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Re: The Last Dinosaur Book

I'm glad Tom Mitchell has shown up to talk about his book. I hope I never
said he wasn't raising some interesting questions.

We all come with our own cultural baggage, and mine is my training as an
engineer and years writing about physics and other hard sciences. For those
who haven't followed the debate, "cultural relativism" has taken some
serious zapping from the physics community, most visibly a hoax paper
written by a physicist which was accepted and published in a leading
culture of science journal (I don't have the name of the physicist or the
journal at hand). To somebody used to the hard sciences, where you plug
numbers into an equation and get a single unambiguous answer, all this
philosophical and cultural stuff sounds like so much mumbo-jumbo. In other
words, the buzzword pushed a button for me, perhaps the wrong button.

That said, there's a big difference between the physical reality of, say,
dropping a weight off the leaning tower of Pisa and some of the stranger
consequences of quantum mechanics. The weight's going to fall whatever you
think about it, but it's hard to be sure about the quantum weirdness. Tom
has a good point in saying:
>I would prefer to say that science
>is a method for constructing and testing models of reality.  The "mirror"
>metaphor is misleading in its suggestion of passive reflection; it misses
>the whole sense that science is an activity, more like a searchlight or
>probe than a mirror.
As I mentioned in my review, cultural 'distortions' seem more likely to
interpret science that is more interpretive -- like trying to deduce how
dinosaurs lived from bones, footprints, and other fossil evidence. Listen
to the debates over 'feathered dinosaurs' and avian evolution, and
sometimes you suspect that some interpretations are shaped by pre-existing
theories rather than evidence.

Tom wrote:
>(In fact, I discuss Owen's
>creationist, anti-evolutionary agenda for the dinosaur and Huxley's
>response, and try to make it clear that the dinosaur was, from the first, an
>object of debate, a "bone of contention."  There was no single "Victorian
>view" of dinosaurs, but--as has often been documented--a fossil feud).
I know you wrote some about Victorian views, but I would have liked to see
more about how their notion of 'progress' affected them. Perhaps that comes
from my own curiosity, since I became interested in Victorian technology
while working on a book about the history of fiber optics.

My issue with his treatment of the Zallinger mural (a copy of which is on
my wall) may be largely one of his presentation. It read to me as if he
didn't realize what time period it spanned. On page 189 the text calls it
"a chronological panorama comprehending 170 million years of geological
time, from the Devonian to the Cretaceous." I can imagine how the mistake
happened, picking up 170 million years as the duration of the Mesozoic (or
'age of reptiles') from one source, then looking at the mural as 'the age
of reptiles' and assuming it covered the same period. But that's a bad
mistake, because it undermined my confidence that he had done enough
homework to understand and care about the geologic time scale. In writing
for the general reader, I would have noted that although the painting is
titled "The Age of Reptiles" it actually begins in the Devonian, before
there is any evidence of reptiles having evolved. The way that these
discrepancies creep into the popular culture to become widespread
misconceptions is part of cultural history.

As a writer and reviewer, I've learned the hard way that one or two
conspicuous mistakes can undermine the credibility of a whole article or
book. Science-fiction writers talk about "the suspension of disbelief" that
you must sustain to make a science-fiction novel work. Once the reader sees
the little man behind the curtain, the spell is broken. That chronological
gaffe is what pushed me over the threshold with "The Last Dinosaur Book,"
making me suspicious of other statements. (My response to "cultural
relativism" didn't help, either.)

One other observation, alluding to Dinogeorge's comments. When you play
with scientific ideas, the culture of scientists expects you to get the
facts straight. Sometimes they get downright nit-picking. Such are the
rules of the game. They evolved that way for a reason -- too many theorists
didn't want to bother with ugly facts that got in the way of their
beautiful theories <g>.

I could allude to my own "Neanderthal" attitudes, but that's another
cultural icon to discuss.

-- Jeff Hecht

Jeff Hecht     Boston Correspondent    New Scientist magazine
525 Auburn St.,          Auburndale, MA 02466             USA
tel 617-965-3834 fax 617-332-4760 e-mail jhecht@world.std.com
URL: http://www.sff.net/people/Jeff.Hecht/
see New Scientist on the Web: http://www.newscientist.com/