Advice to empiricists from Alan Grafen


Spotted inĀ Grafen, A. (1987). Measuring sexual selection: why bother.

To field workers, I would say: whatever you do, don’t go out and measure a parameter in somebody else’s model. Few things could be more fruitless. Your role is not to be a theoretician’s technician. Instead you are at least the theoretician’s equal and would be better employed doing one of three things. First, study an as yet unmodelled problem. Show the world that this problem is interesting and important, and outline what you see as its main features. Let theoreticians then busy themselves, working out in more and more detail that you had indeed got it nearly all right in the first place. Meanwhile, you can have discovered another interesting problem. Make the theoreticians come to you. After all, your function now is to provide the material which will determine what theoreticians will find interesting in five years’ time and beyond.

The second useful role of the field worker is to cut the Gordian knots of the theoreticians. For example, a debate is raging overhead about whether or not sufficient variability can be maintained in heritable fitness to make it worth while for a female to pay costs to choose a male solely for the inherited fitness of her offspring. Ultimately, this is a question that in theory will depend on the plausibility of various parameter values and details of the models. An empirical demonstration in reasonably natural conditions that fitness is often inherited from father to offspring in the absence of paternal care would radically change the nature of the debate. No longer would the plausibility of the conditions for maintaining this heritability be the hot topic, but rather what forces are actually responsible for it, and how strong are they? The empiricist must try to stop theoreticians wasting their time on empirical questions, if it is thought they could spend their time more profitably.

The third role of the empiricist is to undermine the theoretician by casting doubt on his accepted premises. What empirical demonstration would most embarass this model? How can I make this theory seem truly pointless? And so on. Go for the jugular.

Grafen, A. (1987). Measuring sexual selection: why bother?
J.W. Bradbury, M.B. Andersson (Eds.), Sexual Selection: Testing the Alternatives, John Wiley, Chichester (1987), pp. 221-233.