Posts Tagged ‘ecology’

Not one, but two

May 19, 2008

On my way home from the grocery store, I saw not one but two raccoons. They were poking around a neighbor’s yard, looking shifty and devious. I was riveted, because while I’ve seen plenty of dead raccoons lying on the side of the road, I had never seen one still alive, and definitely not so close. I reflected afterward how thrilled I had been to see them, when most city folk would have rolled their eyes and tightened the lids on their trash cans. Why was it such a big deal for me?

I suppose it’s because I’m not a city person. I come from a small town in Montana, where the animals that rummaged through our flowerbeds were deer, not raccoons. We didn’t have pigeons or huge, bushy-tailed squirrels either. Our town was just a brief interruption in the unspoiled landscape all around, but a city cannot be so dismissed. It is an ecosystem unto itself, with birds, squirrels, rats, mice, and even raccoons making their living in ways no other animal had done until a few centuries ago. In the science blog Not Exactly Rocket Science I read about research showing that birds are having to adapt their communication methods to the noise of the city. These most highly concentrated clumps of humanity provide a boon for these animals, and these animals are evolving instep.

This is what I thought of as I watched those two raccoons, staring calmly at me as I watched them, when their cousins in that small town back home would probably have bounded away long before I came so close. Life works its way in everywhere.

I wish I had brought my camera.

Advertisement

There are no soft sciences

May 1, 2008

I can vividly remember a rather passionate discussion with someone about ecology, particularly population ecology and conservation biology. The discussion (perhaps an argument, by that point, but still good-natured) culminated in his asserting that ecology is a “soft” science. I wasn’t sure what to say to that at the time, which may be why I feel compelled to write this post.

Labelling a science as “soft” is presumably meant to show that the conclusions drawn in that field are somehow less rigorous, less quantitative, less “sciencey” than in the “hard” sciences. This is more than a little silly, for one reason: there is only one scientific method. Those who follow the scientific method or doing science, regardless of their field. As long as the results obtained are supported empirically, there’s no recourse for labelling some “soft” or some others “hard.”

However, in the spirit of ragging on other people’s disciplines (I’m currently pursuing an undergraduate degree in ecology and evolution), I intend to make the case that ecology is actually a harder science than the traditional “hard” sciences, i.e. physics and chemistry. I will do so based on the predictions yielded by ecology vs. the “hard” sciences, the limitations to those predictions, and the number of assumptions needed to generate them.

First,

  • Predictions.  General relativity and quantum mechanics both yield predictions that have been confirmed to an astounding degree of accuracy.  By contrast, population growth models seem laughably inaccurate, especially considering that the predictions are generally only reliable for a few generations.

But,

  • Limitations.  Newton’s theory of gravity was remarkably accurate for two bodies, but the calculations became cumbersome for three or more.  The same is true of predictions of the behavior of particles under quantum mechanics.  Ecological models, however, yield serviceably accurate predictions for any population, large or small, and for groups of populations.

As well as,

  • Assumptions.  All the sciences require some assumptions, because no science offers a complete description of the universe (yet.)  Therfore, quantum mechanics has generall proceeded on the assumption that spacetime is locally flat, general relativity has had to assume that spacetime is generally flat, and so on.  (I hope someone will correct me if I’m grossly misrepresenting anything.)  Population models, by the same token, are full of assumptions regarding which factors to include and which to ignore.

The “hard” sciences yield more accurate predictions than ecology, and require the same kinds of assumptions.  However, there are far more limiations on the kinds of predictions given by the “hard” sciences.  All of which means, by my estimation, that ecology is even “harder” than the “hard” sciences!

Not really.  The whole point is that applying “hard” and “soft” to the sciences at all is an egregious faux pas.