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Popper and Palaeontology (was: Re: "running" elephants - locomotary analoges)
On Thursday, April 10, 2003, at 06:35 AM, ekaterina A wrote:
Popperism provides a rather robust philosophical framework. And as
such Hutchinson et al working within that framework have obtained
results to test a hypothesis. This is fine and should probably
criticised by construction of alternative hypothesis.
It's not at all clear that Hutchinson et al., or any other biologists
for that matter, are working within a popperian framework. Cladists
often claim that they are taking a "relative falsificationist"
approach, but that is somewhat different to Popper's brand of
falsificationism. Cladistics, at least, seems to me to be more of a
neo-positivistic method (that is; it is more intuitive to say that
synapomorphies support clades, rather than homoplasies semi-falsify
Popper's ideas certainly do provide a robust philosophical framework,
but they are notoriously difficult to apply to biological sciences.
They are even harder to apply to biological sciences such as
palaeontology, where testing is so limited.
However, it is my personal observation that Popperism also appears to
impose a certain idealised historical view regarding how science
happens or has happened. The idealized progression from Copernik to
Kepler to Newton to Lapace to Einstein and Planck is presented as
historical reality. However it is my understanding that science does
not necessarily flow as this Popperic ideal fluid.
(Maybe Popper would have said: "if those old astronomers and physicists
had used my method, they wouldn't have taken so long to get where they
So trying to make it flow within these constraints, while calling
everything else as pseudoscience, is, in my opinion, likely to slow
down the true objectives of science. Rigor in my opinion is of
secondary importance to results.
Popper was quite clear that he thought the creation of a hypothesis was
not methodological, and that it is only in the rejection of hypothesis
that we should be rigourous. So I don't think equating Popper with
rigour is necessarily right - some other methodologies are more
rigourous (or stifling).
Here is where the likes of Dinogeorg or Paul come in. They do not
necessarily work within the Popperian constraints but this does not
make their line of action superfluous. They contribute positive and
must be acknowledged for it.
I don't see why you would think that Dinogeorge and Greg Paul are
working in a less popperian way, as both have made falsifiable
predictions. Greg Paul's neoflightless hypothesis is eminently
falsifiable, and evidence would seem to corroborate it (not to mention
his drawing feathered theropods for years before they were discovered).
BCF is falsifiable too - but will have to wait for more fossils.
On a side note, Popper was not too keen on precise definitions, so may
very well have sided with Dinogeorge and Greg Paul on matters of
However, in evolutionary biology, where reconstruction of the ancestor
is the central issue, there are clear definitions of what consitutes
the test of a hypothesis.
Hmm... parsimony, or relative falsification, or maximum genetic
explanation, or synapomorphic support, or evolutionary scenarios, or
intuition, depending on your chosen philosophy of science. To make
matters worse, parsimony and maximum explanation are generally meant
for hypothesis formulation, testing is meant to come from elsewhere
(again, depending on your chosen phil. of sci.). I don't see any clear
definition of what constitutes a test - I see a range of possible
methods that often contradict each other.
The only problem is that these definitions stem from certain axioms
which are not necessarily as clear as Euclid' 5th postulate or its
alternatives. Hence, I believe evolutionary biologists need to lay out
their axioms more clearly if they want a broader audience to grasp
their doing meaningfully (not the superficial understanding seen in
I think the reason evolutionary biologists don't state their axioms
more clearly is because the issue is a philosophical quagmire that they
can do without...
John Conway, Palaeoartist & Protophilosopher
"Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am
large, I contain multitudes." - Walt Whitman
Palaeontology & philosophy discussion forum: