The priority of prediction in ecological understanding

Published on Jan 1, 2017in Oikos3.468
· DOI :10.1111/oik.03726
Jeff E. Houlahan21
Estimated H-index: 21
(UNB: University of New Brunswick),
Shawn T. McKinney1
Estimated H-index: 1
(UMaine: University of Maine)
+ 1 AuthorsBrian J. McGill41
Estimated H-index: 41
(UMaine: University of Maine)
The objective of science is to understand the natural world; we argue that prediction is the only way to demonstrate scientific understanding, implying that prediction should be a fundamental aspect of all scientific disciplines. Reproducibility is an essential requirement of good science and arises from the ability to develop models that make accurate predictions on new data. Ecology, however, with a few exceptions, has abandoned prediction as a central focus and faces its own crisis of reproducibility. Models are where ecological understanding is stored and they are the source of all predictions – no prediction is possible without a model of the world. Models can be improved in three ways: model variables, functional relationships among dependent and independent variables, and in parameter estimates. Ecologists rarely test to assess whether new models have made advances by identifying new and important variables, elucidating functional relationships, or improving parameter estimates. Without these tests it is difficult to know if we understand more today than we did yesterday. A new commitment to prediction in ecology would lead to, among other things, more mature (i.e. quantitative) hypotheses, prioritization of modeling techniques that are more appropriate for prediction (e.g. using continuous independent variables rather than categorical) and, ultimately, advancement towards a more general understanding of the natural world. Synthesis Ecology, with a few exceptions, has abandoned prediction and therefore the ability to demonstrate understanding. Here we address how this has inhibited progress in ecology and explore how a renewed focus on prediction would benefit ecologists. The lack of emphasis on prediction has resulted in a discipline that tests qualitative, imprecise hypotheses with little concern for whether the results are generalizable beyond where and when the data were collected. A renewed commitment to prediction would allow ecologists to address critical questions about the generalizability of our results and the progress we are making towards understanding the natural world.
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