One reason scientific success or progress is sometimes difficult to identify is that scientific ideas have various desirable features that don’t always go hand-in-hand. So an idea can be successful in some ways but unsuccessful in others. Here are some ways in which a scientific idea might be considered successful:
- Make correct predictions.
- Make testable predictions, whether or not they’re correct. We learn something from testing predictions that don’t pan out as well as from ones that do.
- Identify or discover a new possibility or phenomenon. For instance, Edward Lorenz’s discovery of chaos.
- Explain a pattern or phenomenon.
- Provide understanding or insight.
- Unify seemingly-unrelated phenomena or special cases.
- Ask new questions.
- Ask better questions. For instance, taking an existing vague question and making it precise.
- Focus research effort. Insofar as you think scientific progress requires lots of people working on the same problem (whether collaboratively or not), you’re going to want to see scientists focusing their efforts. Arguably, at least some of the credit for focusing research effort should go to the idea on which the effort is focused.
- Be influential. Scientists tend to have a lot of respect for influential ideas (ideas that prompt a lot of work), even if those ideas turn out to be totally wrong and are eventually abandoned. Personally, I don’t share that respect, because I think that if influential-but-totally-wrong idea X hadn’t been proposed, the scientists who worked on it would’ve just worked on something else instead. And some of that work might’ve turned out to be based on correct ideas. So I don’t think being influential, independent of correctness or other desiderata, is a mark of a successful scientific idea. But I recognize that I’m probably in a minority on this.
- Other possibilities I haven’t thought of.
(Aside: all of the above require elaboration. For instance, there’s such a thing as too much unification. Sometimes, “focus of research effort” is just a phrase for “bandwagon“. Etc. Those sorts of caveats are another reason why “success” isn’t always easy to identify in science. But I wanted to keep the post short so didn’t elaborate much.)
I’m interested in how different ecologists define “success” in ecology. So as a conversation starter, below is a little poll. For each of a number of different big ideas in ecology, you have to say if it was successful, unsuccessful, a mixed bag, or if it’s too soon to tell (there’s also an option for don’t know/not sure/no opinion). I also ask you to provide your career stage, since I’m curious whether junior and senior people differ in their evaluations.
Don’t read anything into my choice of ideas. I just picked some big ideas that I have opinions about, and on which I’m curious about others’ opinions. I tried to include a range of different sorts of ideas–verbal and mathematical ideas, older and newer ideas, etc.
For purposes of the poll, define “success” however you want. I’m betting we’ll get a pretty wide range of views on most of these ideas, in part because different people define “success” differently. Even though all of the ideas on my list are famous ideas, it’s not obvious that they’re all successful. For instance, you know what I think of the IDH. The hump-backed model of diversity-productivity relationships has been debated for forty years, which arguably isn’t a sign of success. A bunch of prominent ecologists think R* theory is unsuccessful while optimal foraging theory and metabolic theory are successful–but that’s a very debatable view. There are ecologists wondering if neutral theory has just been a distraction. The ideas of r/K selection and limiting similarity have come in for a lot of criticism over the years. Etc. So hopefully this poll will be a good conversation starter. In the comments, I encourage you to share why you voted as you did.
p.s. Note that calling an idea “unsuccessful” doesn’t imply anything negative about those who proposed or worked on the idea. Great scientists can have unsuccessful ideas.