, Volume 137, Issue 2, pp 161-170
Date: 28 Jun 2003

How much variance is explained by ecologists? Additional perspectives

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Abstract

A recent meta-analysis of meta-analyses by Møller and Jennions (2002, Oecologia 132:492–500) suggested that ecologists using statistical models are explaining between 2.5% and 5.42% of the variability in ecological studies. Although we agree that there is considerable variability in ecological systems that is not explained, we disagree with the approach and general conclusions of Møller and Jennions. As an alternate perspective, we explored the question: "How much ecological variation in relationships is not explained?" We did this by examining published studies in five different journals representative of the numerous sub-disciplines of ecology. We quantified the proportion of variance not explained in statistical models as the residual or random error compared to the total variation in the data set. Our results indicate that statistical models explain roughly half of the variation in variables of interest, vastly different from the 2.5%–5.42% reported by Møller and Jennions. This difference resulted largely from a different level of analysis: we considered the original study to be the appropriate level for quantifying variability while Møller and Jennions combined studies at different temporal and spatial scales and attempted to find universal single-factor relationships between ecological variables across study organisms or locations. Therefore, we believe that Møller and Jennions actually measured the universality of single factor effects across multiple ecological systems, not the amount of variability in ecological studies explained by ecologists. This study, combined with Møller and Jennions', illustrates importance of applying statistical models appropriately to assess ecological relationships.