What We Don’t Know, Hopefully Not Because We Were Afraid To Ask

“It’s doing about as well as consensus science ever does, meaning it’s right until it’s wrong, and in neither case does it affect the truth on the ground.”

Willis Eschenbach, WUWT

Well, Willis, science is not the search for the truth about nature; it is the attempt to interpret nature.  Science, then, is a collection of interpretations, not the reality itself, even though it is almost always portrayed as reality itself. 

If you look back in the textbooks 125 years (I have to some extent), you will find that the certainty/consensus then was every bit as high as it is now.  That was, after all, the period when a US Congressman wanted to eliminate the US Patent Office because everything that needed inventing had already been invented.  Brain dead?  Certainly.  We now know that a VERY sizable portion of what the interpretations 125 years ago were wrong. 

The certainty about us knowing all the Big Stuff – thinking that pervades science today – is a claim made by scientists that is as wrong now as it was 125 years ago, and as wrong as religious ideas – founded on a belief in magic – have been all along.

The framework of Gradualism/Uniformitarianism is pervasive in science today.  Yet 30 years ago paleontologist Stephen J Gould had to address the fact that the vast majority of evolution occurred during momentary surges such as the Cambrian Explosion.  The evidence simply did not support slow, gradual, consistent evolving from one species into another.  In between the explosions of species almost nothing happened.  Though adaptations can be seen happening even today, evolving from one species to another has not been seen, either in our time or in the fossil record.  The evidence “on the ground” simply has conflicted with Darwinian evolution, even before Darwin had personally evolved into ashes and dust.  The Gradualism had to be “adjusted” – to allow for “catastrophes” – and Gould called the adjustment “Punctuated Equilibrium” (PE).  It meant that Gradualism is the normal static state, but when change comes it comes with a bang – i.e., a catastrophic event.

Let’s digress for a moment to Catastrophe Theory (CT).  CT does not necessarily mean a disaster.  It discusses, mathematically, when complicated curves reach a point where the “slope” of the curve changes from positive to negative or vice versa, or from one of those slopes to a zero slope (where the Y-value stays the same).  It isn’t a disaster, just a change to a new “tilt”.  And tilt may be exactly the right term to use.  People often talk about tipping points, so tilt kind of fits with that:  In CT a catastrophe is when the tilt changes.  Tilt DOES equal slope, after all.

So, PE as applied to species basically says that before a change of tilt/slope, there is one set of species, and then after the change there is another set.  It says that it isn’t ONE species that changes, but a LOT of them that change.

Many biologists and paleontologists still adhere to the pre-PE viewpoint, even though there is much discomfirming evidence before them.  They still try to use what I call a “paradigm crowbar” to force the inconvenient facts into a Gradualistic interpretation.  They pull all sorts of speculative arguments out, hip-shooting for all they are worth – anything to keep to Gradualist principles while still trying to account for the uncooperative evidence.  Amazingly, once they find one argument their paradigm can accept, they simply stop there as if that was the final word.  The case, to them, is closed.  No further discussion is allowed.  They revert from prosecutor to judge and then to executioner: That anomaly is solved: Move on, people; there is nothing to see here.  Though they know full well that teh Scientific Method decrees that they then back up their reason with an experiment, they simply use “confirmation bias” in its most extreme form and declare their logic the final arbiter – above experiment, even.

Confirmation Bias: A type of cognitive bias and represents an error of inductive inference toward confirmation of the hypothesis under study.

Confirmation bias is a phenomenon wherein decision makers have been shown to actively seek out and assign more weight to evidence that confirms their hypothesis, and ignore or underweigh evidence that could disconfirm their hypothesis.

In this case, they would be confirming their hip-shot speculative reasoning, giving it more weight than the actual disconfirming evidence before them

With them using a paradigm crowbar and confirmation bias, it can be nigh on impossible to dissuade a researcher from his position on a controversial topic.  When academic position and careers and funding are then added to the mix, their position can become entrenched in abject conservatism.  This conservatism – resistance to change – is the norm in some sciences.  Note that here  “conservatism” means not politics per se, but adhering to the status quo or consensus – i.e., those who do not rock the boat.

