Neutral Theory, Biased World

Dissertation, University of Minnesota (2016)
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The ecologist today finds scarce ground safe from controversy. Decisions must be made about what combination of data, goals, methods, and theories offers them the foundations and tools they need to construct and defend their research. When push comes to shove, ecologists often turn to philosophy to justify why it is their approach that is scientific. Karl Popper’s image of science as bold conjectures and heroic refutations is routinely enlisted to justify testing hypotheses over merely confirming them. One of the most controversial theories in contemporary science is the Neutral Theory of Ecology. Its chief developer and proponent, Stephen Hubbell, presents the neutral theory as a bold conjecture that has so far escaped refutation. Critics of the neutral theory claim that it already stands refuted, despite what the dogmatic neutralists say. We see the controversy through a Popperian lens. But Popper’s is an impoverished philosophy of science that distorts contemporary ecology. The controversy surrounding the neutral theory actually rests on a methodological fault. There is a strong but messy historical link between the concepts of being neutral and being null in biology, and Hubbell perpetuates this when he claims that the neutral theory is supplies the appropriate null for testing alternative theories. What method is being followed here? There are three contenders: Null hypothesis testing tests for whether a there is a pattern to be explained. Null modeling tests for whether a process is causally relevant to a pattern. Baseline modeling apportions relative responsibility to multiple processes each relevant to a pattern. Whether the neutral theory supplies an appropriate “null” depends upon whether null hypothesis, null modeling, or baseline model is intended. These methods prescribe distinct inference patterns. If they are null hypothesis testing or null modeling, the neutralists’s reasoning is invalid. If they are baseline modeling, the justification of a crucial assumption remains opaque. Either way, the neutral-null connection is being exploited rhetorically to privilege the neutral theory over its rivals. Clarifying the reasoning immunizes us against the rhetoric and foregrounds the underlying virtues of the neutralist approach to ecology. The Popperian lens distorts theoretical development as dogmatism. Lakatos’s view of science as the development of research programmes clarifies the epistemology of the neutral theory. Focusing philosophical attention on the neutralist research programme illuminates (1) the synchronic uses of the neutral theory to make predictions and give descriptions and explanations; (2) its diachronic development in response to theoretical innovation and confrontation with data; (3) its complex relationships to alternative theories. For example, baseline modeling is now seen to be its primary explanatory heuristic. The justification for baseline modeling with the neutral theory, previously hidden from view, is seen in the logic of in the neutralist research programme.
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