Thursday, August 14, 2014

#ESA2014 Day 4: Battle Empiricism vs Theory

You are our only hope!(?)
First off, the Theory vs. Empiricism Ignite session was a goldmine for quotes:

In God we trust, all others bring data” (H. Edwards Deming)
Models are our only hope” (Greg Dwyer)
"Nature represents a special part of parameter space" (Jay Stachowicz)

The Theory vs. Empiricism Ignite session was designed in response to an impromptu survey at ESA last year that found that 2/3 s of an audience did not believe that there are general laws in ecology. Speakers were asked to choose whether an empirical paper or a theoretical paper would be most important for ecology, and to defend their choice, perhaps creating some entertaining antagonism along the way. 

There wasn't actually much antagonism to be had: participants were mostly conciliatory and hardly controversial. Despite this, the session was entertaining and also insightful, but perhaps not in the way I expected. First though, I should say that I think the conversation could have used some definitions of the terms (“theory”,  “empiricism”). We throw these terms around a lot but they mean different things to different people. What counts as theory to a field based scientist may be consider no more than a rule of thumb or statistical model to a pure theoretician. Data from a microcosm might not count as experimental evidence to a fieldwork-oriented ecologist.

The short talks included examples and arguments as to how theoretical or empirical science is a necessary and valuable contributor to ecological discoveries. That was fine, but the subtext from a number of talks turned out to be more interesting. The tension, it seemed, was not about whether theory is useful or empiricism is valuable, but about which one is more important. Should theory or empiricism be the driver of ecological research? (Kudos to Fred Adler for the joke that theory wants to be a demanding queen ant with empiricists as the brainless order-following workers!) And funding should follow the most worthy work. Thus empiricists bemoan the lack of funding for natural history, while theoreticians argue that pure theory is even harder to get grants for. The question of which one should lead research was sadly mostly unanswered (and 5 minutes per person didn't offer much space for a deeper discussion). 

Of course there was the inevitable call for reconciliation of the two areas, of some way to breach the arrogance and ignorance (to paraphrase Brad Cardinale) holding them apart. Or, perhaps all ecologists should be renaissance scientists, who have mastered theory and empiricism equally. Hard to say. For me, considering the example of ecological subfields that have found a balance and feedback between theory and data is wise. Areas such as disease ecology or population biology incorporate models and experiments successfully, for example. Why do some other fields like community ecology or conservation biology struggle so much more?

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