On an Experimental Design Mafia for Ecology

Ecologist A does an experiment and publishes Conclusions G and H. Ecologist B reads this paper and concludes that A’s data support Conclusions M and N and do not support Conclusions G and H. Ecologist B writes to Journal X editor to complain and is told to go get stuffed because Journal X never makes a mistake with so many members of the Editorial Board who have Nobel Prizes. This is an inviting fantasy and I want to examine one possible way to avoid at least some of these confrontations without having to fire all the Nobel Prize winners on the Editorial Board.

We go back to the simple question: Can we agree on what types of data are needed for testing this hypothesis? We now require our graduate students or at least our Nobel colleagues to submit the experimental design for their study to the newly founded Experimental Design Mafia for Ecology (or in French DEME) who will provide a critique of the formulation of the hypotheses to be tested and the actual data that will be collected. The recommendations of the DEME will be nonbinding, and professors and research supervisors will be able to ignore them with no consequences except that the coveted DEME icon will not be able to be published on the front page of the resulting papers.

The easiest part of this review will be the data methods, and this review by the DEME committee will cover the current standards for measuring temperature, doing aerial surveys for elephants, live-trapping small mammals, measuring DBH on trees, determining quadrat size for plant surveys, and other necessary data collection problems. This advice alone should hypothetically remove about 25% of future published papers that use obsolete models or inadequate methods to measure or count ecological items.

The critical part of the review will be the experimental design part of the proposed study. Experimental design is important even if it is designated as undemocratic poppycock by your research committee. First, the DEME committee will require a clear statement of the hypothesis to be tested and the alternative hypotheses. Words which are used too loosely in many ecological works must be defended as having a clear operational meaning, so that idea statements that include ‘stability’ or ‘ecosystem integrity’ may be questioned and their meaning sharpened. Hypotheses that forbid something from occurring or allow only type Y events to occur are to be preferred, and for guidance applicants may be referred to Popper (1963), Platt (1964), Anderson (2008) or Krebs (2019). If there is no alternative hypothesis, your research plan is finished. If you are using statistical methods to test your hypotheses, read Ioannidis (2019).

Once you have done all this, you are ready to go to work. Do not be concerned if your research plan goes off target or you get strange results. Be prepared to give up hypotheses that do not fit the observed facts. That means you are doing creative science.

The DEME committee will have to be refreshed every 5 years or so such that fresh ideas can be recognized. But the principles of doing good science are unlikely to change – good operational definitions, a set of hypotheses with clear predictions, a writing style that does not try to cover up contrary findings, and a forward look to what next? And the ecological world will slowly become a better place with fewer sterile arguments about angels on the head of a pin.

Anderson, D.R. (2008) ‘Model Based Inference in the Life Sciences: A Primer on Evidence.‘ (Springer: New York.) ISBN: 978-0-387-74073-7.

Ioannidis, J.P.A. (2019). What have we (not) learnt from millions of scientific papers with P values? American Statistician 73, 20-25. doi: 10.1080/00031305.2018.1447512.

Krebs, C.J. (2020). How to ask meaningful ecological questions. In Population Ecology in Practice. (Eds D.L. Murray and B.K. Sandercock.) Chapter 1, pp. 3-16. Wiley-Blackwell: Amsterdam. ISBN: 978-0-470-67414-7

Platt, J. R. (1964). Strong inference. Science 146, 347-353. doi: 10.1126/science.146.3642.347.

Popper, K. R. (1963) ‘Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge.’ (Routledge and Kegan Paul: London.). ISBN: 9780415285940

2 thoughts on “On an Experimental Design Mafia for Ecology

  1. Mike Braysher

    Andrewartha and Birch would be fully behind you on this. Rarely these days do I see research that clearly state or at least acknowledge alternative hypotheses. Most prominent amongst young researchers but supervisors must take much of the blame. Another issue along similar lines is inadequate literature search leading to repeat of past studies. Mike

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