGlynn emulator (v. -0.9). 🙂

        -You’ll agree that it’s kind of pointless to argue about something as broad and vague as whether natural history is “valued”, while also pointing out the reasons why it’s silly to use Google hits to try to get at this.

        -You’ll agree that ecology hasn’t grown at the expense of natural history, at least as measured by Ngrams

        -You’ll disagree with the argument about growth rates of the ecology vs. natural history literatures, on the grounds that we shouldn’t be looking at growth rates but at levels (i.e. impact factors for leading ecology journals are higher than for leading natural history or taxon-specific journals).

        -You’ll disagree that it’s easier to publish natural history these days, on the grounds that editors won’t let authors throw “natural historical asides” into ecology papers, and on the grounds that nobody reads papers in unselective open access journals. That is, you’ll suggest that “ease of just getting stuff out there” isn’t the relevant measure; we should be looking at “ease of getting the right audience, or a big audience, to take notice.”

        -You’ll mostly agree with the argument about the increasing emphasis on hypothesis testing and math in ecology since the 1960s, but will suggest that the pendulum has swung too far and we value hypothesis-free exploratory studies too little. You’ll link to Brian’s praise for exploratory statistics.

        -You’ll agree that math and meta-analysis isn’t crowding out other sorts of work.

        -You’ll disagree with the “generalities vs. specifics” argument, quite reasonably pointing out that my anecdotal evidence should be weighed against the fact that leading ecology journals have formal policies favoring papers of “general” interest.

        -You’ll agree that professional ecologists still know lots of natural history

        -You’ll agree that ecology education is all about trade-offs, but will disagree on whether we’re choosing the right point on the trade-off curve. And you’ll broaden and improve the discussion on this point by talking about the different needs of the different sorts of students who study ecology, and the many different sorts of ecologists we need to train.

        -You’ll agree that lack of ecologists trained in natural history isn’t the primary obstacle to addressing most conservation concerns.

        -You’ll agree with my arguments about the tough job market

        -You’ll disagree on the difficulty of getting grants to collect basic natural history data, arguing that hypothesis-free observational studies are *never* funded but should be, because they often are cheap and collectively provide a lot of value for money.

        -You’ll agree that one can be a good ecologist without knowing lots of natural history, or even very much.

        -You’ll agree that natural history knowledge is just one among many things that can help you be a good ecologist

        -You’ll agree that natural history knowledge is necessary but not sufficient for many applied purposes

        -You’ll agree that natural history is valuable for its own sake, but that this has nothing to do with how much natural history ecologists should know or how they should use what they know.

      • Most of those, actually! Fortunately I hadn’t caught this comment before writing my post in reply. Once I started with a different definition of Natural History, then it took me in a different direction.

        Ecology tests ideas about sets of facts, and the facts themselves are natural history. Most natural history isn’t exciting. The mass of a Daphnia individual, the depth of snow on February 9th 2012, the concentration of phosphorus in one leaf.

        But sometimes, these natural history facts are new, interesting, and cool, and should be shared in their own right. Like finding a spider which is vegetarian, or ants that can’t drink a liquid with protein, or rapid declines in a common species like Monarch butterflies. Or patterns of co-occurrence that suggest a mutualistic relationship. These facts lead to bigger and more integrated ideas.

  12. “We have an increasingly good handle of the circumstances under which one can make very accurate, precise forecasts of election outcomes based just on polling data, and when it helps to also draw on other sources of information, including the qualitative impressions of experienced observers (e.g, Cook Political Report).”

    From some of the research I’m familiar with (e.g., statistical support tools for medical diagnosis), the performance of predictions seems to be, in decreasing order of accuracy: statistical methods, statistical methods augmented by human cognition, and unsupported human cognition. The argument for stats+humans is that in cases where data is plentiful, statistical methods should dominate (they avoid bias and cope better with complex functional relationships). However, in unusual situations humans should be allowed to intervene because their adaptive, imaginative brain can identify hidden connections and so on. Meehl popularised this idea in 1954 with his “broken leg” example (although he disagreed with it). A statistical model based on history predicts that person A attends the movies on Monday with probability 0.9. This model is perfect until one Sunday when A breaks a leg, rendering them unable to sit down in a movie theatre. The previously fantastic statistical model is not familiar with broken legs, so cannot include this evidence, and still predicts a 90% chance of movie-going. The amazing human brain must therefore intervene.

