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Re: Origins (was: Re: Sharovipteryx)

Well here we go....

>>> <Dinogeorge@aol.com> 05/25/00 05:02PM >>>
In a message dated 5/25/00 2:28:39 PM EST, Chapman.Ralph@NMNH.SI.EDU

<< There are  many works that show how developing a rigorous series of 
hypotheses and testing predictions made by them allow us to do real science
in historical areas such as paleontology. It's been a wonderful area of
discussion for years. Dan Fisher, for example, has done some amazing work in
this field and you certainly can do the same with dinosaurs. Dan has 3
papers on fossil horseshoe crabs that are wonderful. One makes you walk away
knowing exactly how and how fast Mesolimulus could swim. And if you want to
argue, you can go right to his work and analyze it step by step. Not a just
so story. >>

Not particularly interested in horseshoe crabs, but since they're still 
around this helps to constrain the hypotheses about fossil horseshoe crabs
a  bit, to say the least. Do not wish to cast aspersions on papers I haven't

read, but until we can >see< a Mesolimulus swim under various conditions
and measure its speed, it is STILL a Just So Story. Perhaps a particularly
well constructed one or a compelling one, but a Just So Story nonetheless.

If I use your logic here George, then we can't really believe anything from
the fossil record because we cannot go back and see it in person. It's just
all just so stories. This includes any type 3 logical inference such as
herbivory in ornithischians or sauropods, or the fact that there really are
quadrupedal dinosaurs, or that pterosaurs could actually fly. Or even type 1
or 2 inferences. It would preclude connecting up iguanodont footprints with
iguanodonts; or dinosaur eggs, even those with embryos, with dinosaurs
because we don't really know a fetal dinosaur didn't crawl into an
egg-shaped object. Or even that dinosaur bones actually come from past
reptiles. Or that 2 articulated bones come from the same animal. Basically
all inferences for that matter. Can't go back and see it (for now), so any
inference of such is no different from a just so story, in your opinion.
George confuses metaphysical certitude with hypothesis testing. the former
no one can do, regardless of how hard the science. the latter we all try to
do and we succeed.

As such, George,  your opinions on paleobiology cannot be distinguished, at
least in scientific rigor, with those of creationists. According to George
we only think we know what we know, we don't truly have the ability to do
anything other than blowing smoke, telling stories. Sounds like faith to me
George, and that's religion. Nothing wrong at all with religion but that's
not what we are doing here. Yes, we have researchers who go about things
with religious zeal and, at times, procedures, but paleontology is a
science, yes an historical science so the procedures are tougher to follow,
but still a real science. But we do it and, at times, it comes out
spectacularly well.

Paleontologists have been building solid models of inference and testing
these models for years and we can separate the work we do solidly from that
of "creation science". Come join the party and understand how we are
different - very different than you seem to think we are. A huge number of
the subscribers to this list - including very many that come from
non-traditional paleo training backgrounds - obviously have excellent
intuitive understandings of how science works and demonstrate it daily. I'd
be real comfortable with many speaking to the media about dinosaurs or the
science, and that says a great deal for them coming from me. The main reason
I stay subscribed is that I enjoy much of the discourse from these people,
including lots I disagree with, and it always amazes me just how many know
so much more about many of these beasts than I will ever get around to
wrinkling my grey matter on. Which is a great thing since my grey matter is
running hard to keep up with my demands on it right now and someone should
know these things. That you, George, apparently cannot see the differences
here suggests you are really incapable of distinguishing between good
science, bad science, and non-science. If so, I hope you don't get into
reviewing papers or editing books/journals of scholarly papers since you
would be incapable to distinguishing their quality, at least on scientific

That you are not at all interested in horseshoe crabs is a bit sad since
horseshoe crabs are about as neat as things get. However, it is irrelevant
in that you should be interested in any paper that demonstrates the
scientific method so well - or at least one of a variety of approaches to
doing it well. That you seem pretty uninterested tells me volumes about how
you approach this field and it is, as I said, really sad.

<< Going back in time, although would be nice, is not necessary and if
George truly feels that historical sciences are all just-so-stories then I
understand  why he has the exceptional interest in them that he so
obviously does. >>

We can decouple interest from empirical science; I enjoy collecting
dinosaur facts, speculating, and constructing Just So Stories as much as
professional paleontologists do. But I am not laboring under the illusion
that what I do is >empirical science<; I freely admit that anything I have
to say about dinosaur origins, evolution, and behavior is rank speculation
constrained somewhat by whatever details of anatomy and behavior I can glean
from looking at specimens and reading about specimens that I can't get to.
I've read quite 
a bit about dinosaur evolution and behavior, but nothing I've read strikes
me as particularly scientific in the empirical sense: just a collection of 
maybes, something we already had before going to all the trouble.

