Poll results: which ecological and evolutionary “laws” actually deserve that title? (UPDATED)

Recently, I polled y’all on various ecological and evolutionary laws and rules: Kleiber’s law, Haldane’s rule, the link-species scaling law, etc. Respondents were asked to rate each law on a 3-point scale, from 1 (rarely or never true, or very far from the truth, or true in only very restricted circumstances, or etc., and so definitely not a law) to 3 (definitely a law). Respondents were also asked to indicate their level of expertise on each purported rule/law, and to skip any rules/laws about which they knew nothing. (UPDATE: here’s a view-only link to the spreadsheet of the poll results, so that you can see all the laws that were included in the poll and all the responses.)

I was interested in this for a couple of reasons. One was as a novel starting point for talking about “laws” in ecology and evolution. There is of course a lot of discussion of scientific laws in the ecological and evolutionary literature, much of it from a philosophical point of view. Which is totally fine. But another way to start thinking about laws is just to note that, in practice, ecology and evolutionary biology have various claims that are called “laws” (or “rules”). It’s right there in the name! One of the most basic questions you can ask about those laws/rules is if they’re true (or close to true, or true in a wide range of circumstances, or etc.). Because if they’re not true (or not close enough to true, or etc.), then surely they can’t actually be laws. Looking at the claims that ecologists and evolutionary biologists actually do refer to as “laws”, and at which of those claims are (seen to be) true, might help us see those philosophical discussions in a new light.

The second reason I was interested in this was because I’m interested in scientific agreement and disagreement. Disagreement is a normal part of science–even in contexts in which you’d think there wouldn’t be any scope for disagreement. Such as questions like “Is Kleiber’s law actually a law?”, which you would think would have an objective answer on which all sufficiently knowledgeable experts would agree. We know from an old poll that there are many controversial ideas in ecology on which the experts actually disagree with one another more than the non-experts do. I was curious whether the same was true with regard to ecological laws. Perhaps by looking for patterns in scientists’ agreements and disagreements with one another, we can learn something about why those disagreements persist.

Unfortunately, what with the COVID-19 pandemic having stomped our traffic like a vat of grapes at a winemaking festival, we only got 57 responses. So the results are even more anecdata-y than is usual for our polls. But still, there are a few interesting tidbits that I’m pretty sure are robust to our modest sample size, and so are worth talking about.

Ecologists and evolutionary biologists don’t all agree with one another about anything. We know that from past polls, and this one reinforces the point. Every law on the list had at least a couple of respondents who think it’s definitely a law, and at least a couple who think it’s definitely not. And there was no law on the list which received the same score from >65% of respondents. Now, I suppose it’s possible that a bit of that disagreement is due to different people having different notions of what a “law” is. Like, if you think “law” means “universally applicable, exceptionless true statement”, then you probably won’t think any of the laws in the poll are actually laws. But just eyeballing people’s responses, it doesn’t seem like that explains much of the disagreement.

Most ecological and evolutionary laws are widely seen to have at least some basis in fact. Most of the laws on the list were scored as 2 or 3 by a majority of respondents. Many of these laws were “stylized facts” at the time they were first proposed. Apparently, they mostly still retain something like that status in the eyes of the majority of respondents. Maybe that means that ecologists and evolutionary biologists are pretty good at identifying “stylized facts” that continue to serve as useful research foci long after they’re first proposed. Or maybe it means that ecologists and evolutionary biologists are too slow to give up on purported “stylized facts” even as contrary data accumulate. Discuss.

Some purported laws definitely are laws, at least in many respondents’ eyes. Respondents mostly agreed that the latitudinal species richness gradient, power law species-area curves, Kleiber’s law, and Haldane’s rule are laws. For each of those claims, 40-55% of respondents scored them as “3” (definitely a law), and the majority of the remaining respondents scored them as “2”. All of these laws had a mean score of 2.3-2.4. (aside: yes, yes, I know these are really ordinal scale data and so we really shouldn’t be taking means. But this is just a blog post, means are fine here as quick-and-dirty data summaries.)

