We talk a lot around here about ecological controversies–asking why some ecological ideas become controversial, and polling ecologists on what they think about currently-controversial ideas.
But how do ecological controversies end? I can think of several possibilities:
- The controversy gets resolved in favor of one side or the other, at least in the eyes of most people. Example: the late-90s controversy over whether effects of biodiversity on ecosystem function in “random draws” experiments are driven by a “sampling effect”. Resolved by widespread adoption of the Loreau & Hector (2001) additive partition and related approaches. (well, resolved except maybe in the eyes of a few holdouts)
- The controversy gets resolved because everyone agrees that both sides were partially right. That is, everyone agrees that the answer to the controversial question is “it depends”, or “one side is right X% of the time, the other side is right 100-X% of the time”, or “one side is right under conditions Y and Z, the other side is right under other conditions”. This is purportedly the way all ecological controversies get resolved, but based on our poll data it’s actually not easy to find examples of ecological controversies that get resolved in this way! Though I can think of a few. The controversy over whether local-regional richness relationships typically are linear or saturating, for instance.
- The controversy gets resolved when both sides turn out to be totally wrong. I’m thinking for instance of 19th century debates about the age of the Earth. As far as I know (please correct me if I’m wrong!), everyone involved missed on the low side.
- The controversy gets resolved by a Hegelian synthesis of both sides’ opposing views. That is, a synthesis that shows that both sides had a point, but they also shared some blind spots. Synthesizing the views of both sides not only resolves the controversy (or points the way to showing how it could be resolved), but also raises new questions that both sides had overlooked. That’s more or less how the density-dependence vs. density-independence debate in population ecology was resolved (Bjornstad & Grenfell 2001).
- The controversy devolves into two opposing camps who keep repeating the same points, while everyone else stops caring about the issue. Based on our poll results, that’s more or less how the controversy over ratio-dependent functional responses looks to be resolving itself. And further back, I think the SLOSS debate might be another example? As a grad student back in the late 90s, I recall David Ehrenfeld telling a class that, as EiC of Conservation Biology, he’d decided to stop publishing SLOSS papers because nobody had anything new to say on the issue.
- The controversy stops without being resolved because everybody, including the main participants, stops caring about the issue. Can’t think of any examples of this in ecology off the top of my head.
- The controversy gets resolved because it’s shown to not actually be a controversy. Ziebarth et al. (2010) is a possible example, showing that a famous old controversy over population regulation should never have been a controversy at all. There was actually no conflict between the claims the claims of the opposing camps. The whole debate was premised on a misunderstanding of the implications of the relevant empirical evidence. An example from evolutionary biology is Robert Mark’s brilliant demonstration that the whole debate over “spandrels” was premised on misunderstandings of architecture on the part of all the main participants.
- The controversy doesn’t get resolved and just runs forever. P-values, anyone?
It would be interesting (and hard) to compile data on the frequency with which ecological controversies get resolved in different ways, and try to explain why different controversies were resolved differently. It would also be interesting to know if ecological controversies tend to get resolved differently these days than they used to. For instance, do more empirical controversies get resolved in favor of “it depends” these days, thanks to the widespread adoption of meta-analysis?