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"These are the days when the Christian is expected to praise every creed except his own." G.K.Chesterton

"You cannot grow a beard in a moment of passion." G.K.Chesterton

"As you perhaps know, I haven't always been a Christian. I didn't go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that."C. S. Lewis

"I blog, therefore I am." Anon

Saturday, September 27, 2003

Gee Whiz! Deep thoughts about deep time and science

Conventional stories about evolution, about ‘missing links’, are not in themselves testable, because there is only one possible course of events — the one implied by the story. If your story is about how a group of fishes crawled onto land and evolved legs, you are forced to see this as a once-only event, because that’s the way the story goes. You can either subscribe to the story, or not; there are no alternatives. …

Testability is a central feature of the activity we call science. Some have sought a kind of special dispensation for palaeontology as ‘historical’ science, that it be admitted to the high table of science even though palaeontologists cannot, classically, do the kinds of experiments other scientists take for granted. You cannot go back it time to watch the dinosaurs become extinct, or fishes crawl from the slime to become amphibians. More pointedly, you cannot, as Stephen Jay Gould discussed in his book Wonderful Life, go back in time to see what other things might have happened instead, had circumstances been slightly different. … We cannot see what nature would have done had she been able to rerun the tape of evolution…. In strict, scientific terms, such questions are meaningless. The problem is that what we see before us is the result of a once-only experiment in history. Because it happened only once, it is not accessible to the reproducibility scientists usually require. This is not possible in palaeontology except in our imaginations.

However, palaeontology either is, or is not, scientific and you may ask whether the particular problems that palaeontology has with its subject — Deep Time — should be allowed to mitigate its inability to reproduce experiments in the approved scientific manner. It should not. To see palaeontology as in any way ‘historical’ is a mistake in that it assumes that untestable stories have scientific value. But we already know that Deep Time does not support statements based on connected narrative, so to claim that palaeontology can be seen as a historical science is meaningless; if the dictates of Deep Time are followed, no science can ever be historical.

Palaeontology read as history is additionally unscientific because, without testable hypotheses, its statements rely for their justification on authority, as if its practitioners had privileged access to absolute truth — ‘truth which can be known’, in the words of the late palaeontologist and cladist Donn Rosen. Whether you believe the conventional wisdom that, for example, our own species Homo sapiens descended in seamless continuity from the pre-existing species, Homo erectus, depends not on the evidence, for the fossil evidence is mute, but on whether the presentation of the evidence conforms to your prejudices, or on whether you choose to defer to the authority of the presenter. The assumption of authority is profoundly, mischievously and dangerously unscientific. It conflicts with how we are taught science from our earliest years: that the scientific method should be rigorously democratic, that statements from authorities in a field should be as subject to scrutiny as those emanating from the most humble sources, even a novice. Nobody should be afraid to ask a silly question.

Henry Gee In Search of Deep Time: Beyond the Fossil Record to a New History of Life p7-8

5:16:00 pm