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Re: On the subject of "arbitrary" paleontology



Okay.

Brian said:
"I would 
disagree that having a second scientist look at the same evidence and
produce 
a similar hypothesis necessarily proves repeatability."

Umm, I think you're misunderstanding me.  The scientist is not
inventing a similar hypothesis -- a hypothesis is tested by having
others repeatedly do the same thing.  In experimental sciences,
chemical assays are run or protons are smashed together again and
again, the data compiled and analyzed and compared.  In historical
sciences, scientists look at the same defined characters as the
original researcher (usually hoping to falsify the hypothesis).

As frustrating as it may be, we cannot re-run evolution again and
again -- but this does not make paleontology any less scientific than
physics or chemistry.  We are under a different set of constraints and
problems.  We may not be able to witness evolution in a lab, but we
can sure look at the collected material, observe the stratigraphic
column repeatedly, etc.  That is repeatability, and collected material
and the stratigraphic column can be observed by multiple researchers.

To continue:
"Also, to 
predict 'relationships' of animals means only that the theory can be

extended, not falsified.
  For contrast, relativity is a theory which can predict events not
available 
for study when the theory was formulated.  It can be refuted by
accessible 
facts, not just judged by rules like parsimony which themselves have
been 
established by consensus or refuted by fossils which may never be
found."

Again, this is a misunderstanding.  Predicting relationships of
animals and relativity theory are in the same boat.  Both can be
falsified.  The prediction of relationships is the risky part!  All it
takes is one fossil, a new date, a re-examination of already collected
material, and your hypothesis is destroyed, not extended.

The theory of relativity does predict events not available for study,
but so does cladistics.  You said yourself we don't have all the
fossils, and one doesn't always get an "answer" they were looking for.
 Take Olivier Rieppel at the Field Museum whose recent cladistical
analysis suggests turtles may be archosaurs!  Since the common
"accepted" hypothesis was that turtles represented anapsids, the most
ancient and "primitive" reptiles, Rieppel should have gotten what
everyone else did if there was no real predictive power or everything
was assumptions in cladistic methodology.  Instead, many researchers
have good reason to go back and look at turtles more seriously.  Are
they archosaurs?  That's the risky prediction, without lots of fossils
pointing the way.  Time will tell, as with the theory of relativity --
no one has yet experienced first-hand major time dilation (not the few
millisecond differences from shuttle missions), so its impact on
biological organisms and the twin-paradox has yet to be demonstrated. 
How does this affect the theory of relativity?  Are these "accessible
facts"?

[As an aside, we should avoid using the word "fact."  It has too many
connotations.  The word "fact" asserts some sort of ultimate truth.  I
have a yellow chair.  That's a fact.  What does that mean?  Data is a
better word.  Scientists collect and observe data.]

What's wrong with parsimony?  What's your solution or how would you
address this?

Continuing:
"Well, I've read that the history of science does show inconvenient
data is 
often explained away as an exception for a while, until the exception
becomes 
unavoidable and existing theory changes.  Consider plate
techtonics."

This is mixing the paradigm shifts idea with plate tectonics.  Plate
tectonics was not accepted as scientific theory not because it didn't
agree with the particular paradigm or reigning world view of the
scientific elite.  It was not accepted because its original proposers
had no mechanism for how it worked.  Wegner had a great idea, but
great ideas in science need mechanisms and testability.  There are
still a few hold-outs on the expanding earth theory, but it has never
been accepted by the scientific community at large because they do not
have a mechanism for how the earth would expand and hence no
testability.

The mid-Atlantic ridges and other regions under the oceans finally
provided the mechanism by which continental plates move across the
surface of the earth. 

Finally:
"However, the absence of an objective, 
final standard (like the meter, which can be very precisely measured
by a lab 
anywhere) to say when reasonable argument ends is frustrating, and
that 
frustration does have an effect."

Yes, but the meter is not a scientific hypothesis.  It is a
measurement standard only.  It tells us nothing, it predicts nothing,
and is a convenient standard of measurement.  Like a scientific law,
it can be demonstrated over and over that the meter is so many
light-nanoseconds long (or whatever the current measure is), but again
has no predictive power.  The hypothesis and theory are the most
powerful tools in science because they are risky and have predicitive
power.    

Reasonable argument usually ends when most scientists are satisfied
with how the hypothesis fits the available evidence.  It will never be
completely objective, and you will never have complete agreement. 
Sorry, that is very frustrating! =)

Thanks for the continued argument, it's been interesting.

Matt Bonnan
NIU