    The problem is that broken legs are by definition unusual (else there’d be data on them). Humans therefore tend to override the statistical predictions too frequently. You see that all the time in political predictions. Everything is thought to be unique and game-changing: unemployment over 8%, the new healthcare law, $1T+ in debt, Obama has a bad first debate. And so on. Nate Silver spent a lot of his blog in the run up to 2012 explaining why he wasn’t including this event or that event.

  13. Simply looking at the terms, ecology means the study of nature (roughly), while the meaning of natural history is obvious.

    By name, ecology aims at generalities (not as strong as laws, to be sure, but at least at principles that allow for some degree of forecast), while natural history aims at contingent (historical, unique) circumstances that do not allow much generalization.

    A polarized debate of ecology vs natural history seems like one of natural history versus constraints/contingencies in evolutionary biology to me. It’s both times both I guess.

  14. Pingback: Phenotypic plasticity and climate adaptation; ecology vs natural history | Ecologically Orientated

  15. I am a natural historian, more specifically an animal taxonomist; and I think I disagree with this post. When I first read it yesterday, I was unsure about whether my disagreement was a defensive gut reaction or if it was grounded in real concerns with your argument. After reflecting on it for a day or so, I have come to the conclusion that natural history has large overlaps with both ecology and systematics, but that some parts of it is not covered by either and that any discussion of the status of natural history needs to take this into account.

    One of your basic points is about how getting funding and tenure is very hard for everybody, and everybody consequently feels that their field is being undervalued. Although this is true, it may also be true that some fields genuinely are undervalued or underprioritized. Because individual researchers’ feelings about their status are misleading, what one has to look at is the patterns of grants, employment desicions and publishing trends. The case for natural history being one of these undervalued fields has empirical support mainly from the so-called taxonomic impediment.

    It is true that ecology and natural history form a continuous spectrum, and the line between the two fields is impossible to place. Nevertheless, there are natural history activities which are not covered by the ecology umbrella. All funded projects I have been involved in as a taxonomist have been closer to the ecology end of the spectrum than I have been comfortable with, and many other taxonomists I know tell similar tales. It is commonplace for us to get paid for identifying species for biodiversity inventories, but it is very rare to get funded to revise existing classifications or to describe new taxa. Identifying the specimens present in one species assemblage can be classed as ecology, but characterizing the more than 70 undescribed species I have in my collections can not. (This contradicts the definition of ecology as “scientific natural history” – species descriptions and taxonomic revisions are hypothesis-driven, dynamic activities which class as science by most definitions; yet they have little to do with ecology.)

    The reason for the problems in ecology may be that the field that used to be “natural history” has developed into two distinct fields, “ecology” and “systematics”. To obtain funding to do natural history work one typically has to phrase the question in an ecological or systematic framework. Thus, biodiversity inventories can get funded as they are directly relevant to community ecology, biodiversity dynamics, conservation biology etc.; and similarly projects like DNA barcoding and molecular phylogenetic revisions get funded for their relevance to systematics. The vast quantity of “pure” natural history that needs doing, such as species characterization and taxonomic revisions, unfortunately falls between two chairs.

    I do not want to put the blame on the growth of quantitative community ecology for this situation. Also, there are luckily some signs that taxonomy are heading towards better times with current or recent strong research programs in e.g. Brazil, Argentina, China and Sweden. My point is that natural history is not only a subfield of ecology, and that by treating it as such you overlook the parts of it which genuinely are in trouble.

