Is ecology a single coherent scientific discipline? (includes poll)

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:

38 thoughts on “Is ecology a single coherent scientific discipline? (includes poll)

  1. I’m not sure I agree with your premise that “not single coherent discipline” = “bad”. Which is pretty clear in your poll, where one option is labeled “disunified mess”. (Push polling, anyone?) You are correct that Antropology is not a coherent field; Geography is the same for similar reasons. This causes administrative heartache but it’s not clear it’s held back the progress of either flavour of Anthro or Geography. By your standards “Biology” is a disunified mess. Has biology been a failure? I probably can’t offer a useful definition of “ecology” as a scientific field, despite the fact that I teach it; but I’m not very worried by that. Wow, I’m uncharacteristically non-pedantic and non-grumpy today 🙂

    • Yes, I would say that biology is disunified in a way that, say, physics or chemistry isn’t. The biggest split is between people who care about “how” questions and people who care about “why” questions. Basically, cellular/molecular biology and biochemistry vs. evolutionary biology.

      Good question re: whether lack of disciplinary coherence is a problem. I would say it’s definitely held back Anthro, though of course I’m no expert. It’s kept people from asking or answering questions at the interface of physical and cultural anthropology. Think of the controversy over something like Jared Diamond’s “Collapse”.

      I think lack of disciplinary coherence is also a problem to the extent that it prevents people from being able to agree on what would constitute “progress”. See https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2014/02/17/on-progress-in-ecology/.

      And arguably, if too many people are all off doing their own things that are only loosely related to the things others in the “field” are doing, then that holds back progress by preventing the concentration of effort needed to make progress (see, e.g., https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2013/01/16/the-road-not-taken-for-me-and-for-ecology/) Though there are of course strong counter-arguments to the claim that what ecology needs is for lots of people to all work on the same few centrally-coordinated projects. We tried that with the IBP, and we’re trying it again with NEON, and arguably it failed once and is in the process of failing again. Maybe any centrally-coordinated research program bigger than, say, NutNet is just a bad fit for ecology. Perhaps because successful centrally-coordinated “Big Science” like the Hubble telescope or the Large Hadron Collider or the Manhattan Project is really “Big Engineering”. In contrast, even if we could all agree on what the biggest question in ecology is (and I doubt we can: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2011/09/27/why-i-dont-care-what-the-biggest-question-in-ecology-is/), I don’t think we’d end up settling on a question that could be answered by building an expensive shared instrument.

      Overall, I’m unsure if ecology’s lack of disciplinary coherence is a problem. I think in some ways our lack of coherence is a strength, in others a weakness.

  2. “Evolutionary biology is a coherent discipline, and has a founding father”

    Well I guess that depends on how you define “founding father” but Alfred Russel Wallace deserves at least some credit for his contribution to the resulting lineage!

    I’m not at all convinced that you are comparing like-with-like when you contrast physics and chemistry with ecology. One perfectly valid way to consider ecology is as a sub-discipline of biology, ditto evolutionary biology. Indeed evolutionary biology is no more coherent than ecology: there’s a big gap between population genetics and palaeontology!

    • Yes, you’ve put your finger on the biggest division within evolutionary biology: paleontology vs. pop gen. But I’m going to keep disagreeing with you and still insist evolutionary biology is a lot more coherent than ecology. That’s why Mark Vellend is trying to import the high-level conceptual unity of evolutionary biology into community ecology: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2016/12/19/book-review-the-theory-of-ecological-communities-by-mark-vellend/ And even if he succeeds, he’ll only have succeeded in imposing coherence on one subfield of ecology!

      • I really appreciate Vellend’s treatment. I just saw that Mark McPeek has published a book in the same series, “Evolutionary Community Ecology.” He says, “[t]he goal of this book is to develop a unified framework for understanding the structure of ecological communities, the dynamics of natural selection that shape the evolution of the species inhabiting those communities, and the speciation and biogeographic processes that introduce new species to communities. Consequently, this book synthesizes the ecological and evolutionary dynamics generated by species interactions to structure both local biological communities and regional metacommunities.” I wonder if any of the readers here has had a chance to read this?