Some purported laws definitely are not laws, at least in many respondents’ eyes. Farr’s law and Cope’s rule were the lowest-scoring laws on the list, with mean scores just below 1.5. Both Farr’s law and Cope’s rule got a “1” from >60% of respondents. I have to say, in light of the COVID-19 data, I was very surprised that Farr’s law–the claim that epidemics rise and fall in a symmetrical, bell-shaped curve–didn’t score even worse. Not because COVID-19 is the only counterexample to Farr’s law–it’s not–but just because it’s a counterexample that’s been so prominent in the news lately. I’m genuinely curious to hear comments from anyone scored Farr’s law as a 2 or a 3. Not out to criticize you (although I do respectfully disagree with you, given what I know about disease dynamics). Just honestly curious to hear your thinking.

The most controversial laws. There was no law on the list for which the distribution of opinion was bimodal. But there were three for which the distribution of opinion was fairly close to uniform: Dollo’s law, the link-species scaling law, and Damuth’s law. Dollo’s law received a “3” from 48% of respondents, a “2” from 27%, and a “1” from 24%. The link-species scaling law received a “3” from 23% of respondents, a “2” from 37%, and a “1” from 40%. Damuth’s law received a “3” from 27% of respondents, a “2” from 38%, and a “1” from 35%. It’s interesting to me that the three most controversial laws include one that’s infamously vague (Dollo’s law), one that’s a precise quantitative claim (Damuth’s law), and one that’s intermediate (the link-species scaling law, which says that one variable is proportional to another but doesn’t specify the constant of proportionality). Just eyeballing these admittedly-crude data, I don’t see much sign that the vagueness of a law is an important determinant of how controversial it is.

Experts don’t “fight the law”. This was the most surprising and interesting result to me. For 13/18 laws in the poll, the respondents with the most expertise* scored them higher on average than did all respondents. And the difference in mean scores was pretty substantial–the average expert score for a given law was about 0.7-0.8 higher than average score from all respondents. Here’s a figure:

fig 1

Fig. 1. Mean score of all respondents with an opinion (x-axis) vs. mean score of all expert respondents (y-axis). Each point gives data for one law or rule. Some of the extreme points are labeled. The blue line denotes a 1:1 relationship.

 

Now, it’s possible this is a blip that wouldn’t hold if we polled again. For many laws, we had only 2-3 expert respondents, so there’s a lot of sampling error in the mean expert response. And the respondents who indicated that they were experts on one law often indicated they were experts on some other law(s), so the expert responses for different laws aren’t all independent of one another. But it’s a strong enough trend that it’s maybe worth talking about. I’m particularly intrigued because the trend here runs in the opposite direction to one in our our old poll on controversial ideas in ecology. In that poll, the experts on any given idea were more likely to disbelieve that idea (or less likely to believe it), as compared to all respondents.

Maybe part of what’s going on here is that anyone who goes to the trouble of learning enough about a purported law to become an expert on it presumably thinks there’s something to it. It’s surely rare for anyone to go to the trouble of becoming an expert on some claim that they think is just rubbish,** or to come to believe that some claim they’ve spent years studying is just rubbish.

Can’t really tell if there’s more disagreement among experts than among non-experts. Another striking result from that old poll on controversial ideas was that those ideas were more controversial among experts than non-experts. That is, experts on any given idea disagreed with one another more than did the non-experts. Unfortunately, the sample sizes in this poll are too small to tell if the same is true with regard to opinions about ecological and evolutionary laws.

Looking forward to your comments.

*i.e. the self-described “experts”, except for the two laws for which we had <2 expert respondents. For those two, I also included the respondents with “some” expertise.