    • Thanks for the great comment. The issue you raise–lack of support for taxonomy as distinct from either phylogenetic systematics or ecology (biodiversity inventories etc.–absolutely is one I didn’t address in my post. It’s not one I know much about, so instead I’ll just link to a couple of papers I happen to know of that talk about the issues you raise. I’m sure they’re familiar to you and many other readers, but perhaps not to everyone. I offer them just as food for thought, not as gospel truth (as I say, the issues you raise aren’t ones I know much about):

      Joppa et al. TREE: (includes time series data on the numbers of taxonomists and rates of species description for different groups of organisms)

      The proceedings of a symposium on biodiversity and the future of taxonomy:

    • Thanks gunnarmk. Very well put (love the owl fly too). I agree about Brazil as well. At least in my discipline it is becoming a powerhouse with excellent students well grounded in natural history and taxonomy. I’ve always wondered how the ‘Annual Review of Ecology & Systematics’ got its name? Must have been in a better time when the interdependence of these disciplines were better understood. I think that ‘natural history’ is now often misunderstood as things like watching a jumping spider in your backyard and ‘taxonomy’ as stamp collecting.

  16. Just skimmed the post (long!) and don’t have time to read all 44 comments, so sorry if I repeat things others have said. I think the thing about ‘natural history’ is that there is no longer support for ‘professional’ natural historians. Instead, it’s becoming a field dominated by ‘amateurs’. I’m not sure if I think this is good or bad, but I do thinking ecology suffers when we lose access to natural history knowledge.

    When I went to Costa Rica and Panama on an OTS course, we had natural historians show us around and, importantly, get us up to speed very quickly on the important drivers and dynamics (and unique attributes) of the various ecosystems we visited. But when I started at my field site in Minnesota, there was no one who could do the same for me. (Cedar Creek’s resident natural historian had retired in the late 2000’s and has not been replaced; nor, as far as I know, are there plans to replace him.) I tend to think of natural historians as being particularly broad rather than narrowly focusing on one species. These broad-based professionals can facilitate and catalyze ecology by bringing in other perspectives, pointing out species inter-relationships that were not observed by ecologists, and fueling hypotheses that can then be tested.

    Separately, I’ve been visiting at the U.S. National Museum of Natural History in the entomology department for the past 1.5 years. And I’ve been working with taxonomists, which is the bread and butter of NMNH entomology staff. Even if you ignore academia (where perhaps natural historians are being replaced by ecologists), in museums like NMNH, the number of taxonomists has been reduced quite a lot over the past decades. Budget cuts and so forth. These taxonomists haven’t been replaced by anyone. And now that genetic tools are making the pace of discovery of new species accelerate, there literally aren’t enough taxonomists to keep up with the load of describing and naming them. This, I would argue, is bad for biological science as a whole, ecology included. Further, the value of professional taxonomists isn’t replaceable either by technology or by amateurs. Just yesterday, two such people spent just a few hours sorting out 40 or so tiny parasitic wasps that are part of one of my experiments. Doing the same thing myself (as an amateur) would have taken weeks of full-time effort, and DNA technology isn’t yet robust enough yet to do the same thing at all.

    Anyway, that’s my two cents. In my experience, natural historians have facilitated my ecology work quite a bit. And I’m sad they’re disappearing.

    • Great comment Margaret, somewhat related to gunnarmk’s comment above, so see above for a partial reply.

      I’ve had a student who couldn’t have done the ecological research he did (on plant-pollinator interaction networks) had we not had on staff an insect taxonomist to help him identify a bunch of tiny syrphid flies. Of course, had we not had such a person on staff, I’d have steered him towards some other project that wouldn’t have required the support of taxonomists we didn’t have. So perhaps one way to express your concern is to say that ecologists in future may tend to avoid working on systems where the taxonomic support isn’t readily available.

      • Yes, I think that’s a good way to put it. And considering that we ecologists like to study “biodiversity” (among other things), choosing to not study insect systems (or only studying the “easy” ones) would seem to be a problem, considering that much of animal diversity is found in Insecta.

