Peters’ “A Critique for Ecology” There for the Reading

If you’re interested in the tension between correlation and causation in ecology and don’t feel like standing up, it turns out that great chunks of R.H. Peters’ “A Critique For Ecology” is available online in Google Books. Apparently Cambridge press is experimenting with sticking big swaths of its books up on the internet. It makes a lot of sense to me: it doesn’t cost them anything, and there is no way I would actually sit and read through all of a book on a computer screen. Ouch. But on the other hand, I’m at least ten times as likely to buy or otherwise get a hold of a physical copy of the book if I read a bunch of it first. So there you go.

If it sounds like a boring topic to you (causation v. correlation etc) it may be, but if you’re interested in ecology it may not. Peters argues that ecology’s obsession with explaining the whys behind the way things are in nature has led to a vague and muddled science, given that it’s functionally impossible to prove why something happens. In his mind, ecology goes around identifying problems and never really solving them, so the longer it exists as a science the less we seem to know. He points out that if you want to contribute to solving problems you have to be able predict what will happen in the future given the current state or possible current states. And prediction is all about correlation, which is a separate issue from causation. He thinks we need to be worse natural historians and better statisticians.

It’s an interesting argument, but childish and silly of course. Which is obvious if you read the book. Which, hey presto, you sort of can!

A Critique for Ecology By Robert H. Peters

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