Trying to understand ecological data without mechanistic models is a waste of time

Note from Jeremy: this is a guest post from Greg Dwyer.

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Jeremy invited me to do a guest post because he saw my 2014 ESA Ignite talk, in which I argued that data are almost worthless without some connection to mechanistic models (Jeremy posted interesting comments on the session shortly after it happened).   That statement is a little stronger than what I actually believe, but the status of mechanistic models in ecology is so weak that it is hard for me to avoid losing my patience when confronting ecological research that is unconnected to an explicit model.   For the purposes of this essay, I am therefore going to stand by my talk title: Trying to understand ecological data without mechanistic models is a waste of time.   I think that the only caveat that I would add would be “except in cases where the underlying question is too trivial to be interesting.”

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Biodiversity and pizza – an extended analogy leading to a call for a more multidimensional treatment of nature

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the term biodiversity. Not so much its scientific defintion as its usage in public discussions. No doubt this is because I am increasingly using the word biodiversity to describe my own work as I move in more applied directions. And a few weeks ago I got to spend over an hour with a reporter talking about the history and implications of using the term biodiversity. She asked good questions and forced me to get clear about what I really think. So I’ve got a lot of thoughts rattling around in my brain on the usefulness of term “biodiversity” that I would like to discuss with the community.

Biodiversity is a really important term that is being woven into the international regulatory framework at the moment. But biodiversity is also an emotion laden term in ecology these days. So … I’m going to adopt the philosopher’s trick and talk about something completely different for a bit (pizza!) and then circle back and tell you I was really talking about biodiversity all along.

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If a scientist falls in a forest where nobody can hear them, have they done science?

A meme that seemed to run through much of the comments on Jeremy’s recent post on salesmanship in science seemed to be that you could be a wonderful scientist but a terrible communicator of your science and that you would suffer for this career-wise and that would be unfair. This came as a surprise to me. I have a hard time thinking of people who I would call a great scientist but a terrible communicator. Now they may have stage fright and give a bad talk, but write great papers (or vice versa). And they may be bad networkers or bad self-promoters. But the sterotypical genius with ground breaking ideas but who drools and can’t put two words together let alone coherently communicate what they’ve done and why it is important, no. Which leads to the deeper, more philosophical question, if there is “good science” inside somebody’s head and it can’t get out, is it science? Hence the allusion in the title to the zen koan about a tree falling in the forest. Or if somebody is shipwrecked on a desert island does research for 10 years and then dies and their notes decay before they are found, have they done science?

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