domenica 29 ottobre 2017

Chemistry and ecology, curricula

Chemists are requested, in order to get a degree or a PhD, not only to know the laws and generalities of chemistry, but also a detailed knowledge of hundred if not thousands of specific reactions. Without this detailed knowledge it is impossible to devise new reactions, to manage industrial processes, to really grasp the meaning of the laws that underlie the playing of molecules. If only the mass reaction laws and the way to calculate the pH of a buffer were taught,. a chemist would be useful perhaps only for teaching in school. Moreover, detailed description of new reactions and compounds is on a par, in scientific publishing, with more fundamental knowledge.

By stark contrasts, ecologists are trained in very general ideas about ecosystems (diversity, species area relationship, competicion e.s.o), and most of all in techniques such as statistics, whereas detailed knowledge of species and ecosystems of the world is underreted or even discouraged as "local", "idiosincratic", and is very difficult to publish on international journals. This is so more astounding as the closely related field of evolutionary biology the knowledge of the ecolution of single species or groups of species, if carefully designed, is highly encoraged.

This strange sintuation in ecology - which is rather unique among sciences - as many consequences. The first is that papers even in top journals present evident biases which arise from improper selection of the model ecosystem or species (I friend of mine told that it is usual to put together trees herbs and fishes). The second is that many papers are rather shallow, since the patterns of nature are often counterinutitive and cannot be grasped on the base of "principles" (which often are just prejudgments or received wisdom). The fird is that there is a dramatic split between practitioners in the fields, like foresters, which often have a good knowledge of specific ecosystems and species, and academic researcher. It is not casuale that Wilson and MacArthue, who shaped most of community ecology (and whose ideas are formulated and reformulated again and again with slight embellishment) were respectively an extraordinary enthomologists and a very good ornitholgoists and both were at their easi both with mathematical models and in the field. Our ecologists are usually trained in physiology and then in statistics. The ovious crise of ecology, the inability to find well supported generalities in ecosystems is I am afraid much indepted to such curricula, so different to the couple taxonomy + mathematical analysis of Wilson and MacArthir (and others, most notably in recent years Hubbel).

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