The great Dynamic Ecology controversial ideas poll!

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.

17 thoughts on “The great Dynamic Ecology controversial ideas poll!

    • Yeah, I’m excited to see the results of this poll too. 🙂

      Thanks for the heads up re: google forms not letting you change your answer. That’s weird, don’t understand why they’d design it that way. Surely wouldn’t be hard to let people change their answers.

      • I can confirm from a non-DE survey I was involved in that it is that badly designed. Once you hit a radio button, you are committed to picking one. You cannot unclick to indicate no answer.

  1. Some of these are open to interpretation. The one I paused longest on was functional traits being indicative about species interactions. All depends on what traits you use. If you use some of the most currently faddish traits no. But e.g. all the niche separation by beak size in birds is exactly species interactions from functional traits. So depends about whether you’re really asking about the current fad or on a deeper level.

    • Just some of them? 🙂

      As I said in the post, that’s kind of the point. One source of controversy in science is uncertainty or disagreement about exactly what’s being claimed. In part that’s because lots of people rely on textbook summaries that gloss over lots of details. But it’s in part for other reasons. For instance, historian and philosopher of science David Hull argued that controversial scientific ideas succeed in part when their supporters can change the nature and scope of the idea so as to incorporate or defuse criticisms, *without admitting they’ve done so* (or sometimes, even *realizing* they’ve done so). Hull used punctuated equilibrium in evolutionary biology as an example, IIRC.

      • I’ll have to look up the Hull article (or is it book?). I think you could certainly use neutral theory as an example in ecology.

      • It was a Hull article IIRC, not his book on science as a selection process (that focuses on phyletics vs. cladistics).

        Interesting that you’d see neutral theory as an example of this in ecology. That wouldn’t have been the first ecological example I’d have come up with. Can you elaborate?

      • To my mind neutral theory has morphed from:
        1) Demographic equivalence leading to demographic stochasticity as the primary factor driving observed community patterns
        2) Its a useful null model
        3) Every system has some stochasticity and dispersal limitation so everything is on a continuum from deterministic to stochastic

        The first was a rather bold claim that ultimately got proved wrong. And so promoters fell back on #2 (which I agree with) and then ultimately to #3 (which I think is so obvious, trivial and already known that it is a very unflattering outcome for neutral theory if that is the strongest conclusion it led to).

        Hubbell in particular was very good at bouncing back and forth between #1 and #2 even in the same talk.

      • I think it’s to Graham Bell’s great credit that a big chunk of the discussion section of one of his papers on neutral theory carefully distinguishes “neutral theory’s assumptions are true” (your #1) from “neutral theory is a useful approximation for some purposes because it makes correct predictions even though its assumptions are false” (which isn’t too far from your #2).

      • I would agree Graham has been thoughtful and careful in his interpretation of neutral theory. I think you could say the same about John Harte’s MaxEnt. So what does it say that Hubbell got the most mileage out of his more chameleon version of neutral theory?

      • “So what does it say that Hubbell got the most mileage out of his more chameleon version of neutral theory?”

        Hmm, not sure. Maybe nothing. After all, there are various other things that might explain why Steve Hubbell’s version of neutral theory took off and Graham Bell’s was largely ignored. Hubbell was much more famous among ecologists than Bell. Hubbell published his theory in a Princeton Monography while Bell stuck to papers. Other differences. And it could just have been happenstance; maybe if you rewound the tape of life and played it again it’d be Bell’s version that captured everyone’s attention.

  2. I really enjoyed the opportunity to think about where my own limits or knowledge gaps were, and to see the general bias from my professional life carry over into my ideas about ecology that have changed or become more prominent since my days as an undergraduate. Since I’m not in academia, I consider my biases to come from my work for non-profits that were heavily geared towards conservation and land use on a local or regional level, rather than purely on research. Now, working at a university (as a technician, not as faculty), I can see shifts in my previously stronger biases…reflections, the unintended consequence of this poll!

  3. Pingback: Poll results: here’s what our readers think about some of the most controversial ideas in ecology | Dynamic Ecology

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