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Paleontology is science, not art

Toby White says:

Paleontology is not engineering.  It has
precious little economic importance as a means of production, nor is the
knowledge gained likely to be of much practical importance.  It is an
intellectual art form, primarily -- an entertainment medium.  The rules of
the form absolutely require adherence to scientific rigor, but the reason
people will spend countless uncompensated, or grossly under-compensated,
hours doing it is because of its aesthetics, its entertainment value.

I understand what you're driving at, Toby, but this is not really what paleontology is about. Paleontology is science. Science is a very narrow discipline which seeks to address specific, answerable questions about matter, energy, and all related physical world topics.

As scientists, we work within a philosophical framework of what can best be called "methodological naturalism." This means as scientists we assume a series of cause and effect relationships, and that if we cannot gather data or disprove a question, we are not doing science. "Methodological naturalism" is best equated with how your auto mechanic views problems with your car. He/she assumes from the beginning that the problem is something within the physical world, that there is a physical world cause and effect, and relies on this methodology to fix your car.

In the same way, paleontologists propose a hypothesis (which can be based on accute observation or something as ephemeral as a dream), which is a generalization used to guide the early stages of the research. For instance, segnosaurians are more closely related to sauropomorphs than theropods is a testable hypothesis which can be falsified. We then set out to collect data, in this case perhaps bony characters and landmarks present in segnosaurs, sauropodamorphs, and theropods. These data might then be used in a cladistic analysis to yield a probabilistic outcome of how closely these animals were related to other known dinosaurs, which, of course, can always be falsified. Although all scientists are influenced by their cultures, they do not, instead, say segnosaurians should be more closely related to theropods because that fits better with their culture or because of asthetic appeal (and, yes, although you could argue that some scientists would do just that, they are no longer practicing their discipline if they do). While a scientist may name a dinosaur "Bambiraptor" after a cultural icon, this is separate from the science that is practiced when evaluating the animal and how its relationships affect our picture, based on evidence, of dinosaur relationships in this case.

It [paleontology] is the real-world equivalent of "The Bead Game" in Hermann
Hesse's "Magister Ludi".
Like all arts, some of the elements are cast in stone, while others float
on culture.

I'm sorry, but this is in error. Yes, the findings of science (and of paleontology) do move beyond their narrow discpline to the arts and culture, but once this happens science is not be practiced. While part of the attraction to studying paleontology may be tied into asthetics, that is not where the science of it lies, nor is that the extent of what paleontology contributes. You argue that it is not a pragmatic science, but you compare science with engineering which is not scinece, but rather technology or applied science. Please do not take this last sentence as meaning engineering is not as "good" as science or anything like that -- it is of course an extremely important applied science that has helped humankind a great deal. Many people, scientists included, do not descriminate between science and technology, but there is a major difference. The gas laws, for instance, carry no asthetic, moral, or ethical meaning, but the technology of building a rocket, bomb, or gas stove, using these laws, obviously does. It is in this sense I speak of the difference between science and technology.

The theory of evolution is "descent with modification." Paleontology is a sub-discpline that helped to show, among other things, that life is hierarchacly based, that the fossil record is sequential, and that organims have changed over time. These observations, though seemingly obvious, have incredible implications in that they support the theory of evolution, "descent with modification." We are all related, we all share a common ancestor. Paleontology is one sub-discpline that provides us with strong evidence for this theory which has profound implications. To simply say paleontologists are rigorous but mostly performing art is to ignore or belittle these major contributions to our understanding of the physical world.

The study of dinosaurs themselves, while it has led to numerous (and wonderful) artistic and entertainment spin-offs, adds to the evidence supporting the theory of evolution, and has given us insight into extinction (that concept in itself is remarkable) and where our mammalian ancestors fit into the "big picture." Although I understand you were never intending to "belittle" paleontology, Toby, paleontology is not art. It is a narrowly defined scientific discipline aimed at posing answerable questions and then finding ways, under the assumption of metholodical naturalism, to support or falsify these questions.

Lastly, I should point out that I never meant that paleontology was somehow a lesser science because it deals with a lot of filters and problems in relation to other sciences. This makes paleontology a frustrating and difficult discipline at times, but it in no way makes it any less of a science than all others. Paleontologists are scientists. When a paleontologist or anyone else steps beyond the narrow boundaries that define science and apply the knowledge of paleontology to art, technology, or philosophy, they are no longer doing science and are engaged in other equally wonderful, but non-scientific, disciplines.

Matt Bonnan
Dept Biological Sciences
Northern Illinois University
DeKalb, IL 60115
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