Experiments in ecology and management: Their logics, functions and interpretations

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Abstract

Experimental tests of clearly articulated hypotheses are an increasingly widespread feature of modern marine ecology. Increased use of experiments has not, however, been accompanied by increased understanding of the logical structure of falsificationist tests. Most observations can be explained by several different models or theories. To distinguish among these requires demonstration of the falsity of the consequences or predictions of incorrect models. This is best achieved by deriving from each model one or more hypotheses (predictions) about the type, form or nature of observations that should occur in some not-yet-examined set of circumstances. Because of logical constraints on the possibility of proving the correctness of such hypotheses, they must be inverted to form logical null hypotheses which comprise all alternative possibilities to those predicted in the hypotheses. Correctness or not of null hypotheses can then be ascertained by an appropriately designed experiment (or test), leading to unambiguous rejection or retention of the null hypotheses. The former corroborates the hypotheses and provides support for the correctness of the explanatory model for the original observations. In contrast, retention of a null hypothesis identifies an incorrect model. The growth of knowledge is thus the elimination of false models, theories and explanations.

Ecological experiments usually require statistical procedures for determining whether or not null hypotheses should be retained. Construction of statistical null hypotheses (i.e. definitions of parameters of frequency distributions of test statistics) sometimes requires that these be identical to logical hypotheses (and not to the logical nulls). This leads to irrational acceptance of hypotheses and the models or theories from which they were derived. It also poses immense problems for determinations of statistical power of experiments.

Ecological experiments are analysed to reveal the nature of, and linkages between, their components in relation to falsificationism, statistical procedures and the logical properties and interpretations of ecological theories.

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