We talk a lot around here about the opinions of ecologists as a group, and the direction of the field of ecology as a whole (e.g. this, this, this). The opinion of the field as a whole on any broad topic is an amalgam of the opinions of specialists and non-specialists. The specialists work on the topic. But they’re generally outnumbered by the non-specialists who’ve read a couple of papers on the topic, or seen a few talks on it, or heard about it from colleagues, or read about it in a textbook, or etc.
Sometimes, the opinions of the non-specialists will reflect those of the specialists; the non-specialists just take their cues from the specialists. But sometimes, the opinions of the non-specialists and the specialists will differ. For instance, this might occur when early research on a topic makes a big splash and becomes widely known and influential, and later specialist work revising or even refuting the early research gets much less play. Or, one could imagine a subfield that specialists all think is very exciting, but that non-specialist outsiders see as stagnant or insular. And I’m sure there are other reasons why opinions of specialists and non-specialists might differ. And when they do, it’s not necessarily the case that the specialists are right and the non-specialists wrong.
Hence my question: on what ecological or evolutionary topics do you think specialists and non-specialists have the most divergent opinions?
Here’s a candidate: r-K selection. People who don’t specialize in life history theory regard r-K selection as a foundational idea in evolutionary ecology. As evidenced by the fact that it’s still in many undergraduate ecology textbooks, still widely taught to undergrads, and still widely cited in papers that refer to life history theory but aren’t really about life history theory. But specialists in life history theory long ago moved on from r-K selection, regarding it as a poor way to express a germ of truth. For the record, and emphasizing that I’m speaking as a non-specialist, I’m with the specialists on this one.
Here’s another candidate: network theory. Ecological networks include things like plant-pollinator networks and food webs. The species are “nodes”, and two nodes are “linked” if they interact with one another (e.g., as predator and prey) or are connected in some fashion. Lots of things within and outside ecology can be described as “networks” of nodes and links–the world wide web (websites linked by hyperlinks), power grids, coauthorship networks, etc. A lot of empirical work describes the structures of ecological networks, and compares them to one another and to non-ecological networks. And there’s a lot of theoretical work on topics like whether certain network structures are “stable” in some sense, thus possibly explaining why some network structures are observed and others aren’t. It’s my admittedly-anecdotal and quite-possibly-wrong impression that many ecologists who work on networks (a category that has included me from time to time!) are really into them. Whereas many ecologists who don’t work on networks see them as an epiphenomenon too abstracted from “real” biology to be all that interesting. My own feelings on this one are mixed and possibly based on outdated impressions; I haven’t worked on ecological networks for years.
If you count evolutionary psychology as part of evolutionary biology, then it probably has to be on this list. Specialists in the field and outsiders have infamously-opposing opinions of the whole enterprise.
I emphasize that I’m not criticizing researchers who specialize on any of these topics (or researchers who don’t!). I just find it interesting, from a sociology of science perspective, to think about cases in which specialists and non-specialists see a topic very differently.