About Jeremy Fox

I'm an ecologist at the University of Calgary. I study population and community dynamics, using mathematical models and experiments.

The great Dynamic Ecology controversial ideas poll!

Scientific controversies provide a fascinating window into the collective scientific process. The cartoon idealized image of science is a rigorous process, conducted by objective individuals, that converges on the truth. Which makes it mysterious why there would ever be scientific controversies, as opposed to mere uncertainty due to lack of evidence.

But for scientific controversies to give insight into how science actually works, you have to know which scientific ideas actually are controversial, or to what extent they’re controversial. That’s not always easy to figure out, even for scientists themselves! For instance, the scientists who publish on an idea generally are only a minority of the scientists with an opinion on the idea, and not a randomly-sampled minority. So you can’t always read the literature and tell the difference between, say, an idea that splits scientific opinion down the middle, and an idea on which most scientists believe X but a vocal minority believe not-X (see here and here for discussion).

Hence this poll! It lists a number of controversial or possibly-controversial ecological ideas. Indicate whether you think each idea is definitely false (“1”), definitely true (“5”), or somewhere in between. You don’t have to be an expert on the idea to express an opinion, and there’s an opportunity at the end to indicate your level of expertise on each idea. Please skip any idea with which you’re totally unfamiliar, rather than choosing “3”; “3” is for people who have a mixed opinion on the idea, not no opinion.

I recognize that “false” and “true” might not be the best gradient along which to arrange opinion about some of these ideas. But it’s hard to do a fun poll on other possibilities. 🙂 So just do the best you can. For instance, if you think the idea in question isn’t so much “false” as vague or misapplied, then you’d probably pick an option somewhere from 1-3, depending on just how vague/misapplied you think the idea is and how optimistic you are that the vagueness/misapplications are fixable.

Each idea is stated briefly, without caveats or elaboration, the way it might be summarized in a textbook or in the beginning of a paper. That’s the only practical way to poll on this. Plus, arguably the reason why ecological ideas become both widespread and controversial is by getting stripped of details, nuance, and caveats. By polling on simple statements of each idea, I think I’m polling on the version of each idea that’s recognizable and relevant to the greatest number of ecologists.

Obviously this poll won’t take a random sample of ecologists. In particular, I’m sure that the respondents will be more likely than a randomly-chosen ecologist to share my opinions on the ideas that I’ve blogged about. But hopefully we’ll get enough respondents from a broad enough cross-section of ecologists for the results to be worth talking about.

p.s. Sorry if this poll omits an idea you wish it had included. I tried to include a range of ideas from various areas of ecology, including both old and current controversies. I also tried to include ideas that I think split ecological opinion down the middle, and ideas on which I think there’s actually a consensus (whether justified or not).

p.p.s. I’m very curious whether the ideas that I think are the most controversial actually are the most controversial! For instance, in an old post I talked about how I thought for a long time that microcosm experiments were a very controversial approach in ecology. But in retrospect, I’m not sure that feeling was justified. I think it was more that, as a microcosmologist, I tended to pay lots of attention to the rare cases of somebody criticizing microcosms, and so didn’t realize that there’s actually quite broad support for microcosm work in ecology. Microcosm critics are a small and uninfluential–but vocal–minority.

p.p.p.s. to anxious students who see the subject of their thesis research in this poll: don’t worry about it. Nobody–not your committee members, not reviewers of your papers, not journal editors, nobody–is going to evaluate you or your work differently just because the topic of your thesis research was listed in this poll, or because of how respondents vote in this poll. And learning that some, or even many, ecologists disagree with you about your thesis topic should not cause you to worry about your career prospects. Indeed, scientific controversies are good research opportunities; making a substantial contribution to resolving one is great for your career.

Why are all zombie ideas simple?

Possibly-weird question, inspired by this tweet: why are all zombie ideas simple? Why is it that, whenever many people working in a field believe X despite a lack of good evidence and arguments for X, or even despite good evidence and arguments against X, X is invariably some quite simple claim?

Is it that complicated ideas are never widely believed by anyone, so the only ideas that can possibly become zombie ideas are simple? Is it that zombie ideas invariably are intuitively appealing (that’s what protects them from contrary evidence and arguments), and to be intuitively appealing an idea has to be simple? Is it that ideas become zombies by being misunderstood or misapplied, and that misunderstandings and misapplications invariably involve simplifying complexity and nuances? Something else?

Or am I just wrong about zombie ideas invariably being simple claims? Maybe I’m just vastly overgeneralizing from a small sample size?

You tell me, because I dunno. Looking forward to your comments, as always.

p.s. To be clear, I don’t think that most or all ecological ideas are zombies. You should not infer from the fact that I often write about zombie ideas that I think everybody but me is wrong about everything! Zombie ideas are interesting and important to think about even though they’re rare, because they’re cases of entire scientific fields getting stuck.

p.p.s. As always, no personal criticism of anyone is intended or implied by the suggestion that some widely-held scientific ideas are incorrect and ought to be abandoned. Science is hard and disagreement is a normal part of it. And it’s handy and fun to have shorthand phrases like “zombie ideas” and “Buddy Holly ideas” for different ways in which the collective scientific process occasionally breaks down. 🙂

Unpopular ecological opinions: on what ecological topics are you skeptical of the conventional wisdom?