**Though I can think of a few examples. For instance.

26 thoughts on “Poll results: which ecological and evolutionary “laws” actually deserve that title? (UPDATED)

  1. It’s interesting that the top 3 laws are of such a different nature.

    The latitudinal gradient is a correlation with a specious variable (latitude). And is certainly extremely commonly true but has well-known exceptions, especially in the marine realm. (And by exceptions I don’t mean the trivial one of finding some genera that go in the opposite direction, but large taxa, orders, classes, phylla that go in the opposite direction.

    Kleiber’s law is variously defined to include exponent of 3/4 or exponent around 3/4 or just a power law increase of metabolic rate with body size (although by putting Kleiber qualification on it, it should probaby include the 3/4 claim). There are no real exceptions at a large taxon level, although it is definitely a statistical law with residuals recognized – there are species and groups that systematically fall above or below the line.

    And the species area power law is on one level almost trivially true – richness can only increase with area so there has to be some monotonically increasing relationship. And a power law with both the exponent and intercept free to vary are going to fit almost any monotonically increasing relationship over a reasonably finite interval of areas. And indeed most experts would agree that the power law part only holds over very finite ranges – it is definitively triphasic over the ranges humans can measure.

    Note – I rated all three of these as a law and myself as an expert in each of these. But they all have exceptions and they all make claims of different strengths and of a different nature (sign of correlation, specific exponent, nature of functional form).

    Which I am sure is why you’re interested in all of this! 🙂

    • Thanks for kicking off the discussion!

      Something I’m curious about, that the poll was too crude to get at: how much variation in opinion is due to people’s differing definitions of “law”, or standards for declaring something a law? I speculated in the post that this isn’t a major source of disagreement. But I’m sure it explains *some* disagreement, especially regarding the claims that have fewer exceptions, like the latitudinal richness gradient and Haldane’s rule. So for instance, you scored the latitudinal richness gradient as a “3”, but I could imagine someone who completely agrees with your summary of the data scoring it as a “2”, on the grounds that those marine exceptions are just too numerous/important for the latitudinal richness gradient to be a law. Or even scoring it as a “1” on the grounds that “laws” have to be exceptionless. Similarly, I wonder how many people said that the power law species area curve isn’t actually a law because it’s really triphasic.

      Looking across the results for all the laws in the poll, to my eye they do seem to roughly correlate with how close the law is to the truth, or with the commonness or rarity of exceptions to the rule. You’ve already summarized the evidence for the three high-scoring ecological laws on which you’re an expert. I’ll add that I learned about Haldane’s rule (a high-scoring evolutionary law) from Allen Orr’s review of the data. At least at the time of Orr’s review, there were a bunch of cases conforming to Haldane’s rule and IIRC there were no exceptions. I remember being shocked at just how clear-cut the evidence was. Conversely, Farr’s law and the link-species scaling law scored low, and I know enough about those two to be pretty confident that the crowd is right. AFAIK, Farr’s law and the link-species scaling law are nowhere close to true enough to be called “laws”, for any reasonable definition of “law” (BTW, happy to get links to evidence showing that I’m wrong!)

      Am now trying to think of cases where I think the crowd is most off-base. Just offhand, I don’t see any case where I think the crowd is way off. But I don’t know enough about many of these laws to really say. I guess I might’ve thought the EER should score higher, and the island rule and Bergmann’s rule should score lower? Don’t take those guesses too seriously, they’re not based on much; I’m not up to date on the EER, island rule, or Bergmann’s rule. Might be an interesting exercise to look up the most recent comprehensive review of each of these laws and see how the crowd’s opinion lines up with the review.

      BTW, I included the latitudinal richness gradient in the poll just because I wanted to include some non-trivial claim that I was pretty sure most people would call a “law”. And I was right, the latitudinal richness gradient’s mean score was as high or higher than that of every other law in the poll! 🙂

      • Yes it does seem like your poll works pretty well as a crowd-sourced alternative to a meta-analysis to see in a probabilistic way how often a law is true.

