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Re: What feathers mean



On Sat, 26 Oct 1996, Lawrence Dunn wrote:

> I feel that this raises some rather alarming questions about 
> paleontology.  It sometimes seems to me that paleontology is based 
> primarily on, frankly, rank speculation based on the flimsiest of 
> evidence, although I recognize that the nature of the data doesn't 
> exactly allow extensive research.  Still, why is caution so often thrown 
> to the wind?  For instance, I heard one scientist declare that 
> Tyrannosaurs were cannibals because Sue's face was "torn off," 
> apparently, by another Tyrannosaur, and this is probably what killed her! 
>  Does this equate?  Couldn't Sue have died and subsequently been 
> scavenged by another Tyrannosaur?  Is this really science?  I hope this 
> question doesn't rankle, but I love dinosaurs and rely completely on the 
> professionals to reconstruct their world for me.  How do you 
> paleontologists feel about your own science?

        As long as the hypotheses put forward are testable and are tested,
it's science, even if they are really far out there and not based on much
evidence. Caution can be a good thing, but there's also the
no-guts-no-glory side, too. Some of the ideas Bakker has argued, for
example, are completely out there. He produces a lot of ideas that are not
sufficiently supported or tested, a lot that are wrong, but he's also come
up with some pretty incredible ideas, as well. If he had the caution not
to draw trunked diplodoci, perhaps he would not have had the guts to
argue for something that initially seems so ridiculous, like a rearing
diplodocus. 
        On the other hand, we have stuff like Ultrasauros, which was based
on too little evidence and accepted with too little skepticism, it would
appear with retrospect and Curtice's work. But I don't think paleontology
is completely unique. A friend with some knowledge of physics confided to
me that quite honestly physicists didn't know half of what most people
thought they did, and I get the idea that some of the high level
theoretical work may have absolutely no connection to reality. We have
also been given cold fusion, tenth planets, the steady-state hypothesis,
and various other ideas that seem to have been based on a minimum of
evidence, all from sciences other than paleontology. To use Ultrasauros
as an example, perhaps everyone saw what they wanted to see, but
-Einstein- spent years of his life trying to see what he wanted, mainly
that the universe was not expanding. He didn't need any paleontological
training to do this. There may be problems in paleontology, but hardly
unique ones.