Tag Archives: evidence in ecology

On Discourse and Evidence

A major problem that bedevils society as well as science today is the distinction between opinion and evidence. The world is awash in opinions and short of evidence for many questions that fill the news media as well as the scientific literature. In trying to evaluate this statement we should recognize that there are many important issues for which we have no evidence but only beliefs. A current discussion in the news media is whether or not any particular country should spend 2% of its GDP on military expenses. Much hot air follows from these discussions because as an individual person you have no evidence one way or the other for different points of view, spend more, spend less. You will have an opinion that everyone should respect but for this and many issues any evidence that can be cited is vague. Discussion on many issues like this example are important and should be civilized but often are not.

But there are a range of issues for which scientific evidence is available. The first rule of discourse on these issues ought to be that you as a person are allowed to have any opinion you wish but you must be able to present evidence to support your opinions. You should be allowed as a person to proclaim that the Earth is not round but flat and provide the evidence one way or the other. More serious issues with different opinions involve issues like vaccination for a particular disease. On these issues scientists can only advise and provide evidence. But if a vaccine X for example has a complex side effect rate of 1 person in 1000, you could always argue that you are that one person and you are opposed to vaccination X.

How does all this relate to ecological science? First, we should recognize that many of the arguments in the ecological literature are about opinions rather than evidence. In many cases this should lead to more studies of particular problems to gather more evidence. But as we see with climate change research the evidence is accumulating but varies greatly in quality and time span from area to area and from taxonomic group to taxonomic group. We cannot agree whether our research should be focused on the oceans or on land, or on birds rather than mammals or insects. We cannot do everything, and the consequence is that ecological research funding is driven in many directions depending on who is on the committee dispersing funding and what their opinions are. The result is that for large scale problems like climate change we have convinced most people that it is a reality, but we cannot agree on the details of future change. So, we build models with past data and try to project them into the future with uncertain confidence.

The consequence is that the ecological world is awash in opinions in the same way as other parts of society, and in support of opinions the evidence often gets lost. The main problem here is that opinions are generated rapidly while evidence accumulates slowly. We see this more readily in medical science in which the media trumpets treatment X rather than Y with opinions and little evidence. We cannot demand answers to important questions tomorrow when the problem spans years or decades for evidence to accumulate. 

Ecology like every science becomes more complicated with age, and a fisheries biologist trained 40 years ago lives in a different world from one trained today. The accumulated evidence from research changes our list of important questions illustrated well by the reviews of progress in conservation science by Sutherland et al. (2022, 2023) and Christie et al. (2023), in predator- prey dynamics by Sheriff et al. (2020), wildlife management by Hone et al. (2023), and in insect conservation by Saunders et al. (2020). Understanding and solving ecology problems must rely more on evidence and less on opinions.

Christie, A.P., Christie, A.P., Morgan, W.H. & Sutherland, W.J. (2023) Assessing diverse evidence to improve conservation decision‐making. Conservation Science and Practice, 5, e13024.doi. 10.1111/csp2.13024

Hone, J., Drake, A. & Krebs, C.J. (2023) Evaluation Options for Wildlife Management and Strengthening of Causal Inference. BioScience, 73, 48-58.doi: 10.1093/biosci/biac105.

Saunders, M.E., Janes, J.K. & O’Hanlon, J.C. (2020) Moving On from the Insect Apocalypse Narrative: Engaging with Evidence-Based Insect Conservation. BioScience, 70, 80-89.doi: 10.1093/biosci/biz143.

Sheriff, M.J., Peacor, S.D., Hawlena, D. & Thaker, M. (2020) Non-consumptive predator effects on prey population size: A dearth of evidence. Journal of Animal Ecology, 89, 1302-1316.doi: 10.1111/1365-2656.13213.

Sutherland, W.J. & Jake M. Robinson, D.C.A., Tim Alamenciak, Matthew Armes, Nina Baranduin, Andrew J. Bladon, Martin F. Breed, Nicki Dyas, Chris S. Elphick, Richard A. Griffiths, Jonny Hughes, Beccy Middleton, Nick A. Littlewood, Roger Mitchell, William H. Morgan, Roy Mosley, Silviu O. Petrovan, Kit Prendergast, Euan G. Ritchie,Hugh Raven, Rebecca K. Smith, Sarah H. Watts, Ann Thornton (2022) Creating testable questions in practical conservation: a process and 100 questions. Conservation Evidence Journal, 19, 1-7.doi. 10.52201/CEJ19XIFF2753

Sutherland, W.J., Sutherland, W.J., Bennett, C. & Thornton, A. (2023) A global biological conservation horizon scan of issues for 2023. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 38, 96-107.doi. 10.1016/j.tree.2022.10.005

Should Ecology Abandon Popper?