        For sure different people define the law differently. But for me it would be hard to be an ecologist and insist on 100% conformance to call it a law. The only things that are 100% true in ecology verge on tautologies or weasly conditions (all organisms evolve, all organisms consume and transform energy, all organisms show exponential growth in population size if there are no limits on resources, all organisms show less than exponential growth if there are limits on resources).

        I hypothesize that some variant of your poll could tease out how comfortable respondents are with a probabilistic view of laws (its a law if its usually or almost always true).

      • “I hypothesize that some variant of your poll could tease out how comfortable respondents are with a probabilistic view of laws (its a law if its usually or almost always true).”

        Yeah, in retrospect, adding one additional question to the poll would’ve been an easy way to find out how respondents define “laws”. That would’ve been a good idea. Oh well.

  2. I also find it interesting that opinions differed on energetic equivalence and Damuth’s rule – they’re basically the same law in my mind (or I guess more precisely Damuth’s rule is energetic equivalence+Kleiber 3/4 law – so it is two laws combined).

    I wonder if there is not some regression to the mean on some of the more obscure laws (everybody picks a 2 if they don’t know the law).

    • Aha, I was wondering if anyone would notice the close connections between Kleiber’s law, Damuth’s rule, and the EER! 🙂 Unfortunately, I haven’t had time to dig into the individual poll responses and see if any respondents expressed inconsistent views on those three laws.

      “I wonder if there is not some regression to the mean on some of the more obscure laws (everybody picks a 2 if they don’t know the law).”

      I did the best I could to try to prevent that, by asking people not to express an opinion on any law that they literally knew nothing about. As best I can tell, it seemed to work. The more obscure laws, like Farr’s law, got fewer responses, and a lower proportion of those responses came from experts.

  3. I’m really surprised so many experts support Cope’s law (I’m pretty sure I rated myself an expert and gave it a 1). My understanding of the original law was an increase in body size over evolutionary (millions of year) time within a narrow clade like a genus or family. It is now blatantly clear this is wrong and there are body size trends in all directions within a clade. It has now morphed quite a bit to cover an increase in mean body size over a large clade as it diversifies (like mammals). It certainly holds true in mammals which we have the best data on and which is produced in a figure most often (the minimum is close to constant while the maximum body size grows enormously from about 100g to whales). But this pattern doesn’t even really hold in other tetrapod groups which are more or less flat. This seems to me like a generalization from a few famous examples (horses for the first version, mammals for the second) so I would be really curious to hear somebody who rated themselves as an expert who rated this true? I wonder if this has to do with disciplinary constraints – if you are a mammalogist you think its true?

    • Ah, thanks, I was hoping people would identify other cases where they think the crowd (or the expert portion of the crowd) is off base. I think those cases will be particularly interesting to discuss.

      • Excepting Kleiber, can either of you suggest where one of THESE laws has led to deeper understanding of mechanism , in some sense?; Like Newton law of gravity explaining Kepler’s laws for planetary motion. Or is ecology/evolution destined to have empirical generalizations be its laws. I am very interested in whether/where one can use these rules to dig deeper. Or are they statistical attractors, like the log normal distribution for pop fluctuations( nothing wrong with this, if true…, just less interesting)?

      • Good question! The approach of “find an empirical generalization, then identify some general mechanistic explanation for it” often is cited as one of the main reasons for caring about empirical generalizations in ecology. And Kleiber’s law is indeed everyone’s go-to example of this approach (well, I probably shouldn’t everyone’s go-to example; I know it’s the go-to example for Jim Brown, but I’m not sure about other folks). But if you ask for other successful examples of this approach from ecology, the list does seem to be pretty short.

        I guess it depends in part what your standard for “success” is. Like, even for Kleiber’s law isn’t there still a lot of dispute whether the West et al. explanation is the correct mechanistic explanation? And one could argue that we’ve learned a fair bit about (say) the mechanisms that drive species richness along latitudinal gradients, even if we haven’t really found a one-size-fits-all general explanation for the latitudinal richness gradient. The same could perhaps be said for species-area curves.

