Beyond Hypothesis Testing
Friday, August 9, 2013: 8:00 AM-11:30 AM
M100EF, Minneapolis Convention Center
It has been pointed out that Charles Darwin could not have qualified for an NSF grant for the work that led to the theory of evolution. Yet students are still taught that research must test a hypothesis and grant proposals for exploratory work are often rejected as “fishing expeditions”. When the need for exploratory work is acknowledged, it is often considered merely a source of hypotheses. This narrows the scope of ecological research and greatly reduces the chances of transformative discoveries of answers to what Carl Sagan called “questions we [are] too dumb to ask”. It also forces scientists who do value such research to frame pseudo-hypotheses they do not really believe and report discoveries as though they had been previously hypothesized.
The idea that hypothesis testing is the main work of science (rather than one approach among several) originated in certain philosophical accounts of the scientific method, particularly that of Karl Popper. However, ecologists rarely engage with contemporary philosophers of science who work on such questions. This symposium will discuss descriptive, exploratory and open-ended research from the perspectives of both philosophers and the ecologists who have been using and developing open-ended approaches to research.
The symposium will start with an overview of the issues from a philosophical perspective, with attention to the effect of ideas about the importance of hypotheses on funding agency practices. The following talks, given by ecologists, will survey a variety of non-hypothesis-based approaches to ecology, both quantitative and qualitative. These overviews and case studies will cover natural history observation, systems modeling, data-driven science, and the incorporation of traditional ecological knowledge into research and management. The last talk will place these issues in a larger ecological and philosophical context. The symposium will close with a synthesis-oriented discussion.
Natural History Section