      • Without wanting to minimize that problem, note that “availability of taxonomic expertise” is only one factor among many that affects what systems ecologists choose to study and what questions they choose to ask. Hard to say exactly how important those various factors are relative to one another, how they interact, etc.–or even to list them all! We talked a bit about choice of system in the past, in an old post on “model systems” in ecology:

        One conclusion of that post was that ecological “model systems” often are “particular places about which we know a lot already”. Which does highlight the importance of having, and retaining, a lot of background knowledge about particular places like Cedar Creek.

        Relatedly, Meg’s talked about “system envy” and the experimental failures that happen when an investigator is unaware of some crucial feature of the study system:

      • The problem of the missing taxonomist is pretty general now. Not every taxonomist is a Howard Ensign Evans or Charles Michener, but even the most museum-bound taxonomist is likely to be a storehouse of useful information and skills that could be used to support ecological research. When they go and are not replaced, their knowledge goes with them.

        I suppose I’ve blabbed on enough on this thread already (and perhaps I could have been politer in my comments), but I wonder if it wasn’t the post-WWII explosion in invertebrate taxonomists that allowed ecology to prosper? I’m not sure how stream ecology, pollination ecology, soil ecology, tropical biodiversity studies etc. could have ever gotten very far without reasonable taxonomic support and a strong interest in natural history.

  17. Hi,
    Thanks for the interesting post. While I am all supportive of embracing a diversity of approaches to do ecology or whatever science (and leaning towards quantitative ecology myself), I do think Natural History fulfills several important roles that are often not valued enough. To me one of them is the ability to provide *context* to make the right inferences from data in a complex ecological world full of confounding factors and alternative hypotheses. This elevator story at Simply Statistics ( nicely conveys the message, I think. I have seen quite a few papers and have been involved in projects where lack of natural history knowledge (i.e. really knowing the ecology of your species or your field site) led to misleading or simply wrong inferences. Direct field/observation experience can bring many unique insights and avoid inferential pitfalls. Of course good quantitative skills are important too, that’s why we need to embrace them all.


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  21. I realize it’s a small point in a large article, but I’m curious why the searches were designed the way they were. The way they were run, they are comparing: 1) the number of webpages containing the word “ecology,” and 2) the number of webpages that contain both “natural” and “history” somewhere on the entire page, which doesn’t seem to answer the question that was being posed (or at least implied). Searching “natural history” with quotes, (i.e. searching for the actual topic under discussion), returns ~13 million hits, which is slightly less than half the number returned for “ecology”. I’m not sure it refutes the original point, but I think it does paint a different landscape.

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  24. I wonder how this discussion plays out in a conservation biology context vs ecology. My suspicion is that natural history appreciation may be a powerful route to a conservation ethic, once championed by scientists, may need new champions? If we put an applied goal of attaching intrinsic value to biodiversity, I think all of a sudden natural history becomes very important.

  25. Jeremy,

    Thanks for a thought provoking post. One thing puzzled me though. You made no mention of
    citizen science as a source of natural history knowledge and data collection which could then be used by ecologists. I know some (many?) ecologists would regard amateur naturalists as unscientific in their observations and collection of data, but that is definitely old school thinking. Many countries (including yours) are implementing major citizen science programs in order to train amateurs so that the data collected is scientifically valid. Some examples are listed below.

    Amateur naturalists can be very knowledgeable in their area of interest. For example, I know one who could easily have been a professional ( So, why don’t more ecologists tap into this source of enthusiastic, knowledgeable, trainable, local, free (or very cheap, depending on the costs of chocolate incentives!) people who are willing to help, and stretch your field research funds even further?




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  28. Interesting rant and you make a few points, in a rather long-winded way, that I would agree with, but I think you miss the main point in the debate and I wonder about some of your arguments. For example, without quotes, I just googled natural (559 x 106) and history (1,010 x 106), so your ‘872 x 106’ results for natural history is a subset of those two search items that includes both words and not a reflection of “natural history” (65,500 hits as I just goggled). The one word ‘ecology’ did very well at 25.5 x 106 – not as high as your 28.8 x 106, but the algorithm and reality do vary with time. Or perhaps ecology is going out of fashion. In any case, this was a specious argument.

