All statistics books recommend replication in scientific studies. I suggest that this recommendation has been carried to extreme in current ecological studies. In approximately 50% of ecological papers I read in our best journals (a biased sample to be sure) the results of the study are not new and have been replicated many times in the past, often in papers not cited in ‘new’ papers. There is no harm in this happening, but it does not lead to progress in our understanding of populations, communities or ecosystems or lead to new ecological theory. We do need replication examining the major ideas in ecology, and this is good. On the other hand, we do not need more and more studies of what we might call ecological truths. An analogy would be to test in 2022 the Flat Earth Hypothesis to examine its predictions. It is time to move on.
There is an extensive literature on hypothesis testing which can be crudely summarized by “Observations of X” which can be explained by hypothesis A, B, or C each of which have unique predictions associated with them. A series of experiments are carried out to test these predictions and the most strongly supported hypothesis, call it B*, is accepted as current knowledge. Explanation B* is useful scientifically only if it leads to a new set of predictions D, E, and F which are then tested. This chain of explanation is never simple. There can be much disagreement which may mean sharpening the hypotheses following from Explanation B*. At the same time there will be some scientists who despite all the accumulated data still accept the Flat Earth Hypothesis. If you think this is nonsense, you have not been reading the news about the Covid epidemic.
Further complications arise from two streams of thought. The first is that the way forward is via simple mathematical models to represent the system. There is much literature on modelling in ecology which is most useful when it is based on good field data, but for too many ecological problems the model is believed more than the data, and the assumptions of the models are not stated or tested. If you think that models lead directly to progress, examine again the Covid modelling situation in the past 2 years. The second stream of thought that complicates ecological science is that of descriptive ecology. Many of the papers in the current literature describe a current set of data or events with no hypothesis in mind. The major offenders are the biodiversity scientists and the ‘measure everything’ scientists. The basis of this approach seems to be that all our data will be of major use in 50, 100 or whatever years, so we must collect major archives of ecological data. Biodiversity is the bandwagon of the present time, and it is a most useful endeavour to classify and categorise species. As such it leads to much natural history that is interesting and important for many non-scientists. And almost everyone would agree that we should protect biodiversity. But while biodiversity studies are a necessary background to ecological studies, they do not lead to progress in the scientific understanding of the ecosphere.
Conservation biology is closely associated with biodiversity science, but it suffers even more from the problems outlined above. Conservation is important for everyone, but the current cascade of papers in conservation biology are too often of little use. We do not need opinion pieces; we need clear thinking and concrete data to solve conservation issues. This is not easy since once a species is endangered there are typically too few of them to study properly. And like the rest of ecological science, funding is so poor that reliable data cannot be achieved, and we are left with more unvalidated indices or opinions on species changes. Climate change puts an enormous kink in any conservation recommendations, but on the other hand serves as a panchrestron, a universal explanation for every possible change that occurs in ecosystems and thus can be used to justify every research agenda, good or poor with spurious correlations.
We could advance our ecological understanding more rapidly by demanding a coherent theoretical framework for all proposed programs of research. Grace (2019) argues that plant ecology has made much progress during the last 80 years, in contrast to the less positive overview of Peters (1991) or my observations outlined above. Prosser (2020) provides a critique for microbial ecology that echoes what Peters argued in 1991. All these divergences of opinion would be worthy of a graduate seminar discussion.
If you think all my observations are nonsense, then you should read the perceptive book by Peters (1991) written 30 years ago on the state of ecological science as well as the insightful evaluation of this book by Grace (2019) and the excellent overview of these questions in Currie (2019). I suggest that many of the issues Peters (1991) raised are with us in 2022, and his general conclusion that ecology is a weak science rather than a strong one still stands. We should celebrate the increases in ecological understanding that have been achieved, but we could advance the science more rapidly by demanding more rigor in what we publish.
Currie, D.J. (2019). Where Newton might have taken ecology. Global Ecology and Biogeography 28, 18-27. doi: 10.1111/geb.12842.
Grace, John (2019). Has ecology grown up? Plant Ecology & Diversity 12, 387-405. doi: 10.1080/17550874.2019.1638464.
Peters, R.H. (1991) ‘A Critique for Ecology.’ (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, England.). 366 pages. ISBN: 0521400171
Prosser, J.I. (2020). Putting science back into microbial ecology: a question of approach. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Biological sciences 375, 20190240. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2019.0240.