Epistemology, Experiments, and Pragmatism
Complex interactions involve multiple causal pathways plus multiple spatial and temporal scales. Any complex interaction may have seasonal, biogeochemical, predator-prey, behavioral, and/or evolutionary components. Because of their multifarious nature, complex interactions are not dealt with effectively by anyone of the established world views (epistemes) of aquatic ecology. For example, the taxocene approach (phytoplankton communities, fish communities, etc.) is inadequate because it neglects trophic structure, while the trophic level approach is often too aggregated to cope with variable life histories and most interspecific interactions. Consequently, progress on complex interactions will require new, or at least synergistic, combinations of the well-established epistemes. Complex interactions also require polythetic approaches. We argue that the most rapid progress will come from sequential research designs that proceed from strong manipulations at large scales to finer grained experimental programs designed to elucidate and compare individual mechanisms. In some cases, broadly-trained investigators and/or interactive teams will be needed to accomplish such research plans. Funding effective work on complex interactions poses a significant challenge. Intense competition for research support engenders conservatism which favors work within the boundaries of conventional wisdom, rather than the novel juxtapositions of perspectives, disciplines, and methodologies that are needed to study complex interactions. Specific suggestions for new kinds of funding and greater flexibility in the granting process were contributed by many workshop participants and are summarized herein. Finally, we must find ways of training researchers to recognize and account for the effects of scale. Many forces, including intra-disciplinary competition and the explosive growth of the literature, contribute to specialization. The resultant factionalization leads to an emphasis of small problems, diminishing ecology’s standing relative to the disciplines with which it must compete for funds. Innovative programs are needed that teach scientists to seek appropriately scaled approaches and foster the receptiveness to other perspectives essential for progress on the most important basic and applied questions that face aquatic ecology.