Why I don't care what the biggest question in ecology is

Submitted by drupaladmin on 27 September 2011.

Another tidbit from my interview with Sarcozona that got left on the cutting room floor. She asked me what I think is the biggest or most important question in ecology (something like that, anyway). I said that I don't think that way. I think there are lots of interesting and important questions, and I have no idea how to rank them. But I don't think the questions we choose are as important as how we go about answering them.

Back in 2000, there was a symposium at the ESA Annual Meeting on "30 Questions for Ecology in the New Century" (or something like that). The speakers were all very famous, but I don't remember who they were or what they said. What I remember is the first talk I went to see after the symposium ended. It was by Peter Abrams, and he started his talk by saying "I predict that the 30 questions that occupy ecologists for the next 100 years will be the same 30 questions that occupied them for the last hundred years." He got a big laugh, because he was probably right. And that doesn't worry me at all (so when I laughed, it wasn't because the alternative was to cry).

I don't think the progress of our science is best measured by the questions we answer. Ecology isn't a checklist ("Explain species-area curves--check! Explain latitudinal species richness gradient--check! Predict ecosystem responses to climate change--check!..."). Even if it were, the questions on the list would either change over time (nobody cared about climate change 50 years ago), or else would be the sorts of big, broad questions that by their nature will never be fully answered ("Explain distribution and abundance of species...hmm, let us get back to you on that...") The progress of ecology is much better measured by improvements in our ability to answer whatever questions we want or need to answer. Indeed, I worry that, if we focus too much on trying to answer any one question, that narrowness of thought and focus will degrade our ability to answer other questions. As Peter Kareiva wrote in one of my favorite essays:

"Our future advances will not be concerned with universal laws, but instead with universal approaches to tackling particular problems, and with general theoretical insights about the surprises that may ambush us if we think too narrowly."

Science isn't a body of facts, it's a body of methods. The most important thing we've learned is how to learn. What really matters isn't our questions, it's how we answer them.

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