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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 hypothesis).


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 did!" ;-))


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 taxonomy....

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 the press)

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

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