A Plea for Pluralism

As you may have seen earlier either on Jabberwocky, EEB and Flow, or over at Oikos‘ new blog, the most recent piece about how some branch of ecology is ruining ecology has caused some discussion in the blogosphere. Everytime one of these comes out, I tell myself I’m going to write a blog post but then I think, “that’s just one cranky person,” and i get distracted doing science that is killing ecology (Given the plethora of opinions about what is ruining our field, odds are you too are killing ecology, regardless of what type of science you do). But as these opinion pieces keep emerging, I have increasingly come to feel that these debates on the ‘best’ approach reflect a very limited view of the scientific endeavor.  Every approach (field ecology, microcosms, theory, meta-analysis, macroecology, insert your favorite approach that I’ve missed here) is fundamentally limited in its scope, focus, and ability to divine answers from nature, yet has unique strengths in what it allows us to do. Theory is abstracted from nature, but can also provide a concrete set of expectations and processes for empiricists to work with. Microcosms, while similarly critiqued for their abstraction from reality, can also give the clearest indication about whether ideas and theories work (or don’t) under the most ideal scenarios. Field ecology (particularly experimental manipulation) has been considered the gold standard for its ability to show cause and effect in ‘real’ ecosystems, but it is also messy, expensive, time-consuming (I say this thinking of my own field site, perhaps yours is less so) and in a natural setting it is impossible to have control over all of the important (and potentially confounding) variables. Macroecology and meta-analysis allow us to step back from individual systems and taxa to ask whether patterns and processes are general across nature, general within certain subsets of systems, or unpredictably important (and unimportant). However they lack the ability to manipulate nature directly to tease out cause and effect more definitively. Because all approaches have limitations, the exclusive use of any one approach is guaranteed to give us a limited and possibly flawed view of reality. In the scientific utopia that lives in my head, these different approaches to addressing scientific questions live together harmoniously, results from one approach generate questions best addressed with another approach and the cumulative evidence from all approaches give us a more complete understanding of nature. When I read opinion pieces that advocate for a particular approach above all others, I worry that this utopia only exists in my head. After all, those opinion pieces never seem to be balanced by a counter argument  for plurality. But then sometimes I read things – often on the internet – and I think: it may be in my head, but maybe my head is not the only one that dream resides in.

One Comment on “A Plea for Pluralism

  1. Pingback: On Ecological Rants and Microcosms | Jabberwocky Ecology | The Weecology Blog

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