Scientific controversies provide a fascinating window into the collective scientific process. The cartoon idealized image of science is a rigorous process, conducted by objective individuals, that converges on the truth. Which makes it mysterious why there would ever be scientific controversies, as opposed to mere uncertainty due to lack of evidence.
But for scientific controversies to give insight into how science actually works, you have to know which scientific ideas actually are controversial, or to what extent they’re controversial. That’s not always easy to figure out, even for scientists themselves! For instance, the scientists who publish on an idea generally are only a minority of the scientists with an opinion on the idea, and not a randomly-sampled minority. So you can’t always read the literature and tell the difference between, say, an idea that splits scientific opinion down the middle, and an idea on which most scientists believe X but a vocal minority believe not-X (see here and here for discussion).
Hence this poll! It lists a number of controversial or possibly-controversial ecological ideas. Indicate whether you think each idea is definitely false (“1”), definitely true (“5”), or somewhere in between. You don’t have to be an expert on the idea to express an opinion, and there’s an opportunity at the end to indicate your level of expertise on each idea. Please skip any idea with which you’re totally unfamiliar, rather than choosing “3”; “3” is for people who have a mixed opinion on the idea, not no opinion.
I recognize that “false” and “true” might not be the best gradient along which to arrange opinion about some of these ideas. But it’s hard to do a fun poll on other possibilities. 🙂 So just do the best you can. For instance, if you think the idea in question isn’t so much “false” as vague or misapplied, then you’d probably pick an option somewhere from 1-3, depending on just how vague/misapplied you think the idea is and how optimistic you are that the vagueness/misapplications are fixable.
Each idea is stated briefly, without caveats or elaboration, the way it might be summarized in a textbook or in the beginning of a paper. That’s the only practical way to poll on this. Plus, arguably the reason why ecological ideas become both widespread and controversial is by getting stripped of details, nuance, and caveats. By polling on simple statements of each idea, I think I’m polling on the version of each idea that’s recognizable and relevant to the greatest number of ecologists.
Obviously this poll won’t take a random sample of ecologists. In particular, I’m sure that the respondents will be more likely than a randomly-chosen ecologist to share my opinions on the ideas that I’ve blogged about. But hopefully we’ll get enough respondents from a broad enough cross-section of ecologists for the results to be worth talking about.
p.s. Sorry if this poll omits an idea you wish it had included. I tried to include a range of ideas from various areas of ecology, including both old and current controversies. I also tried to include ideas that I think split ecological opinion down the middle, and ideas on which I think there’s actually a consensus (whether justified or not).
p.p.s. I’m very curious whether the ideas that I think are the most controversial actually are the most controversial! For instance, in an old post I talked about how I thought for a long time that microcosm experiments were a very controversial approach in ecology. But in retrospect, I’m not sure that feeling was justified. I think it was more that, as a microcosmologist, I tended to pay lots of attention to the rare cases of somebody criticizing microcosms, and so didn’t realize that there’s actually quite broad support for microcosm work in ecology. Microcosm critics are a small and uninfluential–but vocal–minority.
p.p.p.s. to anxious students who see the subject of their thesis research in this poll: don’t worry about it. Nobody–not your committee members, not reviewers of your papers, not journal editors, nobody–is going to evaluate you or your work differently just because the topic of your thesis research was listed in this poll, or because of how respondents vote in this poll. And learning that some, or even many, ecologists disagree with you about your thesis topic should not cause you to worry about your career prospects. Indeed, scientific controversies are good research opportunities; making a substantial contribution to resolving one is great for your career.