        It’s my outsider’s impression that we’ve made a lot of progress on process-based explanations for Haldane’s rule.

        Dollo’s law certainly has inspired a lot of process-based work on convergence, contingency, and reversibility in evolution. Does that could as “leading to deeper understanding of mechanism” in your book?

        But yes, some of the laws/rules on this list seem like statistical attractors to me–Taylor’s law in particular. Whether one thinks statistical attractors are less interesting to study than other sorts of patterns is a matter of taste, I think. I just think the important thing is not to seek a specific mechanistic explanation for a pattern that’s actually a statistical attractor–a pattern that occurs because just about any ol’ mechanism or combination of mechanisms would produce it. If all roads lead to Rome, trying to figure out which particular road “really” leads to Rome is a fool’s errand.

      • Personally I think they mostly are statistical attractors of some sort. Power laws certainly have that nature (or maybe more precisely its just a functional form that is plastic enough to fit almost any monotonic relationship over a finite range). Many other correlational “laws” emerge (I believe) when the 5 or 9 things that could influence the relationship mostly tilt towards the same sign of correlation (e.g. 4 of the 5 factors predict a positive correlation). When the factors go in opposite directions we end up with a large variance centered around zero and don’t call it a law.

        I am OK with that (actually pretty happy with that and feel like it is our lifeboat and best path forward in a complex multicausal field) but I know most ecologists are not (including probably Jeremy and Ric).

        It is interesting to take your examples though. Certainly Newton’s laws are rightly celebrated for predicting Keplers elliptical orbits. But how much did they lead to mechanism? The law of gravitation had no mechanism for 300 years and then had a deeply dissatisfying “mechanim” of mass curves space time (for reasons that are not at all understood beyond the tautological). Even F=ma. We can now “explain” this with ideas like conservation of energy or symmetry. But are those mechanisms in any traditional sense or any sense in which ecologists look for mechanisms? They feel more like assumptions or in mathematical language axioms.

        Even some other laws like Maxwell’s equations or the gas laws ultimately just got reduced one level to quantum or statistical mechanics where the macro laws are emergent phenomenon from probabilistic analyses.

        I feel like I’m going a bit orthogonal to your question though, RIc? You acknowledge it could just be statistical laws. Could you expand on what you mean by dig deeper? I get how Kleiber’s law led to fractal explanations as well as some others (albeit they remain controversial). But to my mind that work has led to a lot of tests of ratios of blood vessel diameters and etc but not sure that has advanced science in general beyond that narrow topic. To my mind most of the cool work from Kleiber’s law (like your linkage to life history) really just depends on the phenomenological law (just as e.g. prediction of extinction with land loss just depends on the phenomenological species area relation). Curious what you think?

      • Good point re: Newton’s laws not being “mechanisms”, at least not the way most people would use the word “mechanism” today. I read a very interesting history of science book by Peter Dear about changing understanding of Newton’s laws, including attempts to imagine some kind of “mechanism” that would explain them. Like the old idea that, at what we’d now call a subatomic scale, the universe comprises tiny interlocking gears that connect all objects to all others. IIRC, this was supposed by some to be the mechanistic explanation for Newton’s laws of motion.

      • Hi brian; My ‘ mechanism, in some sense’ was meant to suggest that the inverse square force law qualifies as mechanism. I suspect my ideas about mechanism are much broader than most ecologists; maybe I should not use the term at all.
        We are not orthogonal at all.
        Of course we want to know what empirical rules are [ mostly] true and then we want to go both directions…down to what forces [ another loaded word] produced it and up to what we can use it for.
        I just think we must always be using the rules for a ‘next step’.
        In going deeper I mostly mean to find out cool stuff about what produced the pattern we see; then we can ask if the pattern is a special case of something more general { newtons laws }.
        And by going up we can plug the rules [phenomenological law] into something bigger [ which is what Rob Peters wanted for body size scaling rules and ecosystem science]. Sometimes we will combine the rule with natural selection and environmental stuff to produce new stuff [ optimal life histories].