Therein lies the problem. Doing science, including paleontology, is not
just stamp collecting and telling stories. There are actual procedures one
goes through in developing and testing hypotheses and you are apparently
unaware of these, or uninterested in them. This suggests you either need to
take a long time off to read some of the basic literature on doing science
before you try and actually propose one of your ideas, or migrate towards
philately - an honorable field I take part in as a hobby (as long as the
stamps have paleo themes to them). 

For example, Jim Farlow and colleagues wrote a dazzling paper on the 
thermoregulatory function of stegosaur plates in which they showed that the
arrangement and shapes of the plates of Stegosaurus are optimized for 
thermoregulation, but in the end all they did was firm up the idea that 
stegosaur plates >might< have had a thermoregulatory function as one of the
things that they did for stegosaurs. We still don't know whether stegosaur
plates >actually< had a thermoregulatory function, only that they might
have--and we surely knew >that< before their work. Perhaps we now have a
somewhat clearer picture about stegosaur thermoregulation--a more detailed
Just So Story--following their work, but until we can measure the body
temperature of a living stegosaur over a period of time and watch what it
does, we can't really say much of a definitive nature on the subject. 
Mathematical models are Just So Stories whenever we cannot test them
against the actual things that are being modeled.

Dinosaur paleontology includes quite a competition among Just So Stories of
all kinds, some better told than others, and it is also a search, so far 
pretty much unsuccessful, for ways to constrain these stories and perhaps
to discard one or two now and then. But let us not lose sight of the fact
that these really are Just So Stories after all.

Crap - absolute crap. It's time to stop publishing your ideas, George, and
start putting in time to learn how to actually do the science. Ideas are the
easy part - doing something with them takes the work and skill. Try actually
going through the review process, it is really instructive in a prostate
exam kind of way, but is really necessary to understand the process. It's
why I go out of my way to try to be constructive when I do reviews - it
makes the results better science. The process breaks down at times -
surprisingly often in Science and Nature where lots of average or less
papers are published, but the process works and makes the results better in
most cases.

So to summarize, let's use an example.

Ornithischians were herbivores. We have massive morphological evidence for
this and long studies on various aspects of their morphology that nail this
down. You can set up specific predictions about their morphology that you
can then progress and test with the morphology they exhibit from the
fossils. These can include various aspects on the relationship between tooth
morphology and food processing, the biomechanics of chewing, etc. Huge data.
It comes out massively as confirming the tests that ornithischians ate
plants. A type 3 inference but nailed. Actually, assembling these data in a
real formalized and complex hypothesis testing context would be a wonderful
excersize, although it would take about 15x a dissertation in size to do it.
 But according to George still a just-so-story. Wrong.

Statements such as those George has just made malign the science of
paleontology, give fodder to creationists, and give scientists in other
fields the mistaken impression that paleontology is nothing but a soft
science. Perhaps the way George does it, but this is a plain wrong statement
about paleontology, and even dinosaur paleontology, as done by my
colleagues. Lots of us are wrong on a lot on a lot of things. Heck science
is being wrong, and if you're not wrong a lot you're not doing your job.
It's part of the process of hypothesis proposal and evaluation. It's not

Any young person (or old guy like me) thinking about making paleontology as
a profession, or life-long love affair, please take George's comments as not
representative of the opinion amongst the members of the paleontological
community. They are flat-out incorrect. Paleontology is a science, a
rigorous science that can stand up toe to toe with any others when done
well. It also just gets neater and neater as you do it more and more which
is why so many of us do it.

Anyway, I apologize for the length but I cannot let George throw out this
stuff unchallenged or it implies I agree with it. I don't (obvious) and I
wouldn't spend time on this science if I thought it was anything like
George's odd views of it. I would strongly suggest that dinosaur enthusiasts
spenbd more time on literature from general paleontology - there are papers
there that are a real joy to read and can help people be better at whatever
they do on dinosaurs.

How about some other opinions from other pros and enthusiasts, this is a
really important point to nail down.

Ralph Chapman