  3. I decided not to vote in this poll because I’m not convinced the characterization of math (and your whole idea of a coherent discipline) is correct. In pure math, my observation is that professors in different subdisciplines don’t really have a good understanding of the other subdiscipline (with the exception of many mathematically gifted generalists like a Terry Tao, but still the minority). It is widely held true that while giving a job talk in a math department that you should have at least one or two slides that the entire audience will not understand. It is a sign of “proving your chops.” If people don’t understand one another’s subdiscipline, then perhaps greater trust is required. Perhaps ecology is in this gray area where people (at least think) they understand ecological subdisciplines outside their area of expertise and therefore feel free to disagree with fundamental questions of importance and novelty. It is hard to have these sorts of disagreements about a subfield you do not understand.

    Alternatively, Jeff might be right in that ecology is more of a subdiscipline of biology. Then what is really happening is that there is a lot of disagreement within the subdiscipline (where there is mostly agreement within the subdisciplines of math & physics). Perhaps it has to do with fields with more data and less noise (considering math as special pure case, with pure logic and no noise). More noise leads to more disagreement because it is difficult to prove a theory true or universal … I think this comment ended up being a bit of ramble.

    • Interesting! I was waiting for somebody to (rightly!) question my understanding of any discipline besides ecology…

      “Perhaps it has to do with fields with more data and less noise”

      Could be. I know in the post I held up History as a counterexample to this line of thought, claiming that history is a coherent scholarly discipline even though the subject matter is very “noisy”. But maybe I’m completely wrong about the disciplinary coherence of History!

  4. I could imagine that one possible reason for ecology to appear to be a mess to outsiders is that it has so many different applied “sister disciplines” that also strongly affect the thinking within ecology. For instance take fisheries management versus conservation biology, two fields that might look at the same system with very different motivations and objectives.

    • Interesting suggestion. There’s a loose analogy here to countries that share borders with a diverse mix of other countries vs. with few others. One that I lack the knowledge to pursue even a little ways.

  5. Mmmm. When I think of ecology, I see good (creative) scientists but a lot of hand waving and story telling. I would not call it a mess; perhaps a diversified patchwork. If I had to point one direction, I would say it has to do with how we sell our research and communicate our science.

  6. I was once asked on the spot to list the subdisciplines of ecology. We certainly don’t even slice up our pie (whatever our pie) is as standardly as many fields do.

    But broadly it seems to me that population/community/macroecology even biogeography and paleoecology all have a common core. Kreb’s definition of ecology as the study of “the distribution and abundance of organisms” pulls these together quite well. Then there is ecosystem ecology which to my mind has had little coherence with the cluster I named first. Doesn’t mean its not ecology or not important. But I’ve never been able to find a definition of ecology that nicely and convincingly ties those two bundles together. And of course this split has been at the heart of a lot of arguments over funding etc.

    Then as already noted we have a lot of “overlap” fields where some members are clearly ecologists and some are clearly not. For example physiology, animal behavior. Personally I think conservation, fisheries and wildlife fit fairly well in the first cluster except when they get into human dimensions.

    I tend to agree with Raphael (which seems to be a common event) that we’re coherent enough. Our messes come from other dimensions, primarily not agreeing how we measure progress towards our common goals and how to move towards those goals.

    • “Kreb’s definition of ecology as the study of “the distribution and abundance of organisms” pulls these together quite well. Then there is ecosystem ecology which to my mind has had little coherence with the cluster I named first. Doesn’t mean its not ecology or not important. But I’ve never been able to
      find a definition of ecology that nicely and convincingly ties those two bundles together.”

      Yeah, it’s no accident that Cooper ran into this same problem in his book. It wasn’t just him, it reflects a real split in the field. See also failed attempts to bridge that split. Biodiversity-ecosystem function research was pushed as a way to bridge the split, in particular by Michel Loreau. But in practice, I think it is and always has been mostly something community ecologists are into, and that ecosystem ecologists don’t really see as serious ecosystem ecology. (pushback welcome on that claim!)

      • So many researchers here (Minnesota) are invested in studying species/community influences on nutrient and energy cycling that I never really considered that community and ecosystem ecology could be considered disunified — even though I agree that it’s tough to define ecology in a way that includes all of what we conventionally consider ecology.

        I also have an undergraduate degree in anthropology, and I was interested about equally in the cultural and physical sides. I don’t think our disunity in ecology is anywhere near as deep as it is in ecology. (EDIT from Jeremy: I assume there’s a typo here and you mean that ecology’s disunity is nowhere deep as in anthropology, right?)

      • Kreb’s definition of ecology as the study of “the distribution and abundance of organisms”

        Really?! as a non ecologist I find that definition surprising because it says nothing about interactions.

