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RE: More on "Arbitrary" Paleontology

On Sunday, June 06, 1999 11:53 AM, W. J. T. Mitchell 
[SMTP:wjtm@midway.uchicago.edu] wrote:
> I've been following this terrific discussion on systematics, taxonomy,
> scientific method, and the difference between historical and experimental
> sciences.  Can I insert one suggestion from my own field of iconology, the
> study of images?  When Matt Bonnan says paleontology can't conduct
> experiments because it's impossible to "re-run evolution,"--"Can you really
> observe a T. rex alive kicking...?" (Sat. June 5)   Well not REALLY. But you
> can do it virtually, hypothetically, notionally, fictionally, and (most of
> all) pictorially.  You can (and, let's face it, you must) construct a
> picture of the living T. rex, a kind of graphic or sculptural experiment
> that can then be tested against new fossil evidence as it becomes available,
> or old evidence as it scrutinized in new ways.  The current revolution that
> is "laying low" the "high browsers" who have been a dominant figure in the
> paleontological images for a century is really the construction of a new
> picture.  This picture also involves a new narrative of the way they moved
> and lived, so it is not just a static, spatial image, but a moving figure.
> Thus we do "replay evolution" in our representations and hypotheses.
> So perhaps we need to think of the idea of "experimentation" in a somewhat
> different way, and include thought experiments, narratives, and pictures as
> hypothetical probes into the real.  Maybe the question is, how do
> experiments in the historical sciences differ from those in the so-called
> "experimental sciences."

I'd be very cautious about this.  There has been a move afoot in some 
completely different areas to adopt this mode of analysis, notably in legal 
scholarship, history and the social sciences.  It has some kind of academic 
name which I can't recall at the moment -- something to do with "Law and 
Humanities" I think.  There are a fair number of vigorous criticisms of 
scholarship by scenario-building or story-telling which apply all the more to 
the harder sciences.

Narratives and picture building serve at least one legitimate purpose in 
science.  They are a springboard for imagination and can be used to create 
testable hypotheses.  In a negative sense, if you assert that a proposition is 
"well-established" (I'll stay away from "proven"), and I can build a scenario 
which explains all the facts through some other mechanism, then I have 
legitimately questioned your assertion.  However, in neither case has the 
scenario proven or explained anything.  Its just a metal picture which might or 
might not eventually lead to a rigorous and testable hypothesis.

Further, the danger in scenario building is that we confuse the arbitrary 
pictorial or narrative elements with scientific fact, we tie together facts 
which are based on quite different lines of proof, and the whole thing tends to 
stand or fall as a unit: facts, hypotheses, speculation, arbitrary narrative or 
pictorial elements.  Look at Bakker's work -- to pick a somewhat controversial 
example.  The man's an incredibly good storyteller in the best sense of the 
word.  But the very artistic merit of Dinosaur Heresies has tended to create an 
orthodoxy of its own which goes well beyond what science justifies at the 
moment.  Instead of firing scientific imagination, scenarios which are taken 
for science can limit real scientific thought by packaging elements which ought 
to be examined separately.  Dinosaur thermoregulation is only somewhat related 
to the biomechanical problem of how the big predators moved and hunted.  Yet 
many people see the two as an inseparable package after Heresies.

Don't get me wrong.  I still love scenario building.  I've posted one or two 
here myself and am working on just such a project.  But scenarios mostly serve 
the functions of art: to arouse, offer new perspectives, create emotional 
attachment or rejection -- not the functions of science.  In many ways, the two 
will always be antithetical.

  --Toby White