        Just for fun consider one addition to Jeremy’s rules list .
        True or false:sex ratios in dioecious species are ~1/2 among the very young. everyone would say yes, true. [there are a few exceptions, of course.]. they would probably wonder why such a trivial question/rule made the list.
        But in fact digging deeper into why the 1/2 is a major success story in evolutionary ecology. And once you understand the evolutionary why here, you can extend the principles to hermaphrodites, sex changers, sexual selection, non-autosomal genes,etc..
        And you can understand why 1/2 is so damn independent of most other aspect of population dynamics. Just why can pop dynamic equation writers safely put a sex ratio of 1/2 into their models?

  4. “Yes it does seem like your poll works pretty well as a crowd-sourced alternative to a meta-analysis to see in a probabilistic way how often a law is true.”

    And interestingly, but probably not surprisingly – the crowd sourced version seems to work better than the expert version (although the limited response and self defined nature of expert might bias that).

  5. As Brian notes, it is trivially true that species richness increases with area in a nested design, and so if that is how people interpreted “power law species-area relationship” the poll results make sense. But there is a great deal of evidence contradicting the notion that over any sizeable scale range (2^6 in area, say) the log-log slope for any particular ecosystem, z, is a constant. I gave it a 1.

    • Its interesting. I would obviously rate you as an expert on species area (many high profile papers published on the topic) and you voted 1. I rated myself as an expert (not as high profile but I have certainly published on the topic) and I voted a 3. And yet you and I completely agree on the empirical reality. And in fact we have discussed this very topic at multiple working group meetings and never really disagreed very much.

      It is increasingly seeming to me that the notion of what counts as a law is extremely squishy.

      Is declaring something a law an epistemological statement (albeit highly variable across individuals in what it means) or is it more of a rhetorical statement I wonder?

      • “Is declaring something a law an epistemological statement (albeit highly variable across individuals in what it means) or is it more of a rhetorical statement I wonder?”

        Good question!

        Writing this post, I realized that I have no idea why any of these “laws” or “rules” are called “laws” or rules. Whereas nobody calls the latitudinal richness gradient “the latitudinal richness law” or “the latitudinal richness rule”. Nobody talks about the “law of lognormality” for species-abundance distributions (or maybe that law nobody talks about should be the “log series law”?). There’s no “Murdoch’s law” that generalist consumers that have population cycles have short-period cycles, whereas specialist consumers that have population cycles have long-period cycles. Even though Bill Murdoch is first author on a Nature paper showing pretty darn compelling evidence for that claim. I’m sure there are plenty of other claims that have at least as much claim to being “laws” as the claims on this list, but that aren’t called laws. How come?

        For laws that are named for the individual who first proposed or described them, I assume that same individual didn’t name them, right? Like, Haldane’s rule isn’t called that because Haldane wrote a paper saying, “I propose what I will term ‘Haldane’s rule’:…” Is it? I’m guessing a more common case is that somebody wrote in a paper, “It seems to be a law that…” and then later authors started referring to the claim as “So-and-so’s law”?

        But what if somebody just hypothesized or documented a pattern in a paper, without calling it a “rule” or “law”. Then later authors started calling it “So-and-so’s law” for…some reason or other? Why would later authors do that in come cases but not others? Is it just happenstance?

        And if it’s happenstance, does it ever still happen? I mean, all the “laws” and “rules” in the poll are fairly old. I guess the link-species scaling law might be the most recent one in the poll, and even that one dates back to well before I started grad school. What’s the most recently-coined “law” or “rule” in ecology and evolution?

