The Volkswagen Syndrome and Ecological Science

We have all been hearing the reports that Volkswagen fixed diesel cars by some engineering trick to show low levels of pollution, while the actual pollution produced on the road is 10-100 times higher than the laboratory predicted pollution levels. I wonder if this is an analogous situation to what we have in ecology when we compare laboratory studies and conclusions to real-world situations.

The push in ecology has always been to simplify the system first by creating models full of assumptions, and then by laboratory experiments that are greatly oversimplified compared with the real world. There are very good reasons to try to do this, since the real world is rather complicated, but I wonder if we should call a partial moratorium on such research by conducting a review of how far we have been led astray by both simple models and simple laboratory population, community and ecosystem studies in microcosms and mesocosms. I can almost hear the screams coming up that of course this is not possible since graduate students must complete a degree in 2 or 3 years, and postdocs must do something in 2 years. If this is our main justification for models and microcosms, that is fair enough but we ought to be explicit about stating that and then evaluate how much we have been misled by such oversimplification.

Let me try to be clear about this problem. It is an empirical question of whether or not studies in laboratory or field microcosms can give us reliable generalizations for much more extensive communities and ecosystems that are not in some sense space limited or time limited. I have a personal view on this question, heavily influenced by studies of small mammal populations in microcosms. But my experience may be atypical of the rest of natural systems, and this is an empirical question, not one on which we can simply state our opinions.

If the world is much more complex than our current understanding of it, we must conclude that an extensive list of climate change papers should be moved to the fiction section of our libraries. If we assume equilibrial dynamics in our communities and ecosystems, we fly in violation of almost all long term studies of populations, communities, and ecosystems. The problem lies in the space and time vision of our science. Our studies are too short to show even a good representation of dynamics over a 100 year time scale, and the problems of landscape ecology highlight that what we see in patch A may be greatly influenced by whether patches B and C are close by or not. We see this darkly in a few small studies but are compelled to believe that such landscape effects are unusual or atypical. This may in fact be the case, but we need much more work to see if it is rare or common. And the broader issue is what use do we as ecologists have for ecological predictions that cannot be tested without data for the next 100 years?

Are all our grand generalizations of ecology falling by the wayside without us noticing it? Prins and Gordon (2014) in their overview seem to feel that the real world is poorly reflected in many of our beloved theories. I think this is a reflection of the Volkswagen Syndrome, of the failure to appreciate that the laboratory in its simplicity is so far removed from real world community and ecosystem dynamics that we ought to start over to build an ecological edifice of generalizations or rules with a strong appreciation of the limited validity of most generalizations until much more research has been done. The complications of the real world can be ignored in the search for simplicity, but one has to do this with the realization that predictions that flow from faulty generalizations can harm our science. We ecologists have very much research yet to do to establish secure generalizations that lead to reliable predictions.

Prins, H.H.T. & Gordon, I.J. (2014) Invasion Biology and Ecological Theory: Insights from a Continent in Transformation. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 540 pp. ISBN 9781107035812.

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