25 May 2023

The two ecologies

[This got a little longer than intended. Forgive me, Charley.]

"A dominant disposition to find out what is, should precede and crowd aside the question, commendable at a later stage, "How came this so?" First full facts, then interpretations." (1)

"It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist the facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts." (2)

All my professional life, I have tried to make sense of how we humans acquire knowledge. The trouble is that we have only limited direct access to observable phenomena and no direct access to the causes that cause the observable phenomena (3). By necessity: Facts first, causes later.

Consequently, reading The Two Ecologies, the two questions came to mind:

1: Is the existence of two varieties of ecology a fact?

I do not know the literature as well as you do, Charley, not by a very, very long shot. (I doubt I know anybody else who could cite a recent philosophical paper published in Portuguese.) But from what I have seen over the last quarter of a century, I agree with you but would go one step further: There are three ecologies: Scientific ecology, natural history ecology, and bleeding hearts ecology.

2: What working hypotheses can explain the emergence of these varieties of ecology and the divergence of character?

Unsurprisingly, this question is trickier, not least because we cannot conduct proper experiments and are left with only the methods of historical science (4). I won’t get into proximate causes and ultimate causes, necessary causes and sufficient causes, et cetera, but I give it a shot.

WORKING HYPOTHESIS #1: From scientific ecology to natural history ecology.

Establishing facts is hard work. (In the boreal forest ecosystem, some mammal species show population cycles.) Establishing causes is A LOT MORE hard work. (What are the causes for the population cycles?)

As Levins and Lewontin wrote in 1985(!): "The harder problems are not tackled, if for no other reason than that brilliant scientific careers are not built on persistent failure." (5)

Or Chitty in 1996: "In our times, we would only publish when we felt we had something to say. Today, if you don’t have anything to say, you do that in at least two or three papers." (6)

Not reading, writing gets you tenure. (And possibly ingratiating yourself to the right people.)

WORKING HYPOTHESIS #2: From scientific ecology to bleeding hearts ecology.

Ecology has a recruitment problem. Who wants to go into ecology? With the exception of my wife, I know nobody outside the subject area who could give me a satisfactory definition of ecology.

If you are good with numbers, you go into math or AI. If you are fascinated with biology, you go into biomedical engineering. Who's left? The bleeding hearts. Climate change, composting and recycling, save the whales.

WORKING HYPOTHESIS #3: The decline of academia.

In the 1990s, universities shifted from being cultural institutions to being big businesses (7). Most of the faculty members today have never experienced any other condition. Every generation suffers from what Daniel Pauly correctly identified as shifting baseline syndrome (8).

"The difficulty is that disproof is a hard doctrine. If you have a hypothesis and I have another hypothesis, evidently one of them must be eliminated. The scientist seems to have no choice but to be either soft-headed or disputatious." (9)

Disputatiousness seems to have disappeared, agreeableness and groupthink are ubiquitous. Not an intellectual foe, a friend you must hire. (He or she may put your name on his or her publications.)

(1) T. C. Chamberlin (1890), The Method of Multiple Working Hypotheses. Reprinted: Science 148: 754 - 759.
(2) Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Watson in A. C. Doyle (1892), A Scandal in Bohemia.
(3) M. Baumann (in prep.), The Elements of Truth.
(4) S. J. Gould (1989), Wonderful Life.
(5) R. Levins and R. Lewontin (1985), The Dialectical Biologist.
(6) D. Chittty (1996, pers. comm).
(7) F. Furedi (2004), Where have all the intellectuals gone?
(8) D. Pauly (1995), Anecdotes and the shifting baseline syndrome. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 10: 430.
(9) J. R. Platt (1964), Strong Inference. Science 146: 347 - 353

16 March 2023

Belief versus Evidence

If we assume two things …

Assumption 1: Knowing facts increases fitness -- survival and reproduction, "success".
This seems reasonable. Imagine the life expectancy of zebras that believe "There is a tree with a leopard tail." rather than "There is a leopard lurking behind the tree.".

Assumption 2: The function of higher education is two-fold: First, the development of competent citizens. Second, the training of a skilled workforce.
This also seems reasonable. What else are we doing?

Consequently, the distinction between fact and fantasy must be of vital importance in higher education.

It is not. I am somewhat old now, but in the 70 university courses I took in my younger more vulnerable years, not a single one formally dealt with this problem. And from my informal observations I must say that most people are rather confused about the distinction between facts, beliefs, preferences, and opinions.

I teach introductory biology and introductory ecology at an unnamed university. The formal distinction between facts, beliefs, preferences, and opinions is the first thing I teach the students. At the end of the semester, most of them have forgotten already.