Such expressions as that famous one of Linnæus, and which we often meet with in a more or less concealed form, that the characters do not make the genus, but that the genus gives the characters, seem to imply that something more is included in our classification, than mere resemblance. I believe that something more is included; and that propinquity of descent,—the only known cause of the similarity of organic beings,—is the bond, hidden as it is by various degrees of modification, which is partially revealed to us by our classifications (Darwin, 1859, p. 413f).

Friday, 4 January 2008

Explanations and Bad Science

Explanations are wonderful things. They provide the world around us with meaning, a way of reasoning with others and a path to understanding scientific processes. Explanations may also sow the seeds of bad science.

Bad Science can be interpreted in a number of ways. The media and “science” journalists interpret “bad” science to mean anti-science or “science” conducted by non-scientists, based on results that are corrupted, forged or spurious. We believe however that bad science is nothing more than “made-up-ology”, which is created by scientists in order to make highly speculative claims to explain natural phenomena. Strangely the media never pick up on our version of bad science, possibly because “science” journalists are there to report positively about science rather than to criticize scientific explanations.

Anyone with enough qualification to report on scientific endeavor has the ability to see through spurious claims, reconstructions or theories. Dinosaur reconstructions based on a single jaw fragments for instance, rate highly in our list of bad science. There are limits to reconstructions, many of which never see the light of day in scientific journals but feature on the cover of “scientific” magazines. The aim of such reconstructions apparently are to to communicate a predicted past event, such a meteorite impact, to a popular audience. The idea is analogous to comparing a period-dress Hollywood blockbuster to an actual historical event. The event most likely occurred, but since it was not recorded in detail nor witness by anyone living, still remains unknown. Discovering a dinosaur jaw or even complete skull does not mean we can determine its size or colour; reconstructions and films based on “true events”, the actual machinations, are fictitious. Reconstructions however are powerful ways to explain important events.

The Power of Explanation

Explanations are mechanical devices with which to predict or retrodict future or past events and processes that are unobservable. Most important is that explanations rely on discoveries.

In experimental science, such as chemistry, phenomena are observable and repeatable. We may discover for instance that two chemicals added together produce another. The event can be repeated, described and observed, therefore resulting in an explanation of the processes involved. Non-experimental sciences such as palaeontology however rely on retrodictions based on evidence to hand. The discovery of a fossil jaw bone for example, is limited to description and observation of its form. The processes that the jaw bone underwent when it was part of a living creature are unobservable and not repeatable. The resulting explanations are quite different from those in chemistry as they are based on assumptions, theories, hypotheses and comparisons. In palaeontology we choose the best explanation based on the most convincing and rational argument. That argument is tied to accepted theories and hypotheses at the time meaning that explanations are forever changing and ephemeral. This does not mean that non-experimental sciences like palaeontology are bad or non-scientific. Many scientific fields that involve the study of past events are far more reliant on patterns than the experimental sciences (i.e., ecology, systematics, biogeography, geology, geography). Explanation, it seems, provides greater meaning.

The non-experimental sciences are primarily descriptive and comparative, relying on form and its relationship rather than on explanations. Given that normal processes are taken for granted in the experimental sciences (i.e. photosynthesis, digestion, ontogeny etc.), they are not evident in the non-experimental fields. Without the luxury of observing processes, scientists are reduced to making up hypothetical explanations in order to provide some kind of meaning. This is understandable in a world where explanations are seen to be more meaningful that form. For us form, its description and comparison, is meaningful. The discovery of patterns and relationships between form is possibly the most powerful scientific endevour. Without it we live in the present with no knowledge of the past. Many scientists within palaeontology, geology, systematics and biogeography feel that the discovery of relationship is not enough. The rise of hypothetical mechanical explanations as “meaningful” is where we believe bad science to begin.