A while back, a correspondent noted that many important advances in physics arose from apparent contradictions between established bodies of knowledge. If you’re confident that X and Y are both true, but X and Y appear to contradict one another, well, that’s a puzzle that demands resolution. And the resolution often is a deep insight into X, Y, and/or the relationship between them. My correspondent suggested that this isn’t unique to physics, that identifying and resolving apparent contradictions is a good way to advance any scientific field.
I think there’s something to this. I’m currently revising a paper I’m very proud of (we’ll see what the reviewers think!) The genesis of the paper was me recognizing what seemed like a contradiction between two things I thought I knew about metapopulation dynamics. Resolving that contradiction led me to what I think is a deep insight about how metapopulations persist.
My correspondent suggested that ecologists do relatively little research based on resolving apparent contradictions. I think that’s right, though I don’t have any data.
Assuming for the sake of argument that’s right, why is that? Is it because ecologists’ ideas about the world all are mutually compatible? And if ecologists’ ideas about the world are all mutually compatible, is that to ecology’s credit or discredit? If ecologists are unable to do contradiction-resolving research because their field seems not to contain many incompatible claims, well, maybe that’s a sign that ecology’s claims are too vague?
What do you think?
UPDATE: Our commenters always come through. See the very first comment for two excellent examples of apparent contractions in ecology and evolution–Reid’s paradox and the paradox of stasis. Also see the comments for discussion of why the paradox of the plankton and the paradox of enrichment aren’t really “paradoxes” in the sense I intended in the post.