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Darwin-L Message Log 5:38 (January 1994)

Academic Discussion on the History and Theory of the Historical Sciences

This is one message from the Archives of Darwin-L (1993–1997), a professional discussion group on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

Note: Additional publications on evolution and the historical sciences by the Darwin-L list owner are available on SSRN.


<5:38>From jlipps@ucmp1.Berkeley.EDU  Sat Jan  8 18:23:26 1994

Date: Sat, 8 Jan 94 16:29:10 PST
From: jlipps@ucmp1.Berkeley.EDU (Jere Lipps)
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Subject: Re: On going beyond evidence and method ---

Wegener was, in my opinion, no inspired guesser, lucky, or dreamer.  He had
considerable data, when he proposed continental drift in 1915, that suggested
that the continents might have been together at one time.  He developed an
hypothesis to account for that data, which was by and large in North America
but not in South America or Africa and parts of Britian, rejected for lack of
a mechanism.  The evidence included much more than the fit of the continents
on a map.  In fact he stated: "I was impressed by the congruency of both sides
of the Atlantic coasts, but I disregarded it at the time because I did not
consider it probable."  Instead, he looked at other evidence: paleobiogeography
of certain fossil and living groups, distribution of mountain ranges,
similarity of sedimentary rocks in S. America and Africa, etc.  He believed
that continental drift was the best hypothesis to explain quite a few lines of
evidence.  It turned out that he was right about the former position of the
continents and that his interpretation of the evidence was right too.  He
didn't have the right mechanism so his theory in full must be rejected.  But he
was no fool, no guesser, no dreamer.  He was a good practitioner of science.

We have many other lesser examples of data explained by the wrong hypothesis
that later on turned out to be nearly correct.  In fact, most of us have
probably been in the same boat on a minor problem or two.

In fact, I see no harm in this kind of hypothesis-making, or even a little
inspiration or dreaming in science.  Darwin recognized it too, when he
wrote in the Descent of Man (p.606):  False facts are highly injurious to
the progress of science for they endure long; but false views, if
supported by some evidence, do little harm for everyone takes salutory
pleasure in proving their falseness; and when this is done, one path toward
error is closed and the road to truth is often at the same time opened.
Very true, I think, and the "salutory pleasure" part may even account for
why so many people, good and bad scientists, as well as lay people, jump on
ideas that experts may find atrocious.  So, it gets us excited, we work
harder, and the road to truth is opened.  Wegener did it.  Even the idea
of plate tectonics, when first proposed, spawned a large number of papers
mostly in support, but still some were skeptical.  Also true with the
aquatic ape idea to some extent, asteroid impacts killing the dinosaurs, etc.
etc.  It's one of the fastest ways we make progress in science.  This
desire to jump on the bandwagon or propose other bandwagon may also account
for the decline in the stature of taxonomy, where it is difficult to
catch the fancy of very many people at a time.  I don't see much harm in
the public running with wild ideas either, for there are many of them proposed
in general books, National Enquirer, etc.  They almost always die, because
people who like them, soon find yet another one to champion.  We have
hope with these people, because many of the valid scientific ideas are even
more fantastic and fun than what others make up.  Trouble comes from those
with conservative religious beliefs that cannot be subjected to debate at
all.

Jere Lipps
Museum of Paleontology
UC Berkeley

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