The first question I must ask is whether you the reader have ever heard of Karl Popper. If the answer is no, then you could profit from reading Popper (1963) before you read this. An abbreviated version of the Popperian approach to science is presented in a short paper by Platt (1963) The simplest version of Popper and Platt is that we should have a hypothesis with specific predictions and one or more alternative hypotheses with other predictions, and science advances by finding out which hypotheses could be rejected with empirical evidence. The focus of this blog is on a recent paper by Raerinne (2024) claiming that Popperian ecology is a delusion. This is a claim well worth discussing particularly since most of the sciences progress using a Popperian approach to testing hypotheses.

To begin perhaps we should recognize two kinds of papers that appear in ecological journals. A very large set of ecological papers appear to be largely or entirely descriptive natural history typically of past or present events with no hypotheses in mind. Many of these papers end with a conclusion that could be designated as a hypothesis but with little discussion of alternatives. These papers can be very valuable in giving us the state of populations, communities, or ecosystems with recommendations for changes that should be made to alleviate developing problems. A good example are papers describing forest and grassland fires of recent years which can end with some management recommendations, and perhaps with alternative recommendations. These recommendations usually arise from experience and judgements, and they may or not be valid. The Popperian approach would be to set up hypotheses and test them empirically, but if we are people of action, we press onward with a preferred management action. The non-Popperian approach would be very efficient if we were correct in our diagnosis, and in many cases this approach works well. The basis of the issue here is what is evidence in ecology and how should it be sharpened into recommendations for conservation and management.  

The Popperian approach to ecological science is to recognize problems that require a solution to increase our knowledge base, and to suggest a series of alternative set of mechanisms that could solve or alleviate the problem. Ecological papers supporting this approach can often be recognized by searching for the word “hypothesis” in the text. A simple example of this Popperian approach could be finding the causes of the continuing decline of a commercial fishery. The decline might be due to predation on the target fish or invertebrate, a disease, added pollution to the water body, climate change increasing the water temperature and thus metabolic functions, introduced species of competitors for food or space. One or more of these causal factors could be involved and the job of the ecologist is to find out which one or several are diagnostic. Given the complexity of ecological problems, it is typically not possible to test these alternative hypotheses in one grand experiment, and the typical approach will involve adaptive management or evidence-based conservation (Gillson et al. 2019, Serrouya et al., Westgate et al. 2013). Complexity however should not be used as an excuse to do poor science.

What is the alternative if we abandon Popper? We could adopt the inductive approach and gather data that we put together with our judgement to declare that we have a correct answer to our questions, “seat of the pants” ecology. But this approach is heavily dependent on the idea that “the future will be like the past”. This approach to ecological problems will be most useful for the very short term. The simplest example comes from weather forecasting in which the prognosis for today’s weather is what it was like yesterday with minor adjustments. We could observe trends with this approach but then we must have a statistical model that predicts, for example, that the trend is linear or exponential. But the history of science is that we can do much better by understanding the mechanisms underlying the changes we see. A good overview of the dilemmas of this inductive approach for conservation biology is provided by Caughley (1994). The operative question here is whether the inductive approach achieves problem resolutions more efficiently than the Popperian approach through conjecture and refutation.

Raerinne (2023, 2024) does biology in general and ecology in particular a disservice in criticizing Popper’s approach to ecology by arguing that ecology should not be criticized nor evaluated from the Popperian perspective. I think this judgement is wrong, and Raerinne’s conclusion arises from a philosophical viewpoint which could well have little applicability to how ecologists solve empirical problems in the real world. But you can judge.  

Carducci, A., Federigi, I. & Verani, M. (2020) Airborne transmission and its prevention: Waiting for evidence or applying the Precautionary Principle? Atmosphere, 11 (7), 710.doi: 10.3390/atmos11070710.

Caughley, G. (1994) Directions in conservation biology. Journal of Animal Ecology, 63, 215-244. doi: 10.2307/5542.

Gillson, L., Biggs, H. & Rogers, K. (2019) Finding common ground between adaptive management and evidence-based approaches to biodiversity conservation. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 34, 31-44.doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2018.10.003.

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.

Raerinne, J. (2023) Myths of past biases and progress in biology. Theory in Biosciences, 142, 383-399.doi: 10.1007/s12064-023-00403-2.

Raerinne, J. (2024) Popperian ecology is a delusion. Ecology and Evolution, 14, e11106.doi: 10.1002/ece3.11106.

Serrouya, R., Seip, D.R., Hervieux, D., McLellan, B.N., McNay, R.S., Steenweg, R., Heard, D.C., Hebblewhite, M., Gillingham, M. & Boutin, S. (2019) Saving endangered species using adaptive management. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116, 6181-6186.doi: 10.1073/pnas.1816923116 .

Westgate, M.J., Likens, G.E. & Lindenmayer, D.B. (2013) Adaptive management of biological systems: A review. Biological Conservation, 158, 128-139.doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2012.08.016 .