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 Which means that sometimes, people who aren’t experts on topic X will have a very outdated view of current consensus thinking among experts on topic X. For example, Nate Silver suggests that many member of the general public have an outdated view regarding coronavirus immunity:
Hence my question: what are the important ecological research topics on which non-experts have outdated views?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“Outdated” means “a view that reflects the previous thinking among expert researchers on the topic, not their current thinking”. It includes cases in which the previous consensus has been replaced by a new expert consensus, and cases in which the previous expert consensus has been replaced by controversy or confusion (“Everybody thinks we experts figured this out years ago, but it turns out we didn’t.”) “Outdated” also includes cases in which the non-expert view reflects a previous lack of expert consensus that has now given way to consensus (“Everybody thinks we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.