Why Ecological Understanding Progresses Slowly

I begin with a personal observation spanning 65 years of evaluating ecological and evolutionary science – we are making progress but very slowly. This problem would be solved very simply in the Middle Ages by declaring this statement a heresy, followed by a quick burning at the stake. But for the most part we are more civil now, and we allow old folks to rant and rave without listening much.

By a stroke of luck, Betts et al. (2021) have reached the same conclusion, but in a more polite and nuanced way than I. So, for the whole story please read their paper, to which I will only add a footnote of a tirade to make it more personal. The question is simple and stark: Should all ecological research be required to follow the hypothetico-deductive framework of science? Many excellent ecologists have argued against this proposal, and I will offer only an empirical, inductive set of observations to make the contrary view in support of H-D science.  

Ecological and evolutionary papers can be broadly categorized as (1) descriptive natural history, (2) experimental hypothesis tests, and (3) future projections. The vast bulk of papers falls into the first category, a description of the world as it is today and in the past. The h-word never appears in these publications. These papers are most useful in discovering new species, new interactions between species, and the valuable information about the world of the past through paleoecology and the geological sciences. Newspapers and TV thrive on these kinds of papers and alert the public to the natural world in many excellent ways. Descriptive natural history in the broad sense fully deserves our support, and it provides information essential to category (2), experimental ecology, by asking questions about emerging problems, introduced pests, declining fisheries, endangered mammals and all the changing components of our natural world. Descriptive papers typically provide ideas that need follow up by experimental studies. 

Public support for science comes from the belief that scientists solve problems, and if the major effort of ecologists and evolutionary biologists is to describe nature, it is not surprising that financial support is minimal in these areas of study. The public is entertained but ecological problems are not solved. So, I argue we need more of papers (2). But we can get these only if we attack serious problems with experimental means, and this requires long-term thinking and long-term funding on a scale we rarely see in ecology. The movement at present is in the direction of big-data, technological methods of gathering data remotely to investigate landscape scale problems. If big data is considered only observational, we remain in category (1) and there is a critical need to make sure that big data projects are truly experimental, category (2) science (Lindenmayer, Likens and Franklin 2018). That this change is not happening so far is clear in Betts et al. (2021) Figure 2, which shows that very few papers in ecology journals in the last 25 years provide a clear set of multiple alternative hypotheses that they are attempting to test. If this criterion is a definition of good science, there is far less being done than we might think from the explosion of papers in ecology and evolution.

The third category of ecological and evolution papers is focused on future predictions with a view to climate change. In my opinion most of these papers should be confined to a science fiction journal because they are untestable model extrapolations for a future beyond our lifetimes. A limited subset of these could be useful is they were projecting a 5-10 year scenario that scientists could possibly test in the short term. If they are to be printed, I would suggest an appendix in all these papers of the list of assumptions that must be made to reach their future predictions.

There is of course the fly in the ointment that even when ecologists diagnose a conservation problem with good experiments and analysis the policy makers will not follow their advice (e.g. Palm et al. 2020). The world is not yet perfect.

Betts, M.G., Hadley, A.S., Frey, D.W., Frey, S.J.K., Gannon, D., et al. (2021). When are hypotheses useful in ecology and evolution? Ecology and Evolution. doi: 10.1002/ece3.7365.

Lindenmayer, D.B., Likens, G.E., and Franklin, J.F. (2018). Earth Observation Networks (EONs): Finding the Right Balance. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 33, 1-3. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2017.10.008.

Palm, E. C., Fluker, S., Nesbitt, H.K., Jacob, A.L., and Hebblewhite, M. (2020). The long road to protecting critical habitat for species at risk: The case of southern mountain woodland caribou. Conservation Science and Practice 2: e219. doi: 10.1111/csp2.219.