Tribalism in the sciences: empiricists vs. theoreticians


In complex societies, tribes inevitably emerge when individuals with similarities band together, to promote and defend their own interests. I’m not going to go all Jared Diamond on you and pretend to be an anthropology scholar. But I can go so far as to claim that like individuals gravitate to like, and then things have the potential to get ugly.

Scientific tribes are based on ideas. These often track one’s scientific lineage, but ultimately your own ideas — and the people with whom you associate — become your tribe.

Like in any social group, membership in a tribe offers a blend of benefits and costs. Tribes can expand your influence and power, though mostly only as far as the reach of your tribe. The leaders of tribes might be propelled into a greater role beyond the tribe, but the rank-and-file members of the tribe are stuck in that group.

In science, you can join a tribe, but you don’t have to. If you’re research active and collaborate, it takes some work to avoid drifting into one.

The problem with these tribes is that most people haven’t learned how to play nice. What’s worse, is that people have trouble separating out criticism of ideas from personal attacks. Some people conflate the two together. Others use personal attacks when they aren’t necessary or warranted.

On an unsettled topic, I occasionally do enjoy me a good argument, if I think it’s going somewhere and I have the capacity to learn or make a difference.

That’s a rare opportunity, because it seems that most interlocutors are not entering into discussion to genuinely convince another person, or with a mind that is adequately open to change. Instead, people enter an argument to win. I’m open to being convinced, but instead of getting a convincing argument, I usually get an attack on my ideas rather than a sales job on more attractive ideas.

That’s no good. That kind of discussion isn’t worth my time. I’d rather be exposed to something that has the capacity for a positive change, either on myself or others.

Those polemics used to be something I used to like, I think, though it was a while ago. I went to one of those liberal arts colleges where it’s not uncommon to find yourself staying awake into the wee hours of the morning discussing politics, history, religion, science, sociology and the nature of existence, and where all of these ideas intersect. I loved it. At the time, the school was as diverse as a privileged expensive school could possibly be, so there was always someone to disagree with you. It was an intellectually challenging environment, and I loved it. I learned a lot about how to disagree with people but still maintain respect for, and from, others. I wasn’t always successful, but I learned that this respect this is a priority. One model for this kind of collegiality is the late Paul Wellstone.

It turns out that most people haven’t developed that skill, even scientists with PhDs. Perhaps they have the skill but not the patience to exercise it. Or, maybe, they have the skill but have decided that winning an argument is more important to establish social dominance within a tribe. Social dominance within a tribe is important, because in a tribal environment you can only get ahead unless you’re leading the tribe.

This is why scientists often engage in pointless arguments in which nobody changes their minds.

One example is the recent kerfuffle when E.O. Wilson was the author of a Nature magazine article with a complex population demography model that purportedly supported group selection over kin selection in the evolution of eusociality. (I have to admit that, despite a few careful reads, I mostly but not entirely understood the technical merits of the paper.) The massive backlash from the kin selectionist tribe was not based on the actual science in the article, but instead at the inflammatory (and factually incorrect) statements within the article directed at the other tribe. Wilson designed the paper to start a hissyfit, and it did. There were several letters published in response to the article, which essentially were designed to punish Wilson for offending the tribe which he used to lead.

Both sides wanted to win the argument. Meanwhile, in all honesty, I can’t think of a single person who was an author to any of the articles or rebuttals that has deliberately and publicly sought to reconcile the ample contradictory evidence that exists. I think most of the people involved really wish to understand the science of how eusociality has evolved so many times, and under what selective forces. But nearly everything published is tribal in nature. Why is that?

I suspect that the benefits of the tribe outweigh the costs and limitations. it’s easier to lead a tribe than forge your own way. It’s not only easier intellectually, it can be better for one’s career. Ecology is filled with a history of feuds among tribes, and I’m sure other disciplines are the same way. The leaders of these tribes now have named professorships, big salaries, and are revered as great elders within their subsubfields. That’s what you get for leading a tribe.

To ascend to leadership of a tribe, you have to have certain attributes. One prerequisite is that you need to have an academic position at well-known research institution. Since I work in a small pond, that rules me out of tribal leadership. Unless I pick up and move to a place where I have PhD students, a big lab, and larger grants, I’ll never get past the status of beta male.

