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).



Science, advocacy, and honesty

About a year ago, shortly after the March for Science, I wrote a three part series on living as a scienitst in a post-fact world (how we got there, why humans rarely use facts to decide what to believe, and why/how scientists should engage with policy). Peter Adler wrote a spirited rebuttal “Response to a post-fact world: in defense of the honest broker“. I responded at the time in the comments. But Meghan’s recent review of the Merchants of Doubt got me thinking about this again. So did an opportunity to shadow my representative in the Maine legislature for a day with my son. During that day I was introduced to one of only two scientists in that body out of 185 people (House + Senate).The two main topics of debate, solar energy fees and legalizing marijuana, both had substantial areas where science could have been informative, but seemed to have little to no impact on the debate, and for that matter the debate seemed to have little to no impact on the actual outcome. Rational discussion of facts is not really how policy gets made. So I want to return to my post-fact world claim that scientists need to become more engaged in policy and Peter’s rebuttal. In particular, I want to suggest that scientists get so muddled in how to relate to policy because we confuse two separate axes.

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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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Poll on some nitpicky paper style guide questions?

A good writer knows the conventions that their reader expects. Then they slavishly follow these conventions 95% of the time so the reader doesn’t get distracted by convention violations and instead keep their attention on what you’re trying to communicate. A good writer also occasionally and very deliberately violates these conventions as a sort of exclamation to highlight and emphasize points. Continue reading