Posted by: Jeremy Fox | July 26, 2011

More on bridging divides in ecology

Following up on Dustin’s recent post on bridging ideological divides, and related posts here, here, and here. Wanted to toss out a couple of further thoughts on how to do bridge-building.

I like Dustin’s idea to invite folks on opposing sides of a divide to write joint Oikos Forum papers. Abrams and Ginzburg (2000) and Loreau et al. (2001) are presumably the kind of thing Dustin has in mind. But I do think getting the right people is key. You want people who really believe in the goal of the exercise, and who are willing to engage with each other, rather than either talk at each other or just make agreeable noises in order to get the exercise over with. Both Abrams and Ginzburg (2000) and Loreau et al. (2001) were written only after several years of vociferous tit-for-tat exchanges, which probably had the effect of wearing down and boring both sides, thereby putting them in the mood to get together in an effort to draw a line under things (And even then, there are no guarantees. At least one of the authors of Loreau et al. (2001) basically backslid in his subsequent work, continuing to pursue the same stale debates that Loreau et al. (2001) was supposed to have drawn a line under.) Indeed, if you have people who sincerely want to engage with one another (not the same thing as wanting to come to agreement), even the traditional tit-for-tat exchanges can be very useful. At the ESA meeting a number of years ago there was a symposium on “paradigms in ecology” which comprised paired talks by senior and junior leaders in their fields. I believe the paired speakers were asked to exchange abstracts, and to write talks engaging with their partner’s. The “population ecology” talks (by Mike Rosenzweig (senior) and my fellow Oikos editor Andre de Roos (junior)) were terrific. Mike gave a brilliant talk on his classic work on graphical predator-prey models (using his original 8-inch slides!), focusing on how the motivations for that approach have often been misunderstood and how the approach remains relevant today. And Andre gave a very thoughtful response, taking Mike’s points seriously while also highlighting dynamical phenomena which it’s difficult or impossible to study using graphical methods.  So if we want to invite joint Forum papers for Oikos (and we definitely do), who we invite matters as well as what sort of papers we invite them to write.

Here’s another idea, which I’ve never seen done before (maybe because it’s a silly idea): invite people on opposing sides of a divide to write Forum papers about the strengths of the other side, and/or about the weaknesses of their own side. If you got the right people to do this, and chose the right topic, it could be really interesting. Tit-for-tat exchanges of views often start with brief statements to the effect that the folks on the other side have made a valuable contribution, or raised a key issue, or etc., and often conclude with brief acknowledgments that one’s own approach has its limitations and isn’t the answer to all our problems. What I have in mind is basically an expansion of those brief remarks, as a way of forcing people to really take seriously what the other side is doing, and think critically about what they themselves are doing. If you’re like me, you have your own views on the challenges and weaknesses of your own approach, which probably aren’t the same as the challenges and weaknesses that your critics tend to focus on. But you’ve probably never had occasion to share those views (who ever publishes critiques of their own stuff?) And you probably aren’t fully aware of what others find most interesting about your approach, and where they’d like to see you take it in future.

And here’s a third idea: invite commentaries on current debates from smart, broad-minded “outsiders” who aren’t actually participating in those debates. Not so much to adjudicate which side is right, necessarily, as to put the debate in a broader context, identify issues that maybe aren’t so important in the grand scheme of things, identify issues on which both sides are right (or wrong), etc.


  1. The third idea sounds great. Asking people to write against their position sounds like it’ll only work if you select the sort of people who would be able to write something together anyway – and the latter is probably better as it’s less confrontational.

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