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Arbitrary science further ...
Betty Cunnigham responded to my recent e-mail on "arbitrary"
paleontology with the "channeled scablands" controversey in
Washington. For those who did not go to the website, reading it would
make sense before continuing with my response.
First, there is a factual error at this website. They say that
CATASTROPHISM is the antithesis of UNIFORMITARIANISM, apparently a
misunderstanding on their part about what uniformitarianism is. I
think they meant CATASTROPHISM is the antithesis of GRADUALISM.
The argument seems to be that rejection of catastrophic events to
explain the scablands is somehow challenging a "holy" concept of
geology called uniformitarianism. Sigh. The quickest summary of
uniformitariansim is "the present is the key to the past." Sediments
laid down in a swamp or still, anaerobic waters tend to lay down
fine-layered mudstones and shales with various characteristics I won't
go into here. Finding similar mudstones and shales in a geologic
formation would suggest that these rocks were formed under similar
conditions (i.e., swamp) forming at the present day.
Since catastrophic events happen today, and we understand the
sediments produced by those, catastrophism is included under
uniformitarianism - presently, earthquakes, floods, volcanoes, etc.,
lay down sediments and debris of certain natures, and we observe these
in past rocks. Therefore, catastrophic interpretations in no way
Unless the earth started out the size of Jupiter and shrank, or was
tiny and increased in size, or existed under very different physical
laws, or, or, or, or, or, etc., the best evidence suggests we live in
a world governed by the same physical laws as those in operation in
the past. If anyone has serious doubts about the law of
uniformitarianism, please check out any number of introductory texts
on geology and earth science (I say this because I do not wish to
debate how we really know that the past was like the present or other
such questions which are answered in very good detail in most texts).
All this said, Betty has commented that "science is done by people.
People do dumb things." Agreed. But notice that science is
self-correcting. Scientists can and will do dumb things, but others
will catch them, sooner or later. The problem in your example was
resolved when other scientists went out and repeatedly observed what
was being suggested by the main guy (don't remember the name right
now). Also, previously unavailable techniques (viewing formations
from the air) lent a hand in convincing other scientists. And also
notice how the main anatagonist against the "good guy" changed his
mind once he had enough data.
You are right, Betty, scientists ARE people and DO dumb things, but
how does any of this change the scientific method and how it should be
used? In the court of law, we tell people to swear to tell the whole
truth. But this is impossible. Should we tell people instead to tell
what they remember of the truth or what they recollect? No, because
then we have the problem of people leaving out "unnecessary"
information. By telling people to do something technically
impossible, the courts strive to attain as high a standard to truth as
Same with science. We all have opinions, biases, etc., and total
objectivity is impossible, but this is what we shoot for, to practice
science as best as is humanly possible. This is why we try to
encourage distrust of authorities, self examination of the material,
reading the source information (as expounded many times here by Dr.
Holtz), and being open-minded and skeptical at the same time, not an
easy feat. In all, its the best we can humanly do.
Even those of us who study dead reptiles ...
Dept. Biological Sciences
Northern Illinois University