    I know of many departments with ‘ecology’ in their name and many professors of such. Do you know of any departments or professorships of ‘natural history’? Do you know of any journals (I know of one)?

    I do agree that good ecologists have a firm basis in natural history. I just wonder where the ecologists of the future will get their training in natural history? I also wonder where they will get their training in taxonomy – which underpins all natural history and ecology. If you cannot identify the organisms that you work with, then how can you explore their natural history or try to understand their roles in an ecosystem or how ecosystems function? Well, I suppose you could work with birds and black box the rest, but you’d still be assuming the natural histories of your birds were well understood (unlikely).

    If you want examples of where ecological theory has been distorted by ignorance of natural history, then they are legion. For example, take food web theory. It used to be dogma that omnivory (feeding at more than one trophic level) destabilized food web models and therefore must be rare in nature. The mathematics and statistics were impeccable (or only slightly spotty): never mind what the authors may have been eating for dinner or how any other widespread animal might earn their living. I think you could take any ecological fad model (equilibrium vs non-equilibrium, competition, keystone species, top vs bottom down etc.) and make similar points.

    THE POINT that I think you miss is that the ecologists of the future will have little or no training in natural history or taxonomy (nor will the systematists who will be hired for their prowess with gels and computers, not for their knowledge of nature). So how useful will the analytically sophisticated ecology of the future be for understanding ecosystem processes, protecting biodiversity, answering esoteric questions about ecosystem function?

    • Thank you for the lengthy comment.

      An earlier commenter noted your point about the number of google hits. As I noted above in reply to that commenter, that’s one reason why number of google hits is mostly a silly thing to look at. As I said in the original post.

      Re: the number of departments with “ecology” in their names, see my remarks about the “choice” ecology faced in the 1960s.

      Re: the number of journals with natural history in their names, see my remarks on changes over time in the number of papers in ornithology, entomology, etc. Lots of natural historical work is and always has been published in journals without “natural history” in their names. Apparently I’m not the only one capable of making specious arguments.

      Re: ecologists purportedly no longer being trained in natural history or not being able to identify their study organisms, I discussed this in the original post, so I’m not sure what else I can say. See also the comment from Margaret Kosmala above, and my reply to her.

      I’m not sure what point you think I’m missing, given that no where in the post do I claim that ecologists should or will *not* be trained in natural history. As I noted in the original post, there are always trade-offs and opportunity costs. Time spent learning one thing is always time not spent learning something else. You haven’t given an argument as to why you think ecologists are receiving very suboptimal training–you’ve merely asserted it. Perhaps it’s you who are missing the point that computers, statistics, etc., also are useful?

      Re: understanding ecosystem processes and answering questions about ecosystem function, that’s been one of the hottest topics in ecology over the last 15 years or so. So I’m not sure why you raise that as an example of the sort of problem current or future ecologists will be unable to address due to lack of natural history acumen.

      But since all I’m doing is repeating things I said in the post, I suspect we’re at an impasse and will have to agree to disagree.

      • According to your introductory remarks, your goals in this post were to “examine worries about the status of natural history itself, and about the status of ecology that’s strongly grounded in natural history. I’m trying to make a good faith effort to understand where the folks who hold those worries are coming from. …”

        I didn’t see the ‘good faith’ or any real effort to understand the complaint. My impression was more of handwaving and ‘I agree, but ..’ arguments. But perhaps I over-reacted to your first point – I think it was a poor strategy to start off with a ‘silly’ google analysis.

        I don’t agree that Google, when used properly, cannot be used to infer something about the perceived importance of things like “natural history” vs “ecology”. But then, I have published a paper where I used Google as one part of an analysis (combined with several literature analyses) to make a similar point.

