The use and limitations of null-model-based hypothesis testing

Biology and Philosophy 35 (2):1-22 (2020)
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In this article I give a critical evaluation of the use and limitations of null-model-based hypothesis testing as a research strategy in the biological sciences. According to this strategy, the null model based on a randomization procedure provides an appropriate null hypothesis stating that the existence of a pattern is the result of random processes or can be expected by chance alone, and proponents of other hypotheses should first try to reject this null hypothesis in order to demonstrate their own hypotheses. Using as an example the controversy over the use of null hypotheses and null models in species co-occurrence studies, I argue that null-model-based hypothesis testing fails to work as a proper analog to traditional statistical null-hypothesis testing as used in well-controlled experimental research, and that the random process hypothesis should not be privileged as a null hypothesis. Instead, the possible use of the null model resides in its role of providing a way to challenge scientists’ commonsense judgments about how a seemingly unusual pattern could have come to be. Despite this possible use, null-model-based hypothesis testing still carries certain limitations, and it should not be regarded as an obligation for biologists who are interested in explaining patterns in nature to first conduct such a test before pursuing their own hypotheses.
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