Recently, I was amused to read opponents of randomized experiments in developmental economics complaining that randomized experiments are “crowding out” other approaches. An accusation that turns out to be simply false if you tally up what sorts of papers journals actually publish. The fraction of developmental economics papers that report results of randomized experiments is growing but remains a modest-sized minority of all papers.
I found this amusing because the same groundless argument gets used in ecology all the time. There are people who think (falsely) that meta-analyses are crowding out other sorts of ecology papers. There are people who think (falsely) that quantitative ecology faculty positions are crowding out other sorts of ecology faculty positions. Etc. Somehow, it’s comforting to learn that other fields have the same silly fights ecology does. I’m half-tempted to generalize from these examples, and propose Jeremy’s Law of Complaining About New Things: everybody who doesn’t like [new thing] just reflexively complains that [new thing] is crowding out [old thing].**
Ok, snark aside, here’s a serious and I think interesting question: are there any examples of a particular question/approach/method/etc. completely taking over an entire scholarly field (or reasonably-large subfield)? To the point where you can’t expect to have a career in that field, or publish in that field, unless you work on that question, or use that approach, or etc.? And in the cases where this has happened, are there any in which it later became clear that the takeover was a bad thing? That it would’ve been better, in retrospect, for the field to maintain a greater diversity of questions/approaches/methods/whatever?
I ask because I suspect that such such takeovers are fairly rare, and that when they do happen they usually happen for good reasons. So whenever somebody claims that “[thing] is taking over my field, crowding out [other things], and that’s bad”, you should have a strong prior that both those claims are false. My claim here is not that every little “pendulum swing” in a field’s questions/methods/approaches is always an improvement (it’s not!). I’m merely claiming that (i) it’s rare for pendulum swings to go so far that the pendulum never swings back, and (ii) that the rare pendulum swings that are never reversed are mostly good things.***
For instance, a long time ago it used to be the case that you could have a career in ecology, and publish ecology papers, without knowing or using any statistics whatsoever. That’s more or less impossible now, at least in the countries with which I’m familiar. So “statistics” is a set of methods that has more or less completely taken over ecology. But without wanting to claim that ecologists’ collective statistical practices are perfect (nothing’s perfect!), I’d say the statistics takeover was a good thing for ecology on balance.
There are many examples of inarguable methodological advances taking over entire fields. That’s why you can no longer, say, manually sequence DNA. But it’s more interesting to think about other sorts of takeovers.
Years ago, Lee Smolin argued that string theory had taken over fundamental physics, to the detriment of progress in that subfield because other equally-promising theories, and the people pursuing them, were crowded out. I don’t know enough to judge whether Smolin was correct.
I’ve read that “deconstruction” took over many US English departments back in the ’80s and ’90s, to the ultimate detriment of that field. But I don’t know enough to judge whether that’s true or whether, e.g., it was never a complete takeover or only a takeover of certain prominent departments.
What do you think? Do you agree with me that most complaints that a field is being “taken over” by a particular question/method/approach can be dismissed out of hand unless supported by very strong evidence and arguments? Or am I overgeneralizing from the examples that happen to come to my mind? Looking forward to learning from your comments.
*And if you say that any increase in the frequency of any question/method/approach implies that other questions/methods/approaches are being “crowded out” to at least some small extent, you’re saying that some question/method/approach or other is always being “crowded out”. Well, unless the field remains exactly as it is now, forever! Personally, I don’t think “crowding out” should be treated as a synonym of “any and all change in a field’s questions/methods/approaches.”
**Not actually a law, there are too many exceptions.
***I suppose you could argue that the only reason most pendulum swings eventually swing back is because of people complaining about getting crowded out. But that argument vastly overrates the influence of complaints, especially complaints about popular things. For instance, does anyone think that Lindenmayer & Likens’ complaints about meta-analysis in ecology have had any effect whatsoever on the popularity of meta-analysis?