Ill-posed questions in ecology

The complexity of natural systems creates several recurring problems in ecological research that can compromise study results and invalidate conclusions about management implications. These problems are analyzed by Dr. Craig Loehle of NCASI in a recent paper titled “Complexity and the problem of ill-posed questions in ecology” (Ecological Complexity 8:60-67).

Ill-posed questions are questions for which there are either no answers or only ambiguous (nonunique) answers. For example, some ecological theories are untestable because the objects of the theory are idealized and cannot be related to the real world, because terminology is vague, or for other reasons.

Inconsistent classification systems are also an issue. For example, map classifications lose rare habitat types when larger scale maps are created and thus, habitat diversity metrics change with different levels of map resolution.

Suggestions are offered for recognizing and dealing with ill-posed questions in ecology. The first thing is to ask whether answering a question of interest requires measuring objects or processes that cannot be observed.

If the question is ill-posed due to vague terminology or incomplete theory, there are many things one can do to help develop the theory further. Sometimes one can address a
related question that is more concrete and operational.

For example, instead of trying to measure “competition,” one can evaluate growth or reproduction as affected by density. If a metric is divergent or inconsistent, results may need to be explicitly stated in terms of the measurement frame (scale, method, measurements). 

Finally, statistically ill-posed questions require more care in setting up the problem and in specifying what is being tested. 

Contact Information