In order for a coherent scholarly discipline to exist, there has to be a critical mass of people who agree sufficiently on what questions members of the discipline should ask, how they should go about answering those questions, and about how to evaluate those questions and answers so as to distinguish better ones from worse ones. Obviously, not everybody is always going to agree on everything all the time, and if they ever did it would arguably be a sign of groupthink. Obviously, there’s scope for subdisciplines within a discipline–clusters of people who share a specialized interest that isn’t shared by the rest of the discipline. And obviously, there’s no clear bright line between sufficient agreement on the basics to have a scholarly discipline, and insufficient agreement–it’s a continuum. But we can point to examples to illustrate the extremes. Physics is a coherent scholarly discipline, with subdisciplines like particle physics, nuclear physics, fluid dynamics, etc. Chemistry is a coherent discipline too. So is astronomy. And mathematics. History is a non-scientific example of a coherent scholarly discipline. At the other extreme, anthropology isn’t really a single coherent discipline as best I can tell. Physical anthropology and cultural anthropology aren’t two subdisciplines staffed by people with specialized interests who have a shared understanding of the basics of anthropology. Rather, they’re more like two distinct and even opposing fields that just so happen to both be concerned with human societies (e.g., see here). Anthropology certainly has some of the trappings of a discipline, such as academic departments (but see). But those trappings are like wallpaper covering huge cracks.
So, where does ecology fall on this spectrum? Is it a single coherent discipline like physics or astronomy? A non-discipline like anthropology? Or somewhere in between?
I’m not sure, but I’m tempted to say we’re closer to anthropology. Ok, ecology isn’t divided into two internally-coherent warring camps. But our shared understanding of the disciplinary basics sure does seem a lot more limited than in, say, mathematics.
A small anecdotal illustration: my reader poll on whether my latest paper is a super-cool result vs. trendy oversold rubbish. Every response on a 1-10 scale, where 1 = “rubbish” and 10 = “this paper should be considered for a major award”, got at least one vote! And those extreme votes weren’t outliers. Even though I was polling blog readers who presumably are somewhat self-selected to share my views, 22% of respondents scored my paper a 1, 2, or 3, meaning they thought it was much worse than a typical paper in a mid-range ecology journal. But 29% gave it an 8, 9, or 10, meaning they thought it was much better than that. Even allowing for the fact that many respondents were probably evaluating my blog post about the paper rather than the paper itself, such a big spread of opinion suggests that the respondents disagree pretty fundamentally on what constitutes “good” ecology. I’m totally speculating here, but I doubt that you’d see that much variance in opinion about a typical paper in, say, mathematics. Despite some cultural differences among subfields, mathematicians mostly seem to agree about which new proofs are novel and important, and which ones aren’t.
A second anecdotal illustration, from a recent comment here from Mark Vellend:
I have often wondered [whether ecology is a single discipline], and was prompted to do so again recently by a molecular-biologist colleague. I am about to start serving on the NSERC Discovery [grant] panel, and he had done so as well in the past (different subject area) but sometimes was called upon to give input on a proposal in the eco-evo panel (presumably something molecular). His first comment was “you guys are mean!”. Digging a bit deeper, the distinction he was drawing is that in other disciplines it seems people criticize _how_ science is/was done (e.g., are the methods appropriate to the question), whereas ecologists criticize why someone would even do the thing they’re proposing to do. To me, that’s a sign that we lack coherence as a discipline in terms of not even agreeing on what constitutes something worth pursuing.
A third anecdotal illustration: there’s relatively little philosophy of ecology within philosophy of science, as compared to philosophy of evolutionary biology, or of physics or mathematics. That’s because outsiders to ecology struggle to make heads or tails of the field. But don’t just take my word for it, take theirs! I once asked a prominent philosopher of science why there wasn’t more philosophy of ecology, and she responded “Because ecology is a mess.” And as I’ve noted before on the blog, philosopher of science Gregory Cooper wrote an entire book searching for an adequate definition of ecology that would characterize the core of the discipline–and ended up with a definition that, by his own admission, excludes large chunks of the discipline, such as ecosystem ecology! Which might suggest that Cooper failed to understand ecology–or that there isn’t a coherent discipline called “ecology” for him, or anyone, to understand.
But I dunno. Maybe ecology just has schools of thought. Which arguably would place us in an intermediate position on the Great Disciplinary Coherence Continuum, but not all that close to the worrisome Not Actually A Discipline end.
If ecology isn’t a coherent discipline, I’m not sure why. It’s hard to point to key traits that distinguish coherent disciplines from incoherent non-disciplines. For instance, large areas of physics and astronomy are centrally-coordinated and highly collaborative, because of their dependence on a small number of expensive shared instruments like the Hubble space telescope and the Large Hadron Collider. But central coordination and extensive collaboration aren’t essential for a unified scholarly discipline; mathematics lacks those things. Nor is it the case that disciplines with one or a few “founding fathers” invariably are coherent while those woven from different historical threads (as ecology is) aren’t. Evolutionary biology is a coherent discipline, and has a founding father. But anthropology isn’t a coherent discipline even though both physical and cultural anthropology can rightly claim Franz Boas as their founding father (as pointed out in a link above).
So what do you think? Take our poll: