A Critique for Ecology

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The motto of the Royal Society is 'nullius in verba' because, in science, words alone are empty. Scientists are interested in verbal statements only to the extent that they represent hypotheses to be tested and questioned, that is, to be criticized. Because science grows by first recognizing its faults through self-criticism, and then moving to correct those faults, existing conceptual constructs and theories must be criticized.

This book offers a critique of contemporary ecology. It accepts that science is a device to provide information about nature but argues that much of ecology cannot be science because ecology often provides no formation and, when it does, that information is of such poor quality that it can only be soft science. Although these deficiencies have often been identified, their pervasiveness has not been fully acknowledged, nor have the many similarities of problems in different areas been appreciated. If ecology and environmental science are to meet the needs of the present decade and next millenium, ecological researchers will need far more acute critical abilities than they have yet demonstrated.

Ecologists have minimized the importance of predictive power in assessing scientific quality. Instead, they offer logical rationalization, historical explanation and mechanistic understanding. Given this context, ecologists fall prey to a number of minor failings that complicate and confound any assessment of the science. Even when predictions are possible, they are often vague, inaccurate, qualitative, subjective and inconsequential. Modern ecology is too often only scholastic puzzle-solving.

Ecology can be effective. Informative and predictive ecology is already a reality in autecology, community ecology, limnology and ecotoxicology. Ecology can become a useful practical science, providing the tools we need to defend the earth and protect our own future, but first we must recognize present inadequacies. This book was written to promote such a development. It is suitable for advanced undergraduate and graduate courses in ecology and the environmental sciences. It should interest professionals in both areas, as well as geographers, landscape architects and all those who now try to extract useful information from contemporary ecology.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"...an engaging (and occasionally enraging) book that we should all read, while reflecting on how it pertains to our particular subdisciplines. Not everyone will agree with Peters' analysis, nor his proposed solutions. No matter; the self-evaluation he inspires can only improve our science." Naomi Cappuccino, Ecology
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521400176
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 7/26/1991
  • Pages: 382
  • Product dimensions: 6.14 (w) x 9.21 (h) x 0.83 (d)

Table of Contents

Preface xi
1 Crisis in ecology 1
Some preliminary disclaimers 2
Ecologists against ecology 4
Sociological evidence against ecology 6
Evidence from the deepening environmental crisis 10
Academic ecology poses unanswerable questions 13
Summary--Scientific growth depends on scientific criticism 14
2 Criteria 17
By definition and example: logic, science and theory 18
Hypothetico-deductive science 21
Criteria for judging scientific theories 26
Summary--A hierarchy of scientific criteria 36
3 Tautology 38
Tautologies and deductive tools 38
The principle of evolution by natural selection 60
Summary--Two tools for two jobs 73
4 Operationalization of terms and concepts 74
Operationalization of concepts 76
Typologies and classifications 80
Conceptual variables--stability and diversity 92
Non-operational relationships 96
Atheoretical concepts 97
Concepts in ecology: the effects of poor examples 100
Summary--The costs of non-operational concepts for ecology 104
5 Explanatory science: reduction, cause and mechanism 105
Prediction and explanation: alternate goals for science 106
Reductionism: an unattainable goal 110
Causality 128
Instrumentalist research 136
Summary--The twin perils of mechanistic and causal explanations 146
6 Historical explanation and understanding 147
Scientific explanation and understanding 147
Historical explanations and ecology 154
Legitimate roles for historical understanding in ecology 170
Summary--Explanations in ecology 176
7 Weak predictions 178
Relevance 178
Accuracy 189
Imprecise and qualitative predictions 196
Generality and specificity 211
Economy 216
Appeal 218
Summary--Practicality and appeal 219
8 Checklist of problems 220
The Introduction 221
Methods 229
Results 235
Discussion 239
Extensions and hypotheses 250
Summary--The challenge of good science 254
9 Putting it together--competition 256
The prevalence of competition 257
Operationalization 259
Tautology 263
Historical explanation 266
Mechanisms of competition 268
The theoretical status of 'competition theory' 270
Summary--The muddles of ecology 273
10 Predictive ecology 274
Eight classes of model theories in predictive ecology 274
The attractions of predictive ecology 290
Summary--A scientific alternative for ecology 304
References 305
Index of names and first authors 345
Subject index 352
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