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Re: Non-speculative topic



>colin.swift@sympatico.ca wrote:
>
>>
>> If we stuck to the facts - just the facts, as Stephenson/Joe Friday would
>> have it - then all any paleontologist could do is describe the fossils...
>> NOT the creature they came from, but the fossils themselves; morphology,
>> composition, placement in the bed, etc. - because these are observable,
>> repeatable etc.  None of the threads on bolide impacts, stealthy
>> egg-predators, swimming mammoths, tripping-up tyrannosaurs, sauropod feeding
>> habits, would have any place in such a rigorously scientific discussion.
>> One might well ask - what's left to discuss?

In point of fact, the swimming mammoth, tripping tyrannosaur, and sauropod
feeding topics have all been the subject of one or more rigorously
scientifically discussed papers!

When some member of the net (myself included) show some hostility towards
"speculation", what we are really hostile towards are "untested, or
untestable, hypotheses".

Sciene is NOT simply about describing the dimensions and properties of
natural things.  Science is the practice in which we employ falsifiable
hypothese to examine the natural world.  For a hypothesis to be scientific,
there must a) be a manner in which we can clearly demonstrate it is UNtrue
and b) we must then TRY and prove that hypothesis wrong.  (The academic
practices of history and linguistics do the same with hypotheses of human
events and language).

Hypotheses themselves are a form of speculation (could mammoths swim to
Santa Catalina? what would happen if a _T. rex_ tripped at 20 m/s? did
sauropods rear up on their hindlegs to reach the tree tops, and then rake
the leaves and needles off with their teeth? [and a personal favorite] did
tyrannosaurids share a more recent common ancestor with allosaurids or with
small theropods?).  However, to be scientific, we must start off with some
evidence to suggest the possibility (i.e., thinking from the start that
mammoths reached Catalina by teleportation isn't particularly scientific,
because teleporation itself has not been demonstated in the supraatomic
world).

Pseudoscience and some less-than-rigorous science stop at this point: they
present an idea, and some evidence to suggest that idea is true.  To be
analysed in a scientific manner, however, you must go to the next step:

Then, we must frame our hypothesis in such a manner in which it could be
proven.  This step is also called "experimental design".  In paleontology,
comparative anatomy, functional morphology, biomechanics, microscopic
analyses, phylogenetic analyses, footprint analyses, etc. are the means by
which experiments are set up in order to falsify our hypotheses.  If it were
found that modern elephantids could not swim, or that tyrannosaurids could
not stand the acceleration from tripping at 20 m/s, or that rearing would
exceed sauropod structural limits and that their teeth showed no sign of
wear, or that the most parsimonious distribution of derived characters in a
particular data matrix found tyrannosaurids shared a more recent common
ancestor with allosaurids than with coelurosaurs, then we would reject the
appropriate hypothesis.

If, on the other hand, the results do not contradict the hypothesis, then it
is (temporarily) accepted.  However, it is then open for anyone else to
reanalyse with new data or techniques.

Dinosaurian research has attracted a lot of speculation without attempts at
falsifiability (or attempts at falsification).  Some particular extinction
hypotheses have been accepted even when the speculated events do not match
the actual patter of fossil distributions, for example.  Of somewhat less
signficance, some speculation is potentially falsifiable, although the data
to test the hypotheses may not be immediately forthcoming (i.e., feathers in
dromaeosaurids, which are equivocal on a phylogenetic basis (unless a taxon
more distantly related to birds is shown to have feathers) and on a
taphonomic basis (no dromaeosaurid has yet been found preserved in sediments
capable of retaining feather impressions).

I hope this helps to clear things up.  Talk to you all later,

Thomas R. Holtz, Jr.
Vertebrate Paleontologist     Webpage: http://www.geol.umd.edu
Dept. of Geology              Email:th81@umail.umd.edu
University of Maryland        Phone:301-405-4084
College Park, MD  20742       Fax:  301-314-9661

"There are some who call me...  Tim."