By Joern Fischer
I recently had a very inspiring discussion with two ecologists who are trained in botany and plant ecology. One of them in particular challenged the survey methods and experimental design we use in our study of farming landscapes in southern Transylvania. To my mind, this discussion was of excellent value because it led to a depth of understanding that I think we rarely have in science. Or, to be less idealistic about it, this kind of discussion has great potential to lead to deep understanding.
Our method, my colleague argued, was not useful to find rare plants. And how meaningful, really, is a plant survey, if you don’t find rare plants with it? I argued the opposite: only if you study the landscape as a whole, including all the bits with few rare plants (which are more common than the areas with rare species), do you get a true appreciation of the landscape. But — my colleague argued — from a conservation perspective, who cares about common species? And I argued that it’s the common species that account for ecosystem functioning (rather than diversity per se), and major changes in land use would in fact cause declines even in common species — thus threatening the functioning of the system as a whole. Our interim conclusion was that we are dealing with different epistemologies (what counts as valuable knowledge?) and paradigms (how we think about things). I found this discussion inspiring because such discussions are rare. Typically, scientists trusting in different paradigms either avoid each other, or fight each other. Perhaps if the discussion had gone on longer, we might have started to fight, but we didn’t! (:
To me, a useful question for the future is not “which method is right”, or “which conceptual framework is best” — but rather, which method is useful under which circumstances, with what kind of goal, and in what kinds of systems?
If only we acknowledged this, explicitly, more often, I think we would have fewer senseless debates in academia. Instead of avoiding those with different paradigms, we should find them, and talk to them: it’s only that way that we will expand our own horizons.