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Re: On the subject of "arbitrary" paleontology



In a message dated 5/29/99 12:30:55 PM Eastern Daylight Time, 
Z966341@wpo.cso.niu.edu writes:

<< I think you are displaying a bias toward experimental procedures in 
science, rather than the scientific method itself.  The problem is, most of 
us are exposed only to experimental science procedures in school but never 
how such things are done in the historical sciences of paleontology, 
archaeology, anthropology, and a number of other areas.  >>

Before commenting I reviewed a number of online definitions of the scientific 
method and all were describing repeatable events. The historical sciences 
obviously cannot meet this criterion.  You're suggesting a modification to 
the definition of repeatability to include sciences based on unique and 
limited evidence.  This same modification would apply to prediction, because 
the historical sciences cannot create new experiments at will.  Paleontology 
is a rigorous science, but its rigor is different from that of some other 
sciences.  I think we're agreeing so far.
The concern is a hypothesis which cannot be tested by finding new evidence, 
as with prediction in a lab science.  What is the significance of many people 
running the same computer program on the same data and getting the same 
result?  This appears to be what you're referring to here:

<<The digital (0101010) data from cladograms is a recipe.  Other researchers 
can re-run that hundreds of times if they doubt the sincereity of the 
publishing researcher.  Or they can read the "recipe" of how each character 
was chosen, and investigate individual characters for themselves, again 
bringing with it repeatability.  Were paleontologists to run the provided 
cladogram data and come up with strange new cladograms, or even minor 
variants not address by the publishing researcher, his/her results could very 
well be falsified.>>

This type of confirmation seems to be more concerned with sincerity and 
completeness of discussion than finding a way to test the hypothesis 
independant of the original data.  Even re-examination of the data by other 
paleontologists with the same result is not a completely secure test, 
particularly because some other paleontologists will probably differ.  
Parsimony is used to evaluate hypotheses, but this is a logical test of a 
logical argument.  (Your example of using parsimony in geology is not 
comparable:

<<Parsimony is an assumption used in all science, not just paleontology.  For 
instance, we come to a section of the stratigraphic column where, as we go up 
(which should be from older to more recent rocks) we begin to find fossils 
and flora that went extinct BEFORE the animals we find underneath them.  Is 
it possible that the entire fauna and flora we're finding represent a 
re-emergence of an earlier system, causing fauna that we usually find after 
them to go extinct?  Is it possible that reports of the extinction of this 
early fauna and flora everywhere else is incorrect, despite the hundreds of 
sections done?  Or could it be simply that the rocks have folded back on 
themselves and overturned, creating the illusion of an ancient system 
springing back to life?>>

This is comparing an anomalous set of data to an established conclusion.  
Here we are concerned with evaluating a hypothesis or comparing two plausible 
hypotheses when there is no established conclusion.)
Because there is no possible objective standard as unarguable as the 
definition of a meter to test a hypothesis or compare two hypotheses, any 
conclusion drawn must be more subjective than a conclusion drawn when such a 
measure does exist.  (I realize that the meter does not apply to hypotheses; 
I am using it as an example of the unarguable.)  The standard you mention is 
consensus:

 <<If we were all using different characters to substantiate our hypotheses, 
the system would be much less reliable -- but this would be readily apparent 
by the several different, non-agreeing trees that would be produced.  Also, 
this would preclude testability, as each person would be re-inventing the 
wheel.  However, this is not what is happening, and usually
researchers are adding to already defined character sets.  As I emphasized 
before, the consensus is remarkable.>>
and again:
<<Whatever shred [of a hypothesis] is left over, no matter how tiny, that can 
withstand peer review and skepiticism helps bring us that much closer to the 
reality...>>

To overstate the role of consensus here, the truth is whatever people in the 
field declare it to be at a given time. (I'm sorry, someone once published 
that assertion about pathological/problem gambling prevalence measurement and 
the resentment lingers.)  As you say, there is in actuality an ongoing 
dialogue with the honorable intent of approaching the truth.  Postings on 
this list, even, have discussed areas of universal agreement, substantial 
agreement with comparatively few people in the field holding exceptions, and 
some areas which appear to be wide open.  There are sometimes brand new 
assertions, as with turtles most recently, that begin a whole process of 
discussion.
I wouldn't miss these discussions when I can learn about them, though I have 
to do some searching to find out about the terms being used.  However, I do 
not think that the people in these discussions expect to prove theories 
rather than argue interpretations.  When your standard is 'the best' or 'the 
most reasonable' you are working with something other than fact.  Evolution 
is fact, a cladogram is interpretation.  
The alternative is to assert that there are no laws in any scientific field, 
and though you looked at that possibility (see below) I don't think you 
intended to argue it.

(<> and
<<Skepticism, like the kind you valiantly display, is what science thrives 
on, and nothing (perhaps laws?  but probably not) is safe.>>)

If you do want to make that assertion, I look forward to an interesting 
discussion.

By the way, I had asserted that the mechanism of inheritance was still being 
investigated, I wasn't disagreeing with your statement that:
<<We still do not understand many fine scale details, but I'm unaware of a 
biologist or paleontologist who does not think the mechanism by which 
inherited change happens is through the genetic makeup of DNA.>>
though I do think the discussions are broader than 'fine scale details'.
Regards,
 Brian