Is Ecology like Economics?

One statement in Thomas Piketty’s book on economics struck me as a possible description of ecology’s development. On page 32 he states:

“To put it bluntly, the discipline of economics has yet to get over its childish passion for mathematics and for purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation at the expense of historical research and collaboration with the other social sciences. Economists are all too often preoccupied with petty mathematical problems of interest only to themselves. This obsession with mathematics is an easy way of acquiring the appearance of scientificity without having to answer the far more complex questions posed by the world we live in.”

If this is at least a partially correct summary of ecology’s history, we could argue that finally in the last 20 years ecology has begun to analyze the far more complex questions posed by the ecological world. But it does so with a background of oversimplified models, whether verbal or mathematical, that we are continually trying to fit our data into. Square pegs into round holes.

Part of this problem arises from the hierarchy of science in which physics and in particular mathematics are ranked as the ideals of science to which we should all strive. It is another verbal model of the science world constructed after the fact with little attention to the details of how physics and the other hard sciences have actually progressed over the past three centuries.

Sciences also rank high in the public mind when they provide humans with more gadgets and better cars and airplanes, so that technology and science are always confused. Physics led to engineering which led to all our modern gadgets and progress. Biology has assisted medicine in continually improving human health, and natural history has enriched our lives by raising our appreciation of biodiversity. But ecology has provided a less clearly articulated vision for humans with a new list of commandments that seem to inhibit economic ‘progress’. Much of what we find in conservation biology and wildlife management simply states the obvious that humans have made a terrible mess of life on Earth – extinctions, overharvesting, pollution of lakes and the ocean, and invasive weeds among other things. In some sense ecologists are like the priests of old, warning us that God or some spiritual force will punish us if we violate some commandments or regulations. In our case it is the Earth that suffers from poorly thought out human alterations, and, in a nutshell, CO2 is the new god that will indeed guarantee that the end is near. No one really wants to hear or believe this, if we accept the polls taken in North America.

So the bottom line for ecologists should be to concentrate on the complex questions posed by the biological world, and try first to understand the problems and second to suggest some way to solve them. Much easier said than done, as we can see from the current economic mess in what might be a sister science.

Piketty, T. 2014. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Belknap Press, Harvard University, Boston. 696 pp. ISBN 9780674430006

2 thoughts on “Is Ecology like Economics?

  1. Jeremy Fox

    Hmm…not sure that oversimplified models, or an obsession with math more generally, are the problem here. Complex problems often need simple models, not complex ones. And trying to be a hardnosed empiricist who avoids simplifying assumptions usually just means that you’ve got an oversimplified *implicit* model in your head. These are points Paul Krugman (a Piketty admirer, by the way) often makes in an economic context. For instance:
    http://web.mit.edu/krugman/www/hotdog.html
    http://web.mit.edu/krugman/www/ricardo.htm (that one’s fun because it includes an extended discussion of evolutionary biology as well as economics)
    http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/10/09/is-lmentary/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

    I like this little fable too:

    http://scensci.wordpress.com/2012/12/14/big-data-or-pig-data/

    Also worth noting that even Piketty’s sympathizers have had to work to figure out what his implicit model is: http://equitablegrowth.org/2014/04/12/notes-finger-exercises-thomas-pikettys-capital-twenty-first-century-honest-broker-week-april-12-2014/

    In any case, my own sense is that the trend in ecology is towards more complex models tightly linked to specific problems and systems. I take it this is a trend you’d welcome?

    http://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2014/09/22/theory-vs-models-in-ecology/

    Reply

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