On “stamp collecting” in ecology

Was looking back over this old post on Tony Ives’ MacArthur award lecture, in which he commented that system-specific models in ecology (or any field, really) aren’t just a “stamp collection” of unrelated, unique special cases. They’re more like a reference library: a fruitful source of analogies, insights, and relevant information. Tony illustrated this with the example of his own work on midge dynamics in Iceland, which he was able to model in part because he had experience with other systems that were unlike the midge system in many ways, but that shared certain key features such as having alternate attractors.

I like this way of looking at things because it says I’m doing something right, and who doesn’t like to hear that? 🙂 That is, I think I’m pretty good at spotting useful analogies between apparently-unrelated cases. It’s one of my strengths as an ecologist.* Probably my best work involves applying the Price equation from evolutionary biology to ecological problems. These ecological problems aren’t “evolutionary” in the usual sense–it’s others who’ve used the Price equation to think about eco-evolutionary dynamics. But in important respects they’re precisely analogous to the sorts of evolutionary problems the Price equation solves. That’s just the way my mind works. If someone tells me about X, my first thought often is “Oh, that’s like apparently-unrelated thing Y!”

More broadly, any collector of anything will tell you that a good collection has a focus. Nobody collects totally unrelated stuff–that’s not a collection. Even the stamps in a stamp collection all have something in common–they’re stamps. Usually, they have more in common than that: most stamp collectors focus on stamps from particular countries, or depicting particular sorts of things, or that are unusual in some shared way (e.g., misprinted stamps), or etc.

But if you don’t know the focus of a collection, you’ll mistake it for an unrelated collection of random objects. Good luck figuring out for yourself the focus of Sir John Soane’s collecting, beyond “antiquities” (update: link fixed). But make no mistake, there was a focus (foci, actually).

I wonder how often accusations of “stamp collecting” in ecology fall into this trap–someone fails to recognize the focus of the “collection”, and so mistakenly assumes there isn’t one. Kind of like the mistaken assumption that someone with a messy desk can’t find anything. Well, maybe they can’t–or maybe you just don’t understand their filing system.

Of course, the difference between collecting and science is that in collecting you’re free to pick any focus you want. You can collect soda tabs or train tickets if you want. Whereas in science our choices of foci–what commonalities we pay attention to–are supposed to be guided by nature or previous research or some other criterion external to ourselves. And I think they almost always are–but we fail to recognize this because different scientists focus on different commonalities. For instance, mathematician Tim Gowers has a famous essay on the two cultures of mathematics, where he explains how the work of “problem solvers” like himself is a unified body of work rather than a bunch of unique special cases. It’s just that the work is unified by different criteria than those that unify the work of “system builders” (e.g., unity of problem-solving approach rather than unity of results). Closer to home, Brian and I have an old exchange of comments here (sorry, can’t find it now) where we talked about how, when applying for a faculty position at a research university, you have to present your research as a unified body of work. I argued that this unity isn’t just something that you pretend to have, at least not for most people. Rather, most people really do have unifying threads running through their work–even if, as in my case, they weren’t able to articulate them very well until forced to do so in order to apply for faculty positions! Even Stephen Heard, who named his blog after his own tendency to hop from one field to another, writes

It’s less obvious, but I think true, that field-hopping has also improved my research (qualitatively if not quantitatively).  Most importantly, it’s let me see connections between fields, or between ideas, that wouldn’t have been obvious to that alternative me with a nice long attention span.

Bottom line: I don’t know that there are any “stamp collectors” in the usual pejorative sense in ecology.**

*and blogger. Longtime readers know my penchant for off-the-wall analogies.

**People may disagree about what commonalities actually exist, or about which ones are most worth paying attention to. I have an old post on that. To which I’d add that I don’t think every possible choice of which commonalities to pay attention to is equally good, scientifically. Lumping together apples and oranges isn’t a good idea. But in practice it can be hard to tell if you’re lumping apples and oranges. For instance, after reading this recent review of mass mortality events in animals, I’m still not sure if “mass mortality events in animals” have enough in common to warrant lumping them all into a shared theoretical and empirical framework. Which isn’t to criticize the paper at all–often the only way to find out if you’re lumping apples and oranges is to try lumping them together to see what you learn.

6 thoughts on “On “stamp collecting” in ecology

  1. Yes, EVEN me! 🙂 I thoroughly agree: even if ecology is to some extent “a collection of special cases”, having a library of special cases gives you similarities to draw on when you tackle the next one. Seeing the similarities rather than the differences among cases is often what moves us forward. Great post.

  2. “It’s less obvious, but I think true, that field-hopping has also improved my research (qualitatively if not quantitatively). Most importantly, it’s let me see connections between fields, or between ideas, that wouldn’t have been obvious to that alternative me with a nice long attention span.” Agreed. Unfortunately, this is perceived as a weakness in many scientific circles.

  3. I don’t think this post will cut any ice with those who see some ecologists as stamp collectors. People who talk about the importance of discovering unifying commonalities among lots of systems (e.g., Marquet et al.: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2014/10/29/marquet-et-al-on-theory-in-ecology/) usually only want certain sorts of commonalities. Generalizations like “These systems all have alternate states” or “these problems can all be solved with the Price equation” aren’t the right sorts of generalizations in their eyes.

    • Nobel prize winner (chemistry) Ernest Rutherford is purported to have said:

      All science is either physics or stamp collecting

      • Yeah, there’s definitely a type of physicist who says this sort of thing:


        I read somewhere that John Von Neumann once said something similar. Something about challenging social scientists to come up with one generally true, non-trivial, non-obvious insight. The only one he conceded was Ricardo’s principle of comparative advantage from economics.

  4. Pingback: Links 5/4/15 | Mike the Mad Biologist

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