It is not a surprise that academia is built around gatekeeping. Admissions to undegraduate programs are competitive. Admissions to graduate schools are competitive. Scholarships are competitive. Positions are too. And publications. These are features of the system, which we must live with. But something more pervasive is general statements about what makes a “true ecologist”. There is no such thing.

In the last weeks, there has been a lot of discussion about the list of the most important articles in ecology and evolution. Terry McGlinn has a nice writeup about the issues surrounding this list. The message of the list was clear: to be considered a member of the ecologists community, here are the 100 things you must (i) have read and (ii) appreciate as keystones of our field.

A few days ago, Dynamic Ecology published a blog post about there being only two kinds of ecologists (you like differential equations, or you like regression). Being an ecologist implies that you adhere to one of two (non exclusive, by the way) mathematical formalisms; you can’t use different tools to comprehend the world depending on which performs best (or just ditch the mathematical formalisms entirely).

Last week, too, a research consortium I am a member of started a contest: share your best PhD stories, and the winner gets a coupon for outdoor gear, and a rain-proof notebook. Being a biodiversity scientist obviously means that these are things you use routinely.

More broadly, I have been involved in a number of conversations in the last years where people had opinions like “X is the only way to do ecological research”, or “you need to attend a class on Y to be a real biologist”. In all instances, this translated directly to “I wish everyone was more like me, and enjoy the things I enjoy”. This is a deeply problematic attitude.

As a computational ecologist, I love talking with my fellow indoors scientist. It’s fun. It genuinely is. But it does not make me grow as a scientist. Talking with people with whom I have very little common ground does. Some of my most exciting emerging collaborations are with colleagues that have very different research programs. Because complementarity in interests and experience makes for better science.

My issue with the “you must name this many tree species to be an ecologist” argument is that, eventually, it will lead to a very homogeneous community. If everyone attended the same classes, read the same papers, and has the same approach to research… what is the point? It would be boring.

Not only are these statements wrong (there are as many ways as being an ecologist as there are ecologists), they are damaging. Every time someone establishes “X” as the right way to do things, those doing “not X” hear that they do not belong, are not legit, should not be here. As ecologists, we should know that more diverse communities are more productive. It’s time we apply this finding to the way we think about our field.

2 thoughts on ““No true Scotsman” (and no true ecologist)

  1. Jeremy Fox says:

    I confess I’m puzzled Tim. Some quotes from the Dynamic Ecology post to which you link:

    “My distinction doesn’t tell you anything about the technical tools ecologists use in their day-to-day work. ”

    “Many people straddle my distinction. ”

    “There are research approaches that straddle my distinction.”

    And the poll that accompanied the post, asking people which group they fall into, gave options for “both” (chosen by 1/3 of respondents as of this writing) and “neither” (chosen by 1% of respondents as of this writing). I take that as evidence that many ecologists do indeed fall somewhere on the continuum the post identifies, which I think is an interesting thing to point out and talk about. Without of course implying that anyone who doesn’t feel they fall anywhere on that continuum is not an ecologist!

    In case it needs saying (which I hope it doesn’t), I agree with you 100% that complementarity of interests and experience makes for stronger science (e.g.,, and this from Brian: I went back and reread the post to which you link and I’m having trouble seeing why you think it says otherwise. I’ll cop to giving the post a catchy title that’s more black-and-white than the post itself–is it just the title that bothers you?

    1. Timothée says:

      I think it’s the title that bothered me the most. I’m not agreeing with the distinction in the post either, as these “worldviews” are likely to change depending on the type of problem we face (and the way we think about the problem). I think what really bothers me is the drawing of black-and-white distinctions based om things that ultimately, matter very little.

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