Since I can’t ascend to tribal leadership, why would I want to join a tribe? There are benefits to being a member of the tribe, but there are also costs and limitations. The benefits are small enough for me that I don’t want to incur those costs. A few years ago, I stuck my neck out to publicly support a well-established member of a tribe who was attacked by a rogue journalist, and at the first opportunity he disavowed my support, by lying to me, in a major public diss. It seems I’m not able to join that tribe, after all. (I don’t mind bringing it up here because, after all, I was already totally dissed as insignificant by this guy.) You won’t see me doing that again.

As the proprietor of this blog, I have to be particularly conscious about how tribalism works, as heavily expressing an opinion here or there could easily shift me towards a tribal affiliation, even though I wouldn’t get much benefits from the tribe. I can’t think of many scientific issues on which I feel the need to choose one side or the other. (Of course, I’m not counting non-controversies that make it into the media as controversies.) On the other hand, I am inclined to call out the ridiculousness of arguments when both sides aren’t listening to one another well enough.

I’m a member of a few clearly defined social groups, reflecting who I spend my time with in the sciences. These mostly include social insect researchers and also those who work in tropical rainforests, mostly at one particular field station. That group numbers easily in the hundreds to a few thousand. It’s a good crowd. But I stay out of arguments, like the silly one about Wilson that I mentioned above. I’m not an ant tribalist, or a La Selva tribalist. But those are the people with whom I run.

Which brings me to the current events that prompted me to write this post.

The latest tribalist kerfuffle started this weekend, yet again with E.O. Wilson, the gentleman rabble-rouser. He wrote an op-ed piece run by Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal, in which he argued that you didn’t have to be good at math to become a great scientist.

I agree with his idea, with some caveats. His supporting arguments weren’t that robust, mostly trumpeting his own success and ability to collaborate with top-notch modelers.

This didn’t stop some people from taking huge exception, yet again, like clockwork. There’s a good discussion over at Dynamic Ecology about Wilson’s notion that math isn’t important for generating new ideas.

It’s no coincidence that Wilson’s position on math comes not too long after he used some very sophisticated math to make an argument that got aroused tribal anger. The incongruity of the position that “math doesn’t matter but complex math is the main support of my controversial stance” is sending some people into fits.

Of course, this had to have been entirely calculated by Wilson, who wanted to start this argument. I think it’s a good discussion for us to have, broadly speaking, about the attributes that we need to develop to make creative scientists. That’s where this discussion is going, I suspect he hopes, once the outrage passes.

What are the tribes engaged in this argument that was prompted by Wilson? It’s one as old as the field: the empiricists vs. the theoreticians.


The theoreticians essentially have ruled the roost for the last fifty years in ecology. There’s always been a place for work that is driven by empirical investigation, which in fact occupies far more pages in journals that the more math-intensive theoretical work. Despite being outnumbered, the theoretically-focused researchers are the ones who tend to fill up the editorial boards, publish in the highest-impact journals, and attract the biggest crowds at conferences. There clearly is a celebrity culture in the field, and the top theoreticians mostly rank higher than the top empiricists.

Keep in mind that this is an artificial dividing line. Few are wholly theoretical or empirical. However, for those that have clearly identified affiliations, the theoreticians are in charge. They’ll probably tell you that their status has emerged because their work is more valuable. When David Tilman received an award from the Ecological Society, the main point of his address was that you should do theoretical work just like he does because other work is less valuable. That’s gutsy.

If theoreticians are so in charge of affairs, then why are they so upset when someone says that mathematically-driven theories are a footnote to science rather than the heart of it? That op-ed piece, after all, isn’t going to change what the theoreticians allow to be published in the top journals in the field. Why get so upset?

They’re upset because it came from Wilson. This man built his fame, in part, using theoretical models using somewhat to very fancy math, with collaborators who were good at math. He essentially wrote that he was the ideas man and that the math collaborators are easy to come by. If he mentioned Robert MacArthur by name as one of the easy-to-come-by-theoretical-collaborators, then all hell would have broken loose, considering MacArthur’s status as a tribe leader before his untimely death.