        I missed Margret’s excellent comment and your reasonable responses. I too skimmed through – mostly because there were too many comments, I thought you were not really coming to grips with the hypothesis, and I wanted to respond.

        Perhaps my point about journals of natural history was silly, but your response does not refute my point. Ecological papers also regularly appear in journals without ecology in their titles (e.g. Science, Nature, PLoS), but ecologists also have a vast array of journals dedicated to publishing ecological research, natural historians do not. I usually have to put my natural history observations into books or taxonomic papers: reviewers of papers for ecological journals seem pretty hostile to information ancillary to the hypothesis being tested. People like Tom Eisner always seemed to have a knack for getting some natural history into the glossies (I even remember one Science cover with a tadpole being eaten by a tabanid larva), but unless it was really oh-my, best not try.

        To put my concern into your framework, the point I think you are missing is the one that Margaret Kosmala makes so clearly. I am not hostile to mathematical or chemical or molecular ecology and I accept statistics as a necessary evil. However, I don’t think you can ‘trade-off” natural history and taxonomy and still do meaningful ecology. My assertion that ecologists are receiving increasingly suboptimal training is based on 35 years experience at universities in the United States, Canada and Australia (natural history training does seem in better shape in Europe and Japan). It is also based on the decline in support for specialist systematists and the loss of departments that were rooted in natural history and taxonomy, e.g. entomology, nematology, mycology – even botany and zoology seem to be in decline. Exactly where and how will the ecologists of the future get their training in natural history and ecology?

        I won’t comment on your last ‘hot topic’ response except to say that the last 15 years of ecological research has been running on the store of natural history and taxonomic knowledge built up in the past. I think it will soon be running on empty.

      • Thank you for your further comments. Not sure how much more I can say and it sounds like we’ll have to mostly agree to disagree.

        Yes, I do think you can do good ecology without having much of a grounding in natural history. For instance, I think my own work is good ecology, but I’m guessing you would probably disagree… 🙂

        If you see statistics as a “necessary evil” rather than a positive good that has on balance greatly improved our ability to answer fundamental questions and solve practical problems, then we clearly have very different visions of what ecology ought to be.

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  30. Absolutely, I don’t think you can do ecology that is not firmly grounded in natural history. I don’t know your work, but if your models are based on good natural history data (even if you didn’t collect it), then I don’t see why they can’t be good ecology. I’ve worked with systems ecologists that were concerned that their models were based on real interactions and the experience was always positive. I’ll probably try to read your recent paper on the Intermediate Disturbance Hypothesis. It is something I’ve always been interested in, but somewhat skeptical of.

    I would hope that a quantitative ecologist would have a less cynical view on statistics, but in my view statistics often seem to be abused and statistical ecological modelling sometimes become so detached from reality that it comes to totally idiotic conclusions. Sorry, but I don’t see any great advances in understanding any fundamental questions in ecology. I would agree that properly used statistics have improved our ability to discriminate among possible solutions to practical problems.

  31. Perhaps it is just confirmation bias, but having just read two of your papers (the 2006 in Oikos and the 2013 in TREE), I would interpret them as supporting my contention that the use of statistics in ecology is problematic. In the Oikos paper your main point seems to be that existing food web models are badly flawed and need to be replaced (last paragraph of Discussion, p. 107). Also (p. 108) “I suggest that the way to discover if further improvement is possible is to develop fundamentally new models that sacrifice some of the simplicity of current models for increased realism.” I could hardly disagree with that since it has been my position since I was a post doc (although my disagreements were strictly on empirical ‘natural history’ grounds). Anyway, I thought the Caveats and Conclusions sections well done. The paper on Joe Connell’s IDH was interesting, but somewhat different from how I viewed the hypothesis. I read the reply by the foresters on your blog (nice to see actual collegiality), but I’d have to slough through the empirical tests to form any final opinion. 80:20 against doesn’t sound good though.

    • You’ve now become one of five people to read Fox 2006, I think! 🙂

      Yes, one of the challenging things about the IDH is that different people seem to mean different things by it.

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