      • Brian, besides agreeing on the “reality” as you put it, I also agree with you on your take on “mechanism” in science as you described it earlier in this thread.
        Re the meaning of law, it’s interesting to note that in physics when a theory works really well, like predicting a magnetic moment to 8 decimal place accuracy, or whatever, we feel comfortable giving the name of law to the underlying assumptions of that theory. Thus symmetry laws, conservation laws, constancy of speed of light law. Maybe because we don’t have agreed upon theories that predict with high accuracy and generality in ecology, we should be very careful about using the term law. How would we recognize a law in ecology? The first step is to find widely applicable and agreed upon theory, and we are not there yet. If we had such theory, naming the underlying laws would be a luxury.

  6. Apropos your throwaway comment “Unfortunately, what with the COVID-19 pandemic having stomped our traffic..” I too have noticed a marked drop in traffic this year, I am running at 2018 levels and wondered what had caused it. I thought, perhaps naively, that with people confined to home that science blogs might do rather well, but now there’s two of us with a downturn… Any other bloggers notice the same and think of reasons why?

    • Stephen Heard’s traffic is down too.

      I think the pandemic reduces some people’s desire to read about the stuff they usually read about. And for some it also takes away their time to read, for instance if they’re trying to juggle working from home with raising children.

  7. I wonder if there is any advantage to formalizing or otherwise as a community operationalizing the term “laws of ecology.” I know in physics (and for analogous concepts in mathematics), there is some level of communal understanding of this term that seems, at least to me, much clearer and accepted across the community. Not a perfect consensus of course, but I think in practice most physicists have a clear idea what one means by a law of physics. But this may just be my own naiveté, and/or it isn’t clear that having such a definitional consensus would be clearly a good thing.

  8. But hasn’t Andrew got it right? That if ecologists can agree on very few terms and definitions and disagree on lots of them – doesn’t that describe a weakness in our discipline? I have the impression that you think this heterogeneity of opinions is a strength, Jeremy. It seems to me there is a sweet spot for heterogeneity in definitions, terms and belief in what is ‘known’ in a discipline. My guess is that the sweet spot for heterogeneity is relatively low and that ecology is far from the sweet spot. Like selection, you want enough persistence of ‘bad copies’ that we are able to move away from incorrect beliefs and terms/definitions that don’t work but not so many ‘bad copies’ that we are doing a random walk through all possible explanations for ecological phenomena.

    • I think there are contexts in which heterogeneity of opinion among ecologists is a strength, contexts in which it’s a weakness (or a symptom of some underlying weakness), and contexts in which it’s just inevitable and so it’s not really worth worrying much whether it’s good or bad. Disagreement among ecologists about the definitions of philosophical terms that don’t really crop up in most ecologists’ day-to-day work strikes me as falling into the latter category.

      I also don’t think disagreements among ecologists about the definitions of philosophical terms really hold back research progress. For instance, see the convo between Brian and John Harte elsewhere in this thread. They clearly have different philosophical definitions of “law”–but all it took was a brief conversation for them to both realize that they actually agree with each other on substantive matters. Or think of Jerry Coyne’s famous line about how the various species concepts, and disagreements about them, are like “barnacles” on the “whale” of speciation research. They retard progress, but not much.

      I do think there are cases where vagueness of definitions of key ecological terms (as opposed to philosophical terms) has appreciably slowed research progress. I’m thinking for instance of research trying to quantify the “importance” of interspecific competition.

  9. A good operationalisation of Laws can be found in:
    Mitchell, S. (2000). Dimensions of Scientific Law. Philosophy of Science, 67(2), 242-265
    A recent formalisation of laws in ecology can be found in:
    Linquist, S., Gregory, T. R., Elliott, T. A., Saylor, B., Kremer, S. C., & Cottenie, K. (2016). Yes! There are resilient generalizations (or “laws”) in ecology. The Quarterly review of biology, 91(2), 119-131.

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