For an empiricist who built his reputation with the help from more analytically minded coauthors who often did the rhetorical heavy-lifiting, it’s pretty brutal for Wilson to overtly suggest in the Wall Street Journal that his contributions were the important ones. He was the man with the vision and those other guys with the math could have been anybody.

Now that’s gotta hurt.

If I was a theoretician, you’re damn right I’d be pissed off.

I’d be pissed off because I ‘d have difficulty separating the logic of Wilson’s argument from the personal nature of his message. What’s Wilson’s argument? That you can have great ideas, and make those ideas come into reality and make scientific progress happen, without being particularly good at math. You need to be okay at the math, but you don’t have to obsess on it.

Is that true? Well, partially. But it’s not true if you’re going to become a theoretician.

So why are theoreticians so offended, if Wilson says that there’s another valid route to become a scientist that isn’t driven by math-heavy theories? I think it’s because many of the them think that the central ideas in the sciences nowadays are mostly mathematical.

Are there major progresses to be made without a lot of math? My initial thought is: hell yes there are. We’re still in the wild west of scientific discovery, with huge frontiers yet to be explored. Not everybody agrees with that, though.

That is an interesting debate, in my view.

As I’m not in the theoretical tribe, I can look at this with some distance. I can do that because my contributions weren’t directly insulted, and I am in a position to separate the concept of his argument from the people in the argument.

Wilson, in a rhetorically inelegant fashion, just reignited the ol’ empirical vs. theoretical fight. I think if he were rhetorically elegant, it would have passed unread. It would have been too intellectual for Fox News The Wall Street Journal. And it’s such an old saw that typical venues wouldn’t be interested in hearing it. I wonder if the WSJ was his first choice.

Here, is the essence of the disagreement:

Are the central concepts in science based on equations and mathematical relationships, or are they built on broader principles that do not have to be described by mathematical models?

Here is how I reconcile the disagreement: All relationships can be described with math. To fully understand any phenomenon, math is the language of nature and the language of science. Math is key to understanding patterns and relationships, as math essentially the only way they can be expressed in a specific form, other than using logic. However, in order to be able to write the equations that describe the patterns, we must first be able to know what the variables are, and how they might be able to relate to one another. Wilson’s point, though written inelegantly, was that many of the potential relationships that might exist haven’t even yet come to our attention. You can’t build the model without knowing which variables to put into the model.

The fundamental divide between empiricists and theoreticians is a disagreement about whether we know what the most important variables are. Empiricists are in search of the variables, and theoreticians are seeking to develop the specific patterns among variables. When empiricists do experimental and observational research, they’re testing whether specific things matter, and if so, how.

A few times in my career as an empiricist, I think I’ve come upon new variables, or shown in a very clear way that the relationships between a few variables matters in a way that wouldn’t compel theoreticians without theoretical evidence. I am not as personally interested in working out the specific relationships between key variables as I am sorting out which variables matter.

I think the same could be said about Wilson. He thought that the size of an island, and its shape and distance from the mainland (and so on) would be very predictive of the species richness on an island. Then, he buddied up with MacArthur who worked with him on the details. I think they both were important – perhaps essential – in the development of the Theory of Island Biogoegraphy. I don’t know the history enough to know whether this is something that MacArthur would have, or could have, done without Wilson. Wilson didn’t invoke this example in his piece. Instead he invoked George Oster, who worked on social insect caste theory with Wilson. In this case, Wilson was clearly the social insect ideas man and Oster was the modeling man. I do think that Wilson is correct in this case – that Oster couldn’t have done it without Wilson in particular, but that Wilson could have found many modelers to work with him on this monograph. It was inelegant for Wilson to point out this fact. I hope I’m more gracious when I hit that stage of my life.

To slightly rephrase, here’s where the divide lies: does the world still need people who are envisioning these variables in the broad sense, or do we all need to learn how to do the complex math to model relationships?

I think we all should learn the math, we all should learn how to model, and this would inform our world view. However, there are only so many hours in the day. It so happens that some of the most visionary people are the ones that have focused on things other than modeling. It also so happens that some of our visionaries are excellent modelers.

