“No scientific theory is worth anything unless it enables us to predict something which is actually going on. Until that is done, theories are a mere game of words, and not such a good game as poetry.” – J. B. S. Haldane
I think this is a nice quote from a famous scientist, and I have thought along similar lines in the past. But, as I sit here now I think I disagree with Haldane on this one. Having read many theoretical papers that turn out to be wrong or misguided for some reason or another I think that there is significant value in them.
Their value may stem from the science per se, but rather from the research that they inspire (either to prove the theory true or false). I think a classic example of this is Robert May’s 1973 paper on stability of random food webs. He found that increasing connectance, number of species, and interaction strength all destabilized food webs. However, as pointed out in a paper by Alan Roberts, May’s methods were not ecologically realistic, and that by eliminating “ghost species” (those with equilibrium density less than 0) the results are opposite to what May found.
Nonetheless May’s paper became highly cited and sparked decades of research on food webs and stability (so-called stability-complexity debate) that has led to many interesting discoveries in search of what he termed “deviant strategies.”