Island Biogeography, Species-Area Curves, and Statistical Errors: Applied Biology and Scientific Rationality

When Kangas suggested in 1986 that wildlife reserve designs could be much smaller than previously thought, community ecologists attacked his views on methodological grounds (island biogeographical theory is beset with uncertainties) and on conservation grounds (Kangas seemed to encourage deforestation and extinction). Kangas' defenders, like Simberloff, argued that in a situation of biological uncertainty (the degree/type of deforestation-induced extinction), scientists ought to follow the epistemologically conservative course and risk type-II error (the risk of not rejecting a null hypothesis that is false), rather than type-I error. (This is the risk of rejecting a null hypothesis that is true). Kangas' opponents, like Noss, argued that, in a situation of scientific uncertainty, scientists ought to risk type-I, rather than type-II, error. This essay argues that there are different types of rationality appropriate to science and applied science and, therefore, in cases of applied science (like conservation biology), the more conservative course of action is for scientists to risk type-I error. The essay argues further that, on grounds of scientific rationality, Kangas, Simberloff, and others were correct in risking type-II error, but that, on grounds of decision-theoretic rationality, Noss, Waide, and others were correct in risking type-I error.
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