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Re: More on "arbitrary" paleontology ...

In a message dated 6/5/99 1:45:09 AM Eastern Daylight Time, 
Z966341@wpo.cso.niu.edu writes:

<< Brian is bringing up points that all paleontologists and 
paleontology-interested people have to contend with.
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?  >>

By 'contend with' I assume you mean consider for themselves; do many other 
people start this same debate?  I assert that this discussion of premises is 
the beginning of the testing of cladistics or any other hypothesis in the 
'historic' sciences, and so is highly relevant to dinosaur science on this 
list.  Great summary of this part of the issue, Matt; just by not stopping 
the discussion you've given me (and, I hope, others) some very enjoyable 
The essay you hyperlinked is interesting; I might flunk the associated course 
from being disagreeable and use too much time doing so.  The reason for the 
disagreement is hinted at when Schafersman observes:

<< Scientific and critical thinking was not discovered and developed by 
scientists (that honor must go to ancient Hellenistic philosophers, such as 
Aristotle, who also are sometimes considered the first scientists), but 
scientists were the ones to bring the practice of critical thinking to the 
attention and use of modern society (in the 17th and 18th centuries), and 
they are the most explicit, rigorous, and successful practitioners of 
critical thinking today. >>

Aristotle believed that the truth could be discovered within the inherent 
logical functioning of the human mind; that's why, unlike Galileo, he did not 
drop 2 balls from a tower.  His heirs are those who believe that math so 
perfectly reflects the universe that what is true in math must necessarily be 
true in reality.  This confusion between data and abstraction continues:

<< A highly corroborated hypothesis becomes something else in addition to 
reliable knowledge--it becomes a scientific fact. A scientific fact is a 
highly corroborated hypothesis that has been so repeatedly tested and for 
which so much reliable evidence exists, that it would be perverse or 
irrational to deny it...
There are many such scientific facts: the existence of gravity as a property 
of all matter, the past and present evolution of all living organisms, the 
presence of nucleic acids in all life, the motion of continents and giant 
tectonic plates on Earth, the expansion of the universe following a giant 
explosion, and so forth. >> 
Me:  His NEXT section then goes on to discuss scientific theories:
<< The final step of the scientific method is to construct, support, or cast 
doubt on a scientific theory. A theory in science is not a guess, 
speculation, or suggestion, which is the popular definition of the word 
"theory." A scientific theory is a unifying and self-consistent explanation 
of fundamental natural processes or phenomena that is totally constructed of 
corroborated hypotheses. >>

Because he is not distinguishing between observation/description and 
abstraction, he has already included concepts designated theories as facts.
I think his discussion needs work.

When he considers repetition he discusses only repetition of the initial data 
used in formulating the hypothesis:

<< These observations, and all that follow, must be empirical in nature--that 
is, they must be sensible, measurable, and repeatable, so that others can 
make the same observations.  >>

However, the other aspect of repetition used in what could be called the 
'classic' definition of the scientific method is repeating the process by 
which something previously unknown has been discovered.  The examples we 
discussed included repeating the 'cold fusion' experiment in other labs or 
re-cloning sheep.  This type of repetition is essential in some sciences but 
obviously relevant to the abstract 'discoveries' in the historic sciences 
only to the extent that scientists following the same process of abstraction 
reach the same conclusions.  Again, there is a confusion between the 
empirical (repeating the new procedure) and the abstract (repeating the 
formulation of an interpretation of data).
He also mentions the other problem with comparing the methods of the 
'historic' sciences with those of other sciences:  prediction.

<< The second way to test a hypothesis is to make further observations. Every 
hypothesis has consequences and makes certain predictions about the 
phenomenon or process under investigation. Using logic and empirical 
evidence, one can test the hypothesis by examining how successful the 
predictions are, that is, how well the predictions and consequences agree 
with new data, further insights, new patterns, and perhaps with models. The 
testability or predictiveness of a hypothesis is its most important 
characteristic. >>

He is putting logic and empirical evidence on the same footing, even though a 
concept can be self-consistent and wrong.  When there is no 'new data' can a 
logical concept including all the current data be refuted?  If the answer is 
no, then the concept cannot be refuted, and in that limited sense the concept 
is other than scientific.  Sciences such as paleontology which rely on 
accident for their data are different even from sciences which have other 
available examples; you can always find a new galaxy for hypothesis testing, 
for instance. 

I honestly don't see anything wrong with saying that the 'historic' sciences 
have their own problems and limitations in applying a scientific method 
defined for other sciences.  The only restriction I can see is that some 
concepts, like cladistics and unlike evolution in principle, must always 
remain a work in progress.  Stare decisis is not a concept for the 'historic' 
sciences, and that seems refreshing and challenging.