Why are some ecological ideas controversial? (UPDATED)

Why are some ideas in ecology much more controversial than others? You might be tempted to say that “Ideas that conflict with other ideas, or with empirical data, will be controversial.” But I think that’s wrong—in ecology there seems to be very little correlation between the amount of criticism or controversy surrounding an idea, and the theoretical and empirical support for that idea.

Just off the top of my head, here’s a list of some ecological ideas that were, at least for a time (perhaps a long time), very controversial, but for reasons largely or entirely unrelated to the available evidence:

  • Interspecific competition. Debate over the importance of competition, and how to test for it (the “null model wars”), was famously intense in the late ’70s and early ’80s. This despite the fact that there are good theoretical reasons to expect competition (see any introductory ecology textbook), and the fact that, when you do a removal experiment to look for interspecific competition, you usually find it (Schoener 1983, Gurevitch et al. 1992).
  • Density dependence. Intense as it was, the debate in community ecology over interspecific competition was nothing compared to the debate in population ecology over density dependence. But here again, you would have a hard time arguing that the debate was driven primarily by data, or even by conventional theoretical considerations—it was ultimately a reflection of very deep-seated conceptual commitments (Cooper 2007).
  • Trophic cascades. As a grad student in the Bronze Age mid-’90s, I lived through the “top down vs. bottom up wars”, as they were sometimes called, although the issues actually went beyond the question of whether communities are “mostly” structured by top-down or bottom-up forces (see the special feature in the June 1992 issue of Ecology). It’s now hard to understand why there was so much fuss. The most basic question—Are top-down and bottom-up effects common?—has a clear-cut answer. When we look for trophic cascades, in both aquatic and terrestrial systems, we mostly find them: removing predators causes their prey to increase, which causes the prey of those prey to decrease (Shurin et al. 2002). When we look for bottom-up effects, we mostly find them too. As for pretty much every other question, such as those about the determinants of the strength of top-down and bottom-up effects, either all the proposed answers are wrong, or else the available data are inadequate to test them (Borer et al. 2005). So rather than having silly arguments about particular cases (see, e.g., the amusingly contrasting views of Pace et al. 1999 and Chase 2000 on the implications of Spiller and Schoener 1994), we ought to be either coming up with better answers, or better data. NutNet is leading the way on the latter.
  • Neutral theory. Evolutionary biologists enjoyed the neutralist-selectionist debate so much that community ecologists decided to refight the debate themselves. And just for fun, they decided to fight it using a particular kind of data (relative abundance distributions) which evolutionary biologists had already found to be inadequate to the task of distinguishing neutrality from non-neutrality.*

Contrast the above—intense controversies that arose and often persisted in the absence of much data, or even despite a pretty clear-cut empirical consensus—with the history of the intermediate disturbance hypothesis, which has never been a very controversial idea despite a horrible empirical track record (much worse than that of trophic cascades, density dependence, interspecific competition, or neutral theory), and being based on outright theoretical errors. Or think of keystone predation, the prevalence of which has been the subject of active research and ordinary scientific discussion, but never vociferous debate, even though the empirical evidence on its prevalence and importance could hardly be considered to be more clear-cut than that for, say, trophic cascades.

The same question about the origin of controversies could be asked in other fields as well.** I’m no expert, but as far as I know sexual selection and sexual conflict was a pretty well-developed body of evolutionary theory, well-integrated with a fair bit of data (Arnqvist and Rowe 2005). Not a topic that would seem ripe for a big controversy about fundamentals—until Joan Roughgarden created one pretty much single-handedly. (UPDATE: see the comments, where a commenter uses WoS citation data to argue cogently that any controversy Roughgarden created was actually pretty minor and short-lived within the field itself, as opposed to in the popular science press.)

And that’s probably part of the answer. If someone really prominent says something controversial, lots of people often pay attention. In ecology, Don Strong had a prominent role in the controversies over both interspecific competition and trophic cascades, though his wasn’t the only prominent voice. Steve Hubbell pretty much single-handedly kicked off the neutral theory debate. In evolution, Gould and Lewontin single-handedly created controversy over the “adaptationist programme”.

But personal fame isn’t sufficient. In evolution, I don’t think many people paid much attention to Lynn Margulis’ stranger claims about “symbiogenesis” as an alternative to natural selection. It’s outside my field, but it doesn’t seem like Travisano and Shaw (2012) created much controversy about the use of genomics in evolutionary biology, despite the prominence of its authors. In ecology, the very prominent Hal Caswell proposed a version of neutral theory in 1976 but failed to kick off anything like the controversy over Hubbell’s neutral theory. Mayfield & Levine (2010) failed to stop or steer the phyogenetic community ecology bandwagon despite Jon Levine’s prominence. And the most famous ecology blogger in the world has failed to create any detectable controversy about the intermediate disturbance hypothesis.

What do you think? Why are some ecological ideas controversial, while others aren’t?

*I actually think it’s very valuable that ecologists now collectively have a much better sense of what sort of dynamics distinguish neutrality from non-neutrality. I just think we learned it the hard way.

**And in fact it has been. But I haven’t read the enormous social science literature on this. You get the background research you pay for on this blog.

This is a lightly-edited version of a post that first ran a few years ago. Sorry for the rerun, I’m stalling for time while I work on some new stuff.

7 thoughts on “Why are some ecological ideas controversial? (UPDATED)

  1. I suspect that a key ingredient in creating a controversy is the generality of the claims. Competition was proposed as the key to understanding all patterns in all communities (a bit of overstatement there, but you get the point). Density (in)dependence applies to all populations. Neutral theory was initially put forward by Hubbell _not_ just as a kind of null model from which to look for departures (my reading of Caswell), but as a “unified” theory of “biodiversity and biogeography” that actually represents what happens in nature. Big claims stimulate vigorous responses. And I do think the stature of the authors and/or the journal/venue where it’s published matter. Hubbell’s 1997 paper in Coral Reefs (summary of the book) didn’t spark the controversy.

    Side note: my reading of the null-model wars is that it wasn’t really about whether competition happens (everyone knows that), but whether patterns of species co-occurrence can be used to infer the underlying process (the preferred one at the time being competition). That is definitely a contestable point.

    On a more cynical note, I think controversies grow rapidly in visibility when they create opportunities to publish papers in good journals with minimal effort. So, the age-old result that community composition is correlated with environmental conditions (even non-human animals know that!) can be repackaged as a high-profile paper rejecting a big new theory.

    • Yes to all of this.

      Re: your side note on the null model wars, my sense is it was some of both, but yes, a contestable point. And quite possibly, for some people it was about whether you can infer process from pattern, while for other people it was about the prevalence or strength of competition. I dunno, you’d have to go back and closely read those papers. Or maybe just ask Don Strong, Dan Simberloff, Jared Diamond, and Ted Case what it was really about.🙂

  2. Roughgarden did not create controversy about sexual selection, however hard she tried and however broad the claims to have replaced Darwin. Her 2004 book and 2006 science paper fizzled, contrary to popular press buzz, or her publisher’s rhetoric.
    By way of a test consider the 2 publications citations counts in WEB-of-Science for 2015: together they are cited about 10 times. By way of contrast for 2015 malte andersson’s 1994 sexual selection book is cited about 400 times, trivers classic1972 paper about 300 times and GA Parker’s 1970 sperm competition paper about 100 times.

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