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Like Hercules and the Hydra: Trade-offs and Strategies in Ecological Model-Building and Experimental Design

Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 2016

Experimental ecologists often invoke trade-offs to describe the constraints they encounter when choosing between alternative experimental designs, such as between laboratory, field, and natural experiments. In making these claims, they tend to rely on Richard Levins' analysis of trade-offs in theoretical model-building. But does Levins' framework apply to experiments? In this paper, I focus this question on one desideratum widely invoked in the modelling literature: generality. Using the case of generality, I assess whether Levins-style treatments of modelling provide workable resources for assessing trade-offs in experimental design. I argue that, of four strategies modellers employ to increase generality, only one may be unproblematically applied to experimental design. Furthermore, modelling desiderata do not have obvious correlates in experimental design, and when we define these desiderata in a way that seem consistent with ecologists' usage, the trade-off framework falls apart. I conclude that a Levins-inspired framework for modelling does not provide the content for a similar approach to experimental practice; this does not, however, mean that it cannot provide the form.

When Less Manipulation Is More: Philosophical Reflections on Experimental Trade-offs in Field Biology

In Progress

To underwrite the value of non- and less manipulative experimental approaches, such as natural and field experiments, many field biologists and philosophers of biology invoke a trade-off between realism and experimental control. In this paper, I make explicit and evaluate the often unarticulated assumptions underlying invocations of this purported trade-off, focusing on the work of ecologist Jared Diamond. I argue that the strength of this trade-off is a function of at least four parameters. This multidimensional approach to understanding experimental trade-offs helps to clarify when and why less experimental manipulation can be epistemically advantageous.