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Re: On the subject of "arbitrary" paleontology



In a message dated 5/28/99 3:05:47 AM Eastern Daylight Time, 
Z966341@wpo.cso.niu.edu writes:

<<  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). >>

These are two different procedures, one data gathering, the other reviewing a 
hypothesis.  Also, don't different scientists look at different characters, 
searching for monophyly?

<<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.>>
Yes.  
On repeatability, though, when 'cold fusion' was discovered or the sheep was 
cloned other scientists did not ask for the lab notes or even the sheep.  
They asked for the recipe which would allow them to do the same thing in 
their labs.  The concern is repeatability of the process of making something. 
 As you say, we cannot 're-run evolution again and again'.  One of the 
'constraints and problems' is the absence of this kind of repeatability.
(By the way, I just read that Dolly the cloned sheep's telomeres caps on her 
chromosomes--they prevent the genetic material from fraying--have been 
wearing down unusually quickly.  This may or may not be because she was 
cloned from a 6 year old sheep.)

<<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.>>

Assuming that the original interpretation was logical and included all of the 
available data, 'a re-examination of already collected material'  is not as 
significant a danger as changes in the data itself.  The existence of a 
logical, inclusive alternate interpretation does not automatically invalidate 
another interpretation, though it does hint at insufficient data.  
Leaving aside how vulnerable cladistic interpretations are to questions about 
time, as implied by 'a new date',  the connection being stated involves known 
animals.  As I understand prediction, this has to involve things that have 
not occurred or at least been studied yet.
The closest thing to a prediction I can think of is a statement like, 'If 
these two animals are related as I say, then a fossil will be found in this 
place dating from this time with these characters.'  A hypothesis could wait 
a long time to be supported/refuted in this way.  There are theories in 
physics with the same problem,  I understand.

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

I don't have the knowledge or experience of the people who decided to use 
parsimony as a way to evaluate theories.  However, the need for something 
like parsimony in forming judgements does show that the data itself is 
insufficient to support/refute theories.

<< 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.>>

Hmmm.  Evolutionary biology hasn't completely sorted out the 
mechanism-related issues of mutation, selection, etc., has it?  Sometimes 
evidence of an effect can be sufficient.  My point, though, was that people 
do tend to get 'invested' in an idea they have held for years and become less 
than eager to change their minds.  I think you can agree with that?

<<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! =)>>

Here we have reached agreement!  (Notice how your second sentence modifies 
the first.)  Just add your point that paleontology inevitably has 'a 
different set of constraints and problems'  from other sciences (I'd add:  
which limit its application of the scientific method), and the Socratic 
method has worked again!
As you say, this is fun.