The hidden complexity of simple models, or Why theorists of all kinds should be troubled by unmodeled variables having dynamical lives of their own

Can ecological theory generate principles that could be usefully generalized across ecological situations? Particularism has been a perennial attraction in ecology, but a new source of doubt gained momentum by the end of the 1980s after theorists started looking at “indirect interactions”—effects mediated through the populations not immediately in focus, or, more generally, through “hidden variables” that have their own dynamics. How much do indirect effects confound principles derived on the basis of observing the direct interactions among populations? My exploration of this question should challenge not only ecologists, but theorists in all fields that make use of models of any kind of sub-system elevated from the complexity in which the sub-system is actually embedded.

“The hidden complexity of simple models, or Why theorists of all kinds should be troubled by unmodeled variables having dynamical lives of their own,” pp. 180-200 in T. Awerbuch, M. Clark, P. Taylor (eds.) The Truth is the Whole: Essays in Honor of Richard Levins, Arlington MA: The Pumping Station, 2018.

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