As David Foster Wallace has pointed out (stay tuned for a post later this week): what we learn in our studies is not how to think, but what to think about. Should we think about models, or should we think about what belongs in the models? These are somewhat mutually exclusive, I think. We do need people who think about the latter more than the former.

In my experience, when I spend to much time trying to model relationships, I lose sight of the forest – both in metaphorical and in actual terms. If my projects lead to developing and testing models, I’m all over it. But right now, I’m still trying to identify which relationships matter, because there is so much that remains unknown. (In the coming month, I’ll take the time to write another long post about how avoiding modeling led to a discovery, oddly enough in one of Wilson’s pet genera.)

So yes, I think Wilson is right. You can be a visionary without being a modeler.

Modelers themselves are also visionaries. That’s where Wilson is wrong.

30 thoughts on “Tribalism in the sciences: empiricists vs. theoreticians

  1. Nice post Terry, the preamble alone would’ve been a great post on its own! No time to give you the reply you deserve, but I just gave you a shout-out by updating my post over on Dynamic Ecology (and thanks for your comments over there too).

    I have an old post on what makes for productive debate in science that’s relevant here:

    You might also be interested in the opening section of this old post, where I argue that we have no choice but to continue certain long-standing, tribal-like debates, no matter how repetitive or irresolvable they may seem, because what’s at stake are important matters of principle. They’re like debates between liberal and conservative political philosophies–you can’t ignore them (the stakes are too high), and you can’t resolve them, so all you can do is keep having them.

    • Right on – I think it is often a good argument, as long as there’s the respect. Wilson needed a stronger dose of it. I only met him once really briefly, actually, when I was in grad school, though one generation removed, many of my folk are close with him. Thanks for bringing it up on Dynamic Ecology.

      Tomorrow’s a my one big teaching day, but I’ll get caught up, read more, and probably write an epilogue…

      Tonight, I’m going to share Wilson’s piece with a bunch of high school master science teachers I work with. I’ll be curious to see their reaction.

      • Also interested that you read Wilson’s piece as willful bomb-tossing. I liked the piece much less than you, but even I didn’t see it as a calculated attempt to provoke. It sounds like your view here springs from your reading of Wilson’s work? (just Nowak et al.? or other stuff too?) I’ve never met Wilson and don’t know his work well, though of course I noted Nowak et al. and the unproductive fight over it. But I had the impression from his autobiography and things I’ve read about him that on a personal level he’s a perfect Southern gentleman. Not at all the kind of guy to willfully toss bombs, or to slight his collaborators (even unintentionally, and I’m sure the slight that you and I perceived was unintentional; he’s very fair to his collaborators in his autobiography).

        • Funny enough, my good colleague Rob Dunn, who is an infrequent tweeter, specifically mentioned on twitter how he’s a Southern Gentleman who likes to stir the shit. And he’s worked with Wilson enough to know. I’ve had enough conversations over many beers with former colleagues, students, and other mentees of his to know that’s exactly what he was doing with Nowak et al. I wasn’t sure of this until hearing from people who know him rather well. He probably had the same idea this time. He’s a wonderful, beautiful man. Who also likes to rile things up once in a while.

          I think the slight to Oster was not intentional. That’s what makes me sad about this.

        • Interesting! Clearly, despite being an American, I didn’t actually know what “Southern gentleman” meant until just now… ;-)

  2. Re: the debate that I sparked by rising to Wilson’s debate being a boringly predictable one: I certainly see why you’d say that, and I might even agree to some extent. But lots of people seem not to–the Twitterverse is filled with people (by no means all inexperienced students) talking about how great the Dynamic Ecology comment thread is. Curious what you think of this. Is it just a sign that there are lots of people out there who like to argue, even if the argument is an old, familiar one? Or is it a sign that maybe the debate is richer and less boring than one might have thought?

    • I do appreciate the quality of the substance which is in the comments in your post, after subtracting where people take offense where they shouldn’t. It does seem to me to be, mostly, a recapitulation of the age-old argument. What’s different is that, as every year passes, models take an even greater prominence in ecology, and the level of sophistication is increasing as complex modeling tools become more accessible to people. This changing landscape means that we need to revisit the conversation.