      • I have been waiting all my life for this moment: I cite here from my thesis intro:

        “Before I go into the details of food-web theory and functional responses it seems worthwhile to recapitulate what the subject I have been dealing with is all about:

        “Ecology is the scientific study of the interactions that determine the distribution
        and abundance of organisms” (Krebs 2001).

        Although Häckel (1866) primarily introduced the term “ecology” almost 150
        years ago, it was not until Krebs’ definition (firstly formulated in the early
        1970ies) that the central importance of interactions has been carved out word by
        word. …”

        😉

      • @jim

        well presumably species interactions play a major role in determining the distribution and abundance of organisms (as does climate, human land use change, physiology, disease, etc). Its really quite a broad definition when you think about it.

        @gregor – glad we could bring you fulfillment of a life-long goal! That’s what we aim for at Dynamic Ecology. 🙂

    • “broadly it seems to me that population/community/macroecology even biogeography and paleoecology all have a common core.”

      Is this really true Brian? I’ve always thought of population ecology as emerging from agricultural sciences and pest/disease control, whereas biogeography comes initially from systematic work on plants (e.g. Joseph Hooker) and animals (early bird work, Wallace’s line, etc.). Likewise paleoecology comes from Quaternary archaeology and Holocene vegetation analysis, the latter being the initial reason for the establishment of the British Ecological Society from the British Vegetation Committee.

      I think this goes to show that ecology’s roots are (a) diverse and (b) subject to very individual interpretations of its origins! This is also true of sub-disciplines, e.g. “pollination ecology” brings in approaches and techniques from animal behaviour, botany, physiology, biogeography/macroecology, agriculture, etc. etc. Depending on your background and training it’s possible to be a “pollination ecologist” with either a zoological or a botanical bent, though there’s lots to be gained from being bent both ways (if you see what I mean…)

      • Can’t disagree with your last paragraph!

        But I think you put your finger on splits in some other fields. Biogeography in particular clearly has a dual personality. I remember going to the first IBS meeting. Half the people showed maps. Half the people showed phylogenies and the two groups barely talked to each other. When I think of biogeography I tend to think of the first half. And it seems you tend to think of the second half. Which I guess proves your point!

      • I think this is currently being born out on the ecoevojobs board; positions are popping up from a wide range of (sub?)disciplines from genomics to biogeochemistry to environmental health to microbial parthenogenesis and more. It comes across as a mess but then someone chimes in that “yes, an ecologist can teach anatomy” or “an ecologist can have research that touches on aspects of marine policy.” They’re probably right and it goes to show how hard it is to define a discipline’s borders.

      • Interesting example. Although I tend to think of the breadth of listings on ecoevojobs.net as mostly just reflecting people’s understandable eagerness to not overlook any faculty job opportunities no matter how remote. If the faculty job market didn’t have so many people chasing so few tenure track jobs, would ecoevojobs.net have so many listings of jobs that aren’t “ecology” except under the loosest possible definition?

    • fwiw, I agree that there is a disunity between ecosystem and community ecology. I practice the former, and am familiar with the latter. The interesting thing is to figure out what is the difference, if any, between “ecosystem ecology” and “biogeochemistry”. The best I can do is to say that ecosystem ecology is biogeochemistry studied at a scale where plant (and animal) populations and their interactions matter (but this is not totally satisfactory). I think a lot of these disciplinary distinctions come down to varying ‘schools of thought/method’ on how to study substantially the same thing. So for instance, most of what we identify as “ecosystem ecology” right now is a tradition loosely associated with Terry Chapin. By contrast, the brothers Odum (and particularly Howard) had a somewhat different vision, and there are still folks working within that lineage (including here at University of Florida, where the focus is on wetlands). So now that I think of it, preferred study system may also play a role…

  7. I voted because, well, who can resist a radio button (do they still call them that?).

    Like ScientistSeesSquirrel, I debate whether not being a unified discipline is bad. Better, certainly, than everyone agreeing in lockstep on precisely the wrong things – like (coughs) Eknmx, say.

    But what divides ecologists. I’d say that, as subdisciplines, behavioural ecology and community ecology are kind of “out there”. I’ve also been accused of teaching “environmental sciences” instead of ecology because I put some Earth System Science in my Ecology course. Weird. What else? I think ecologists are potentially divided by their statistical methods. We have Baysians, those who worship at the (faddish) church of the mixed effects models, and, probably, those who insist that if descriptive statistics simple correlations and rank tests were good enough for McArthur, then they’re good enough for me.

