In an old post, I shared the biggest ecological idea I’ve ever changed my mind about, and invited readers to share theirs. Today’s post is a variant on that: what’s the biggest ecological idea about which any ecologist has ever had a change of mind?
I’m most interested in changes of mind by ecologists who are or were prominent enough to have widely-known views. Has any prominent ecologist ever done the equivalent of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who famously developed two completely different theories of language and meaning, the second of which refutes the first? I can’t think of any off the top of my head, but that may just show that my memory and/or knowledge of the history of ecology leave something to be desired.
Casual googling reveals various cases of prominent scientists in other fields changing their minds about important topics within their area of expertise. Geologist Wallace Broecker changed his mind about the cause of the Younger Dryas cold spell. Climatologist Stephen Schneider changed his mind about the contribution of human activities to global warming. Astronomer Michael Brown’s own discoveries changed his mind about whether Pluto is a planet. Richard Lewontin dismissed the Price equation as trivial and uninteresting when he first learned about it, then later changed his mind. Further back, Charles Darwin famously changed his mind about the importance of Lamarckian evolution, allowing a greater role for it in the 6th edition of the Origin than the first edition. Years ago The Edge asked prominent scientists what they’d changed their minds about, but many of the responses were about matters outside the respondents’ area of greatest expertise, or stretched the definition of “change of mind”.
There’s a cynical old joke that science advances one death at a time. It would be interesting to try to quantify the extent to which the joke is true. Quantify the extent to which the consensus view on some important scientific topic changed due to scientists changing their minds, vs. scientists with one view dying (or retiring or switching to other areas of research) and being replaced by scientists with other views. Has this been done?
I raise this topic just because I think it’s interesting to think about, not because I think ecologists should change their minds any more or less often than they do. Indeed, I have no idea how often ecologists change their minds, and have no reason to think it’s any more or less often than for other scientists.