* * *
Similar to PE, the Younger Dryas Impact Hypothesis (referred to as the YDB, for YD boundary, which is considered to be the very beginning of the Holocene, the present geological age) is a punctuation in both natural history and the history of man, if found to be true (which seems to be increasingly probable). The YDB interprets the evidence to read that at about 12,900 years ago a large comet or meteor impacted in North America, likely on top of the Laurentian Ice Sheet, and causing an extinction event of both Clovis Man and 33 types of megafauna in North America, including the mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers.

The YDB event was not something anyone went out to find; it just fell out from of the evidence.  The lead author of the YDB is nuclear scientist Rick Firestone of Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, wasn’t looking for an impact event, but was only trying to explain some weird variations (non constants, btw) in the “constant” value of C14 decay.  He ended up looking along two avenues: supernovas and impact events, both of which are known to affect radioactive decay.  Upon recruiting other scientists from other disciplines, they found enough evidence to conclude that a YDB event was likely, and then went out to find out what further evidence could be found.  They found in the sediments – right at the point where they suspected something happened – a previously ignored “black mat” layer in the sediments.  The black mat has since become a notorious battleground between Gradualist thinkers on one side and what must be called Catastrophsists or Punctualists on the other side.  The black mat showed spikes in what are normally seen as impact indicators – hexagonal nanodiamonds, He3, Iridium. carbon spherules, Platinum family elements, and more.

It is ironic that the black mat has become a battleground, because a similar (and the only other) layer, one with elevated levels of Iridium, was determined to be strong evidence for the dinosaur killer comet/meteor of 65 million years ago.  One would have thought they would have noticed the black mat higher up, somewhere in the world, and begun to ask, “Does <i>this</i> one also indicate an impact event?”

Literally, the “truth on the ground” led some researchers to a new interpretation, one that was not even on the horizon 15 years ago.  Even when the evidence is right under our noses and – literally – IN the ground, it can be overlooked by researchers who are lacking the imagination or perspective that might raise an eyebrow.

Science keeps finding reasons for punctualizing evolution and Gradualism in general.  This makes Gradualism a good science for static periods but a poor interpretation for big events.

It also makes Gradualism itself a punctuated equilibrium.  I was never a great fan of Stephen J Gould, but in recent years I’ve learned to appreciate him more and more.

The YDB is still a controversial subject.  So much so that Wikipedia has an editor who constantly erases any references to it that are not in keeping with HIS viewpoint.  Wikipedia refuses to do anything about it.  Anthony and others here will be familiar with that sort of bias at Wikipedia.  The YDB will remain a controversial subject until a crater is found – which may be impossible because of the miles-thick ice sheets that covered N.A. and was likely where the impact occurred.  Yet, independent researchers continue to find large amounts of supporting evidence/data.  The skeptics on that “catastrophic” subject are – in an ironic reversal – are the consensus folks.

Steve Garcia

P.S. IMHO, the principle of Punctuated Equilibrium will one day become the overarching paradigm in all of the natural sciences, one that says that while Gradualism rules for vast tracts of time, events DO happen at rare intervals (or not so rare) that change many things, and then Gradualism rules again for another vast tract of time – but with many things changed.  Perhaps, at that time, when a punctuation is proposed the skepticism will be less intransigent.  One might think of hurricanes, which form and become organized under certain circumstances.  The organization is kind of like getting conditions “in phase” whereas normally they are not in phase and because of this randomness the factors trend to cancel each other out. When in phase, the cancellations do not happen and wind speeds are able to increase rather than be dissipated.  Some organizing threshold is crossed, as if the tilt or slope has changed from one overall condition to another.  When dissipating conditions again dominate, the hurricane ends, and dissipation again becomes the reigning condition.  Just so, Gradualism gives way sometimes to Catastrophic conditions for a period, and then it all reverts back to Gradualism.

This is all essay, not necessarily reality.  But I think it is a fair description.


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