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More on "arbitrary" paleontology ...

Hi folks:

Before delving briefly back into this thread, many of you (probably
rightly so) may be questioning the back and forth of the scientific
method and cladistics me and Brian (Philidor11@aol.com) have been
having.  This is, after all, a DINOSAUR list, so why don't we just cut
it out?  The answer is that Brian is bringing up points that all
paleontologists and paleontology-interested people have to contend

What do we really know for sure about dinosaurs?  Because
paleontology is an historic science that does not test repeatable
events, are paleontologists practicing a different scientific method
than experimental scientists?  Is the rigor of our science different? 
To take this to the extreme, are the relationships of dinosaurs and
their functional morphology, paleobiology, and paleoecology mostly
subjective, deductive inferences that make pretty logic but little
else?  These are serious questions to reflect on and search out
answers for.

My frustration with most science education is that we tend to
emphasize repeatable experiments and experimental sciences, while
usually vaguely mentioning paleontology, geology, and other historical
sciences.  Furthermore, most high schools that I am familiar with
(including the one I attended) have an Earth Science class that is
essentially "rocks for jocks" and is almost blatantly made to be a
"dummy" class.  If you are an "advanced" student, your science studies
begin in biology, a "proper" science, and you continue on through
chemistry, physics, and perhaps back into AP biology.  Earth Science
ignorance is a crime, not just because on this list we all like
dinosaurs, but because so much of our understanding of the
environment, mineral resources, fossil fuels, climate, and our effect
on living systems comes from a solid grounding (no pun intended) in
the Earth Sciences.

That said, my frustration grew more when I went on the internet and
into many of my geology and paleontology texts to find either very
vauge definitions of how science is done and practiced in general, and
most emphasize, as Brian pointed out, experiments on repeatable
events.  One gets the sneaking suspiscion that maybe paleontology and
geology are mostly logical constructs, or that they are somehow
bending the rules of scientific inquiry because they cannot run
repeatable experiments.

So, to set things straight, let's define some things here.  You hear
me (actually, you read me) babble on incessantly about testable
hypotheses.  Here's a great definition of a scientific hypothesis:

A scientific hypothesis is an informed, testable, and predictive
solution to a scientific problem that explains a natural phenomenon,
process, or event.

How do we test a hypothesis:

1. Conduct an experiment.

Except, of course, paleontology would seem to exempt here.  How do
you re-run evolution?  Can you really observe a T. rex alive and
kicking (or predating or scavenging or whatever)?  Well, of course
not, but you can't make a star, or create a spiral galaxy from
scratch, build a mountain, etc.  Yet, no one seems to question that we
can have perfectly testable hypotheses about an expanding universe or
mountain building events that are testable and repeatable.  But are we
"breaking the rules" by not being able to conduct a repeatable
experiment in a lab somewhere or in the field?  Absolutely not!  We
can also test a hypothesis another way:

2. Make further observations/Repeated observations.

Thus, there are two ways to test a hypothesis: experiment and
repeated observations, and both where possible.  Therefore, dinosaur
paleontology is a science on equal par with physics, chemistry, etc.
in that its practitioners develop testable hypotheses that can be
tested through experiment OR further observations.

great introduction to the scientific method, written by a geologist, I
refer any of you wishing to know more about scientific thinking and
the scientific method: 

That said, I plan on addressing more specifically Brian's last e-mail
in this thread at a later date and also as to not clutter your e-mail
boxes any more.

Trying to keep the dinosaur discussion scientific,

Matt Bonnan
Dept Biological Sciences
Northern Illinois University