  8. Via Twitter, Don Yee suggests ecology’s lack of disciplinary coherence is a matter of intermingling science and advocacy (click through for his full tweetstorm):

    Still mulling that over.

      • Yeah and ask the folks involved in the Manhattan project (atomic bomb development) if they were involved in policy and if in hindsight they wish they had paid more attention to the policy implications.

    • And now with 212 responses in, it’s clear the curve is centered towards the “disunified” end of the distribution. “3” and “4” are about equally common responses, and are the two most common responses. Then “2”, then “5”, with “1” (highly unified and coherent) bringing up the rear.

  9. It’s one discipline with several component parts, as oceanography is. Physical, chemical. Biological, statistical and so on. This one could run and run!

    • Good point. It does seem like there’s an important difference between a discipline that is disunified in the way that anthropology is, and a discipline that’s disunified in the way that oceanography or (arguably) ecology is.

      So, how many different ways are there for a putative discipline to be disunified? Are disunified disciplines like unhappy families (“every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” – Tolstoy)?

      If you asked, say, physical oceanographers to evaluate a paper on biological oceanography, would you get a lot of them expressing very strong opinions spanning the full range from “paper of the year candidate” to “utter rubbish”? Or would the physical oceanographers mostly agree in their evaluations? Or would they mostly demur because “that’s not my field”? Or what? (aside: I’m now kicking myself for not giving the poll respondents on my spatial hydra effect paper a “can’t say how good this paper is; it’s not my field” option)

    • “This one could run and run!”

      Nah. If I’d written this post three years ago, we’d have had 50 comments by now instead of only 22. And the conversation would’ve remained active all day and well into the next day, instead of mostly petering out in a few hours. Our comment threads are a lot less active than they used to be.

  10. Relevant to today’s post, from a prominent economist who’s been talking to a physicist about how peer review works in those disciplines: http://www.rogerfarmer.com/rogerfarmerblog/2017/9/24/on-refereeing-do-we-have-confidence-in-our-economic-institutions. Quoting the relevant bit:

    “In physics, a researcher is rightfully upset if she does not receive feedback [from reviewers] within a month. And that feedback involves short comments and an up or down decision. In physics, there is far less of a hierarchy of journals. Publications are swift and many journals have equal weight in promotion and tenure decisions.

    I do not know why economics and physics are so different but I suspect that it is related to the fact that economics is not an experimental science. In macroeconomics, in particular, there are often many competing explanations for the same limited facts and it would be destructive to progress if every newly minted graduate student were to propose their own new theory to explain those facts. Instead, internal discipline is maintained by a priestly caste who monitor what can and cannot be published. ”

    Consider the example of ecology, discuss.

  11. I don’t think any discipline is ‘coherent’, by the definition you provide. Every umbrella discipline has many subsets of researchers who build knowledge in that discipline from a different perspective and disagree with each other on the ‘best’ way to do it. And I agree with other commenters…that’s not a bad thing, it increases knowledge and diversity of thought processes. History is not a coherent discipline, by your definition. In fact, there’s a whole discipline (historiography) to study the different ways that historians study history.

    I think ‘what is a discipline?’ is loosely defined and subjective. But maybe Ecology (the discipline) has evolved beyond its original categorisation. The traditional hierarchy is that Biology is the overarching discipline of life sciences, and Ecology is a sub-discipline within Biology. This is simply because of how the disciplines developed historically, and because ecology is the younger science. But in terms of scale, ecology has the broadest approach – interactions between organisms and with their environment, including humans – while Biology is largely focused at cell or organism scale. So maybe ecology should replace biology as the foundational discipline of life sciences? Or maybe ecology has now evolved into a whole separate branch of science in its own right?

  12. The question of whether ecology has evolved into a stand-alone field sort of reminds of the jellyfish creation story from Daniel Quinn’s “Ishmael.” It seems to turn a semantic argument into a self-centered world-view. The comment I had actually intended to write before thinking of this, however, was that I’m in favor of “being mean.” More precisely, I think avoidance of Allyn Kimball’s “error of the third kind” is often more important than avoidance of the other kinds. My favorite example is the story of how Abraham Wald figured out where to armor-plate WWII bombers (told here: https://www.fastcodesign.com/1671172/how-a-story-from-world-war-ii-shapes-facebook-today).

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