      There’s no excuse for a tinkerer to not be able to use sophisticated models. Intellectual rigor needs to happen everywhere. I despair when people write, “oh I couldn’t understand everything that happens in your blog.” First of all, that’s factually incorrect. Secondly, it communicates a difference in priorities. This might not be bad, but we as a community are not at the point where we could have that conversation. Some of us as individuals can (and it looks like, are) having it. That’s a good sign.

  3. Great post Terry!
    When ever there is this much heat being generated without light, turning to the sociology of science is a good move.

    I agree with pretty much everything you say.

  4. Now that I think about it…I think he is gearing his article towards a different crowd, the young people who want to be scientists but are deterred because they’re not good at math. Some of the things he says might look a bit off from other perspectives.

    • This is an excerpt from his forthcoming advice book. He generated far more publicity thus way than his publisher would ever purchase. I’m wary of the rest of the advice, and whether it’s equally unaware of changes that have happened.

  5. As someone with both a Biology degree and a Math degree, I find it all to be a false dichotomy. Building a model is not just a matter of “crunching the numbers”. Before you can crunch, you have to have numbers. And you have to have some appreciation of how they interact before you can combine them in any meaningful way. But once you have a model, no matter how ideologically sound, you can – and should – analyze the validity of the model from a purely mathematical standpoint. And then when it is mathematically sound, you have to interpret the consequences of the model and the parameters.

    You can’t be just one or the other, any more than Aristotle can do valid science by simply claiming men have more teeth than women, because. You make a hypothesis, you test the hypothesis, you refine the hypothesis. And you never, ever just say “This alone is enough!”

    • I agree – it’s more of a continuum than a dichotomy. It sounds like you’re on the more empirical side. There are plenty of theoretical ecologists who think that the mathematical relationship is, itself, the finding, rather than the descriptor of a more general phenomenon. In some cases, this may have some truth (for instance, scaling principles in metabolic ecology). However, the true innovation is (arguably) the conception that these metabolic scaling relationships exist.

  6. Nice post. I’ve heard the same thing about pot-stirring from a few people who’ve worked with Wilson. Eh, it’s better than everyone following the status quo.

    Anyway, your introduction reminds me of the book The Trouble With Physics, by Lee Smolin. Smolin talks a lot about the “sociology” of string theory; in your vocabulary, he’d say that by joining the tribe, they could solve high-profile problems and get jobs; even if the little progress was made toward solving foundational issues in physics, people could still be successful by making progress within the bubble. Jeremy Fox actually introduced me to the book, by mentioning it in a comment on Dynamic Ecology. About 1/3 is about the actual physics problems with string theory (which I didn’t understand so well…), but interspersed throughout are these very good observations about the culture that I found very informative & broadly relevant.

    • I think I’ve missed that post in Dynamic Ecology – that sounds like a great book. Not only to understand string theory, but how the sociology of the physicists has shaped what people work on.

      • Hi Terry,

        I think I’ve mentioned Smolin’s book once or twice, but I think it was always in passing (?), and back when I was on Oikos Blog (all my old Oikos Blog posts are archived on Dynamic Ecology). So you could easily have missed it. Yeah, I think you’d like it. Large chunks of it are quite technical fundamental physics, I didn’t fully grasp them. But yes, large chunks are about the sociology of science, and would be right up your alley. And from what little I hear, Smolin’s book actually had some effect, the pendulum in physics has been swinging away from the string theory that Smolin attacks.

  7. We talked about the eusociality paper at an EEBB discussion group (Michigan State Univ.) a few years back when it came out and all of our time was spent on trying to articulate and understand multilevel selection. Not once did we consider the possibility that the authoritative message was relayed as such in order to provoke debate. Seems like the most plausible explanation for the op-ed as well. Thanks for the thorough and insightful perspective, Terry.

    • I think the science has a good dose of merit, I’m not yet convinced but I’m not as quick to reject it as most. I didn’t really think of it as an overexaggerated salvo initially, though when you consider how smart a guy Wilson is, he had to have known that would be the response and the one that he wanted to generate.

Leave a Reply