[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index][Subject Index][Author Index]

Re: Occam's Bull

On Wed, 11 Dec 2002 01:56:17  
 MariusRomanus wrote:
>In short, when we warm up the ol' computers and put in the traits, they are 
>not adding up known facts... They are adding up opinions in style!!! 
>This is what is meant by "Occam's bulldozer"... The ability to think you are 
>being unbiased, but instead, you are just driving your opinions under the 
>guise of impartial facts. 

Okay, fine.  Agreed.  But, what is your recommendation to better this problem?  
It's not enough to just point out a problem and criticize.  Instead, one must 
offer up a solution.

We all know (or we should) that cladistics is not foolproof.  We all know that 
it is not the final, unchangeable, perfect, correct solution to all of our 
taxonomic and phylogenetic questions and puzzles.  But, what tool do you 
suggest we use?  Linnean ranks?  The I-think-so-because-I'm-an-expert method?  
Should we abandon phylogeny?

Every researcher is going to differ on his or her choice of characters and his 
or her interpretation of those characters.  That's human nature, and it is 
never going to change.  No matter how impartial scientists (or jurors or anyone 
for that matter) want to be, there will always be personal biases that come 
into play.  One strong point of cladistics is that character matrices make it 
quite clear what the researcher conducting the analysis thinks.  The matrices 
make it clear what characters are supporting a certain grouping.  If there are 
errors, or obvious personal biases, coming into play, another researcher can 
examine that matrix, identify errors, recode or delete, and rerun the analysis. 
 Many here on the list do just that.

I've heard list members rant on the classification and cladistic methods of 
nearly every paleontologist.  I've heard how personal opinions and politics all 
too often come into play.  This is too bad, and should be avoided by every 
researcher.  Gould's quote that Jaime posted sums it up real nicely: scientists 
can't really be totally impartial, but a good scientist critically examines his 
or her own ideas and subjects them to as much strong criticism as possible.  
This is a little bit too ideal, though.  Scientists, as humans, will always, 
whether intentionally or not, let personal subjective opinions enter their 

This is why cladistics is such a better method than any other method of 
classification.  Sure, every scientist conducting an analysis is putting more 
than straight, impartial, unbiased facts into his analysis, but cladistics 
allows those "subjective opinions" to be easily identified and, if necessary, 
changed by other researchers.  

This method isn't perfect, but what is your alternative?  I don't have one.


Stephen Brusatte
Geophysical Sciences
University of Chicago
Dino Land Paleontology-http://www.geocities.com/stegob

Get 25MB, POP3, Spam Filtering with LYCOS MAIL PLUS for $19.95/year.