Ecologists need 'efficient theory' to make sense of all the data

July 17, 2014

Ecologists are awash with data and have the tools to find patterns in it, but understanding those patterns requires the extra struggle to come up with simple, typically mathematical approaches that the 16 co-authors of a new report in BioScience term "efficient theory."

That half of the 16 authors have SFI connections is no accident, says External Professor Pablo Marquet, lead author of the paper. In the late 90s, SFI and University of New Mexico researchers developed a of biological scaling laws based on fractal geometry—and in the process "spawned a lot of criticism," Marquet says, much of it focused on the nature of theory and whether was even desirable in the age of Big Data. In 2006, a small group—including the biological scaling researchers—met in Chile and decided they had to clear up those issues.

"The complexity of the world is such that without big theory is scary, actually," Marquet says. Efficient theory, he says, addresses the challenge by building on robust foundations called first principles (basic, well-tested, core principles about the world), a small number of additional assumptions, and usually, though not always, mathematical descriptions of the world. Mathematics, he says, makes a theory not only simpler to describe but also easier to communicate, hence speeding up scientific progress.

Despite the emphasis on mathematical precision, ecologists should also think of theory as an approximation to the real world, the authors argue. In physics, for example, Newtonian mechanics describes well how marbles, cars, and planets interact, but it doesn't work so well for atoms, the domain of quantum mechanics. And that's as it should be: no theory is perfect, and researchers should look for discrepancies with data and use those to refine a theory, not reject it completely. "We want to find the simplicity in the complexity," Marquet says

That simplicity isn't just academic. We need efficient theory, Marquet says, "to cope with complex and wicked environmental problems. Without a predictive theory of the biosphere and ourselves, we are doomed."

Explore further: Reconcilable differences: Study uncovers the common ground of scientific opposites

More information: Pablo A. Marquet, Andrew P. Allen, James H. Brown, Jennifer A. Dunne, Brian J. Enquist, James F. Gillooly, Patricia A. Gowaty, Jessica L. Green, John Harte, Steve P. Hubbell, James O'Dwyer, Jordan G. Okie, Annette Ostling, Mark Ritchie, David Storch, and Geoffrey B. West. "On Theory in Ecology." BioScience first published online July 16, 2014. DOI: 10.1093/biosci/biu098

Related Stories

No qualms about quantum theory

November 26, 2013

A colloquium paper published in European Physical Journal D looks into the alleged issues associated with quantum theory. Berthold-Georg Englert from the National University of Singapore reviews a selection of the potential ...

Why Einstein will never be wrong

January 14, 2014

One of the benefits of being an astrophysicist is your weekly email from someone who claims to have "proven Einstein wrong". These either contain no mathematical equations and use phrases such as "it is obvious that..", or ...

Recommended for you

New lizard named after Sir David Attenborough

August 3, 2015

A research team led by Dr Martin Whiting from the Department of Biological Sciences recently discovered a beautifully coloured new species of flat lizard, which they have named Platysaurus attenboroughi, after Sir David Attenborough.

A look at living cells down to individual molecules

August 3, 2015

EPFL scientists have been able to produce footage of the evolution of living cells at a nanoscale resolution by combining atomic force microscopy and an a super resolution optical imaging system that follows molecules that ...

Researchers design first artificial ribosome

July 29, 2015

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Northwestern University have engineered a tethered ribosome that works nearly as well as the authentic cellular component, or organelle, that produces all the proteins ...

2 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Doug_Huffman
1 / 5 (2) Jul 17, 2014
Benoit Mandelbrot called reality fractally complex, a perfect hiding place for The Black Swan (Impact of the Highly Unlikely). The Swan is Black for its iridescent surface.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.7 / 5 (3) Jul 19, 2014
Benoit Mandelbrot called reality fractally complex, a perfect hiding place for The Black Swan (Impact of the Highly Unlikely). The Swan is Black for its iridescent surface.
Sorry dougie bad poetry doesn't make you appear any more smarter than you already aren't. Especially when you double post it. Yuk!

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.