On what important ecological research topic do non-experts have the most outdated view?

Word of a scientific advance spreads out from its source like ripples from a pebble thrown into a pond. It starts at the source of the advance, spreads out to specialists in the topic, then perhaps to interested outsiders in the broader field, and perhaps eventually (if it’s a really important or newsworthy advance) to scientists in other fields and to at least some non-scientists. Along the way, technical details about the advance typically get lost.

It takes time for the ripples of knowledge to spread out, and they don’t always spread as far, or with as high fidelity, as one might think or wish. Nobody can keep track of more than a tiny fraction of the latest research–or even the not-so-latest research! Which means that sometimes, people who aren’t experts on topic X will have a very outdated view of current consensus thinking among experts on topic X. For example, Nate Silver suggests that many member of the general public have an outdated view regarding coronavirus immunity:

Hence my question: what are the important ecological research topics on which non-experts have outdated views?

I find this an interesting question to mull over. The answer would shed a bit of light on how fast and how far the ripples of scientific advances spread across the pond of science.

By “important” topics I mean topics on which non-experts have a view. Topics that create no ripples, because no one except specialists knows anything about them, aren’t of interest here.

“Outdated” means “a view that reflects the previous thinking among expert researchers on the topic, not their current thinking”. It includes cases in which the previous consensus has been replaced by a new expert consensus, and cases in which the previous expert consensus has been replaced by controversy or confusion (“Everybody thinks we experts figured this out years ago, but it turns out we didn’t.”) “Outdated” also includes cases in which the non-expert view reflects a previous lack of expert consensus that has now given way to consensus (“Everybody thinks we experts still don’t know much about this topic, but actually we figured it out.”)

“Consensus” is important here. I’m not asking about cases in which the view of non-experts has failed to track the changed thinking of one idiosyncratic expert.

Answers to this question may well differ depending on the non-experts considered. There may for instance be ecological topics on which word of a new expert consensus has spread among other ecologists, but not to the general public.

This is the point at which I’d ordinarily suggest some answers to my own question. But I can’t think of any! Looking back over our old poll on the most controversial ideas in ecology doesn’t turn up any great candidates. I dunno, maybe lots of people think that local species richness is declining pretty much everywhere, when the expert consensus increasingly seems to be that it’s not?

Looking forward to your comments, as always.

19 thoughts on “On what important ecological research topic do non-experts have the most outdated view?

  1. A comment I’ve heard from family members for a long time is that hunting is important for conservation. As an unqualified statement, as with Nate Silver’s example, this is a bit of a caricature of truth. Briefly skimming literature, I found there was quite a bit of nuance here, and it varied substantially by how local authorities listened to ecologists etc. That said, I’m far from an expert in conservation, so happy for someone to point out that even my understanding here has key misconceptions! 🙂

    I suppose another example may be that biodiversity is always a good thing. Again, I’m not really an expert myself, but I’ve seen experts contradicting this recently on this blog. I suspect most non-experts are some decades out of this discussion, and hence take the simpler approach that more species = better.

  2. I nominate “communities have a single steady ‘climax’ state” and that the ‘climax’ state is inherently better than the other states the community goes through. Dynamic equilibrium and the importance of non “climax” states seems to not be common knowledge outside of ecology.

  3. I would generally say stability of nature. There is often a common perception in public that natural systems are stable and that we need to preserve status quo, an issue that was long abandoned in science.

    • Alternatively, the balance of nature is a notion non -experts seem to adore….It keeps coming up in textbooks and simplistic journalist work, from elementary school to University entrance exams to Sunday papers…

    • Depends entirely on your frame of reference and your timescale. Amazonian rainforest is at least 50 million years old and until relatively recently was fairly unchanged. Once a community reaches a seral climax, it will remain stable until an outside force changes it. Climate change, both natural and anthropogenic are the biggest drivers of this change

  4. agree with “balance of nature”

    you hear about balance of nature in two flavours actually, one is stability over time as others have said, and the other is the idea that every species has an important role

    another is the idea that ecosystems are fragile — you hear this a lot in natural history documentaries — often in the context of suggesting that species removal might somehow lead to collapse

  5. A specifically New Zealand one…. the New Zealand biota has been isolated since the breakup of Gondwana 84 million years ago. There is copious evidence of a continual rain of colonising lineages since then, especially over the last 20 million years (in fact it is difficult to identify more than a few ancient lineages). I guess this isolation idea amplifies how special we think our endemics species are.

  6. Well, this is fun; but today’s question seems to boil down to: What do you, the reader, believing yourself to be an expert ecologist, (a) believe is important about ecological research, and (b) believe about what non-experts believe about that. Our answers are sparse, anecdotal and idiosyncratic. Evidence-based ecological expertise is narrow. Inferential expertise is broader but less robust. How many experts can you confidently say you agree with more than (say) 90% of the time? These are very hard questions to answer with evidence. One such attempt that I’m aware of can be found here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0013935111001605 Whatever your opinions about the specific sub-discipline discussed there, it should be apparent from this example that determining even what self-identified experts believe they believe is, well, a bit fraught.

  7. Showing my bias as a California forest ecologist who works in a lot of post-wildfire places, but I think much of the public has a notion all wildfires are “good” ecologically, which is probably an over-correction from the previous widespread belief that they were all “bad”. Also, the term ‘ecosystem health’ really gets my goat. And I’m so tired of seeing biodiversity used a blanket objective in public land management regardless of management action and system.

  8. I do know of at least one public-opinion survey on what people understand ecology to mean — wrote about it a couple years ago (1997 Trends Ecol Evol 12:166). Maybe there are more out there?

    Totally agree with Ollerton and Mina about ecosystem health. That idea doesn’t come from public opinion only, there’s great pressure from Depts of Environment or the like to come up with a single number for “condition” or “health” that you can put on maps or report to governments about. But it’s really disappointing — taking us back to the old Clementsian days when everything was arranged on a single condition scale — throwing away the intellectual progress of past 40 years.

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