Just finished reading this very interesting 1971 address to the American Economics Association by Harry Johnson. He asks what determined the speed of the Keynesian revolution in economics, and the monetarist counter-revolution. In it, he suggests that a revolutionary theory has the following five characteristics:
- It has to attack–and ideally reverse–the central theoretical proposition of the prevailing orthodoxy. Ideally, the motivation for the attack should the inability of orthodox theory to explain some important empirical data.
- It has to be new, but yet also incorporate as much as possible of the less-disputable bits of the prevailing orthodoxy. Pulling off this apparently-contradictory trick generally requires putting old wine in new bottles: renaming established concepts without admitting that you’re doing so. It also can involves shifts in emphasis, for instance by emphasizing the importance and non-obviousness of points that were previously considered unimportant and obvious.
- It has to be too difficult for senior people to bother to understand, and somewhat-difficult-but-not-too-difficult for junior people to master. This gives junior people a way to work around the conservatism of senior leaders in the field, a reward for doing so, and a sense of belonging to a shared intellectual project.
- It has to offer some low-hanging fruit, especially to empirically-oriented researchers (as opposed to theoreticians). Ideally, it will give the junior people who master it a straightforward, “crank the handle” methodology for producing publications.
- It has to pick out a new, measurable empirical pattern or relationship. A stylized fact that empiricists can target for further investigation. This goes hand in hand with #4.
This story seems to fit the potted history of 20th century macroeconomics pretty well, though of course I’m no expert. So here’s my question: does it fit any revolutions in ecology? And does lack of any of the 5 attributes on this little list explain the failure of any attempted revolutions in ecology?
Just off the top of my head, I’m not sure ecology has had any revolutions that fit this scheme perfectly. Maybe that’s because, to have a revolution, there has to be an orthodoxy to revolt against? Can a scientific field in which there is no prevailing orthodoxy, or that arguably isn’t even a single discipline at all, be revolutionized?
The MacArthurian revolution starting in the late ’50s does seem like it fits some of the items on this list (see also). I’d say it fit #3-5 fairly well, and arguably #2 as well. Not so sure about #1 though.
The counter-revolution against (what was taken to be) the MacArthurian view in the late ’70s and early ’80s (the “null model wars” et al.) definitely fit #1 and I suppose arguably fit #3-4. Not sure about the others.
The attempted revolution of Hubbell’s neutral theory definitely appeared to have #1, 2, 4, and 5. (Aside: neutral theory is a great case study for how an idea can take off in part by being widely misunderstood). Not sure about #3 though. And the revolution failed once everybody realized that it didn’t actually have #1 and #4.
What do you think? Have there been revolutions in ecology, and if so, have they fit this 5-part template? Looking forward to your comments, as always.