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Q Rev Biol. 1987 Dec;62(4):397-409.

Hypothesis testing in ecology: psychological aspects and the importance of theory maturation.

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Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, Aiken, SC 29801.


Proper hypothesis testing is the subject of much debate in ecology. According to studies in cognitive psychology, confirmation bias (a tendency to seek confirming evidence) and theory tenacity (persistent belief in a theory in spite of contrary evidence) pervasively influence actual problem solving and hypothesis testing, often interfering with effective testing of alternative hypotheses. On the other hand, these psychological factors play a positive role in the process of theory maturation by helping to protect and nurture a new idea until it is suitable for critical evaluation. As a theory matures it increases in empirical content and its predictions become more distinct. Efficient hypothesis testing is often not possible when theories are in an immature state, as is the case in much of ecology. Problem areas in ecology are examined in light of these considerations, including failure to publish negative results, misuses of mathematical models, confusion resulting from ambiguous terms (such as "diversity" and "niche"), and biases against new ideas.

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