Posted by: Jeremy Fox | November 9, 2011

Crowdsourcing: Looking for eloquent statements of ‘what it means to be a theorist’

Loyal Oikos blog reader and theoretical ecologist Robin Snyder emailed me with a question, which I’m hoping other readers can answer:

“I’m talking to some undergraduates soon about how I got where I am, what it means to do science, etc. and need to give them something to read.  I’d love to give them a nice essay on what it really means to be a theorist — something about playfulness and “all models are wrong, some models are useful,” beauty, etc.  I’ll probably give them Borges’ Parable of the Map.  I might give them Stoppard’s Arcadia, act 1, scene 4, but I’d rather something that gets at the matter a little more directly, if it’s well written.  Do you have any favorites?  Undergrads seem to think that we all follow the scientific method and sit around trying to disprove hypotheses that were motivated by observations.  Nice, but such a narrow slice of what we do.”

I suggested Richard Levins’ classic 1966 article, The Strategy of Model Building in Population Biology, especially the final paragraph.

Anyone else have any other suggestions?



  1. Thanks, Jeremy!

  2. The difference between theory and practice is in practice always larger than in theory.

    don’t remember who said it first.

    • Well that’s good in practice but how does it work in theory?

  3. I really like Franz Kafka’s short story “The top”. I couldn’t find it online, so here’s the text:

    The top
    by Franz Kafka

    A certain philosopher used to hang about wherever children were at play. And whenever he saw a boy with a top, he would lie in wait. As soon as the top began to spin the philosopher went in pursuit and tried to catch it. He was not perturbed when the children noisily protested and tried to keep him away from their toy; so long as he could catch the top while it was still spinning, he was happy, but only for a moment; then he threw it to the ground and walked away. For he believed that the understanding of any detail, that of a spinning top, for instance, was sufficient for the understanding of all things. For this reason he did not busy himself with great problems, it seemed to him uneconomical. Once the smallest detail was understood, then everything was understood, which was why he busied himself only with the spinning top. And whenever preparations were being made for the spinning of the top, he hoped that this time it would succeed: as soon as the top began to spin and he was running breathlessly after it, the hope would turn to certainty, but when he held the silly piece of wood in his hand, he felt nauseated. The screaming of the children, which hitherto he had not heard and which now suddenly pierced his ears, chased him away, and he tottered like a top under a clumsy whip.

  4. Levin, SA. 1981. Mathematics, ecology, and ornithology. Auk 97: 422-425.

    Kareiva, P. 1989. Renewing the dialog between theory and experiments in population ecology. Chapter 5 in Perspectives in Ecological Theory, Roughgarden et al. (eds).

    For something more interactive and less directly ecological:

    Victor, Bret. 2011. Up and down the ladder of abstraction.

    • The Levin and Victor are great finds–I’m going to do a whole separate post highlighting them, so that as many readers as possible see them.

  5. […] comment from “lowendtheory” on my post asking for eloquent statements of what it means to be a theorist. Points out two terrific […]

  6. What about: Hall Caswell’s (1988) Theory and models in ecology: A different perspective. Ecological Modelling 43:33-44? A honest, optimistic account of the interplay between theory, modelling and empiricism; I think it’s a must read for every ecologist; in my opinion, few people write as neatly and persuasivelly as Caswell

    And regarding abstraction: this paper from Richard Levins (Levins, R. 2006. Strategies of abstraction. Biology & Philosophy 21:741–755) is another must-read from him: an explicit (up-to dated) diallectical acount of who (and what it means) to construct models (as limited abstractions from reality). Very insightful

    • Yes, the Caswell paper is a lot of fun, and I agree it’s a must read for every ecologist. It’s one of my favorite papers. I didn’t suggest it myself only because I was worried it might be a bit polemical for Robin’s purposes–it’s a defense of theory against the sort of empiricist who is aggressively dismissive of theory.

      I wasn’t aware of the recent Levins paper, will have to take a look at it, good suggestion.

      • Glad to point to a reference you haven’t read! 🙂 Sure you’ll like it (Levins as always: original, provocative, creative, with a terse and obscure prose sometimes, but always penetrating…)

        Yes, I do agree that Caswell’s paper is a (particular) brave defense of theory against the attack from some empiricists, particularly Dan Simbeloff. Indeed, the whole volume 43(1-2) of Ecological Modelling is devoted to exploring the need for modeling in ecology, and there are quite a lot of interesting stuff there!

        PS: When I wrote above “…of who (and what it means) to…” I intended to write “…of how…”. Mmm, English is not among my mother tongues…

  7. […] suggested by **lowendtheory and ***Pablo Almaraz during comments on the ‘Crowdsourcing’ post at the Oikos blog. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

  8. […] by lowendtheory, see Crowdsourcing from Oikos […]

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