On what ecological topics do the opinions of specialist and non-specialist researchers differ most?

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.

8 thoughts on “On what ecological topics do the opinions of specialist and non-specialist researchers differ most?

  1. I think when it comes to conservation biology, many non-specialists don’t seem to appreciate the role of sustainable harvests (in areas where that is an important socioeconomic factor, such as the US).

    Similarly, it appears many non-specialists are unaware that social factors matter just as much, if not more, than ecological factors when dealing in applied conservation decision making.

  2. “many ecologists who don’t work on networks see them as an epiphenomenon too abstracted from “real” biology to be all that interesting.”

    Hold my beer, I’ve got this: as someone who’s worked a lot on plant-pollinator (and other) networks I’ve never understood why some pollination ecologists don’t see a network approach as being important for addressing _some_ types of questions in the field. There are those who dismiss them out of hand. I think in part this because they have never spent any time trying to really understand them, and perhaps also because some network metrics are difficult to conceptualise to what’s really happening in the natural world. For example I _cannot_ wrap my head around the notion of weighted nestedness, it just feels conceptually wrong (abstract?) to me. But overall ecological networks of interactions are far from being abstract: in general they are showing patterns of real ecology, what real species do to/with one another.

    The field has moved on hugely in the past decade and there are various groups taking some interesting approaches such as experimentally manipulating networks in the field, adding in ever more sophisticated flower and pollinator traits, etc. Lots to get excited about.

    But staying with plant-pollinator interactions, one topic that specialists are starting to agree on and which generalists probably don’t get is the relative importance of bees versus other animals as pollinators. Groups such as flies (Diptera) are just as important, and in some parts of the world bees are relatively unimportant compared to other groups. Yet bees get much of the attention.

      • Yes, agreed, it’s huge and covers computing, social science, medical sciences, etc. etc.

        Your last point is a good one and perhaps integrating network ecology into “mainstream” ecology would be an interesting next step for the field?

    • Perhaps trying to convince ecologists that there are different questions that are really cool science is worthwhile here; its the hard task. Partly because of historical inertia, and partly because ecology is so dedicated to things like understanding production, diversity, etc that people are too busy to pay attention to things that dont appear to support that research direction. I include my own work on life history invariants in the category of ‘passed by’.

  3. I’m getting a bit off the subject here, but do you think we should stop teaching r-K selection, or is it still a useful way of classifying organisms?

    Regarding your questions – it seems to me that, when speaking of habitat loss and fragmentation, non-specialists may still refer to island biogeography, but the field has moved on to understand landscapes in a more complex manner. But both specialists and non-specialists tend to agree that habitat loss is bad for biodiversity; there are different opinions about habitat fragmentation without habitat loss.

    • Yes, we should stop teaching r/k as a classification scheme[ or a simple causal scheme]
      …… really there are big bodied spp [ with long lifespans & long age’s of maturity, and sometimes big kids] and small bodied spp [ with short lifespans & short ages’ of maturity]. then we should teach something about when natural selection favors one vs the other, which will involve talking about fitness maximization in the face of constraints, of which the most universal is the mortality cost of getting big,…. aka the cost of delaying first reproduction . Only then can we discuss how we conceptualize fitness, including density dependence and density independence measures. we can also then talk about selection for many small kids vs selection for few large, the problem of how reproductive allocation is divided up.

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