Are ecology and evolutionary biology “soft” sciences?

Annales Zoologici Finnici 39:87-98 (2002)
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Research in ecology and evolutionary biology (evo-eco) often tries to emulate the “hard” sciences such as physics and chemistry, but to many of its practitioners feels more like the “soft” sciences of psychology and sociology. I argue that this schizophrenic attitude is the result of lack of appreciation of the full consequences of the peculiarity of the evo-eco sciences as lying in between a-historical disciplines such as physics and completely historical ones as like paleontology. Furthermore, evo-eco researchers have gotten stuck on mathematically appealing but philosophi- cally simplistic concepts such as null hypotheses and p-values defined according to the frequentist approach in statistics, with the consequence of having been unable to fully embrace the complexity and subtlety of the problems with which ecologists and evolutionary biologists deal with. I review and discuss some literature in ecology, philosophy of science and psychology to show that a more critical methodological attitude can be liberating for the evo-eco scientist and can lead to a more fecund and enjoyable practice of ecology and evolutionary biology. With this aim, I briefly cover concepts such as the method of multiple hypotheses, Bayesian analysis, and strong inference.

Author's Profile

Massimo Pigliucci
CUNY Graduate Center


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