Time to share your unpopular opinions about ecology: are there any widely-held ecological ideas that you’re skeptical of? Ideas that many other ecologists think are well-established, but that you think are still open questions, or even false? And what are you doing about your skepticism, if anything? Have you used it as the basis for a grant application, for instance, or does it affect how you teach the idea in question? Tell us in the comments!

Here are some examples to get you started:

  • I’m skeptical of the intermediate disturbance hypothesis, to the point of calling it a “zombie idea” (a widely-held idea that should be dead, but isn’t).
  • I’m skeptical of the idea that there’s community-level selection for stable communities, because unstable ones won’t persist. Although I have no idea how many people believe that idea so maybe it’s not a good example.
  • Jeff Ollerton and Angela Moles are skeptical that species interactions always are stronger and more specialized in the tropics.
  • Ambika Kamath and Jon Losos are skeptical of the idea that Anolis lizards are territorial–and now they have the data to show they were right to be skeptical. That paper is a great case study of how an idea can get established on shaky grounds, and then never get unestablished because subsequent generations of researchers just take it for granted. This is why science needs contrarians.
  • Our own Brian McGill was part of a working group that was skeptical of the idea that local species richness is declining everywhere. They compiled the data to show that it’s not, a result that proved controversial.
  • Can’t find it now, but Stephen Heard has said here that he’s skeptical of the consensus that insect herbivores don’t much affect plant population dynamics, feeling the question is ripe for further research.
  • Charley Krebs is skeptical of the value of microcosm experiments in ecology, which as best I can tell has long been a minority view.

p.s. The premise of this post is that professional disagreement is a normal part of science and worth talking about. Disagreement arises because science is hard and nobody’s infallible (very much including me).



Do evolutionary biologists ever complain about the role of mathematical models in evolutionary biology?

Historically, ecology has been characterized by ongoing vociferous debate about whether mathematical theory has any place in ecology, and if so, what that place is. Sharon Kingsland’s history of population ecology, Modelling Nature, is all about this debate from the founding of ecology up through Robert MacArthur. Charles Elton’s mixed feelings about mathematical modeling exemplify this history. More recently, think of Levin (1975), worrying over what he saw as rampant imprecision in ecologists’ use of mathematical models. Think of Simberloff (1981) vs. Caswell (1988). Think of Robert Peters’ A Critique For Ecology. Think of Scheiner’s (2011) complaint that hypothesis-generating models, and empirical papers based on them, are insufficiently common in ecology. Think of Lindenmayer & Likens’ (2011) opposing complaint (echoing the earlier Dayton & Sala 2001) that mathematical modeling (and meta-analysis and data-mining) is crowding empirical and place-based studies out of the ecological literature (aside: L&L’s complaint is baseless). Think of Greg Dwyer’s complaint on this very blog that too many empirical ecologists are wasting their time trying to understand data generated by nonlinear stochastic processes without the aid of mathematical models. Think of Judy Myers’ counter-complaint that the models too often are untestable (aside: I’m with Greg on that). Finally, think of the recent debate over “theory vs. models” in ecology, which is a debate among mathematically-oriented ecologists as to what sorts of mathematical theories models thingies ecology needs. Theoretician Bruce Kendall (2015) reviews theory vs. empiricism debates within ecology over the course of his career.

Here’s my question: why don’t you ever see evolutionary biologists having these arguments? And isn’t a sign of the comparative health of their field that they don’t?

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Ideas for posts I will probably never write

Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson* wrote a brilliant book about the “prehistory” of the Far Side, including a whole chapter of sketches of ideas for cartoons that never made it into print. In the same spirit,** here are a bunch of ideas for posts I will probably never write.

Many of the ideas have been in my notebook of post ideas for years, which suggests I’m never going to get around to writing them. Usually because whatever fleeting inspiration I had has long since passed. Sometimes for other reasons.

In the comments, you’re welcome to to try to talk me into writing some of them. Or out of writing them. Whichever. 🙂

Also, see if you can guess which ones I still think are really good post ideas, and which one I will never write because I now realize it’s a really terrible post idea. 🙂

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The uncanny valley of theoretical models and microcosm experiments

In robotics, “uncanny valley” refers to the fact that robots that look and act somewhat human seem creepy. It’s better for them to either look and act not at all like humans, or to look and act exactly like humans. The latter hasn’t yet been achieved as far as I know.

In ecology, theoretical models and microcosm experiments also have an uncanny valley, when they are designed to mimic a particular natural system only in one or two particular respects. In all other respects they are unlike that particular natural system and not intended to mimic it.

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