Re: paleoanthropology

Paul Arveson (
Wed, 16 Jul 1997 11:12:10 -0500

At 9:34 PM -0500 7/15/97, Glenn Morton wrote:
>You are going to make me try to defend my beloved Neanderthals and other
>ancient men. What makes this different from physics? While controversies in
>physics don't often make the papers, there are lots of dead ends and
>disproved discoveries there.

>To paraphrase you,
>Theory in physics must be very frustrating, like building sand castles on
>the beach. As soon as you have a nice structure, a new wave comes along and
>destroys it. I must admit that theologians and laity are probably not
>watching physics as close as anthropology though.

My dear friend Glenn is trying to make me defend my somewhat tongue-in-cheek
appeal for restraint in paleoanthropological theorizing by turning my own
guns around. OK, I'll try.

I recently have been reading John Horgan's book, 'The End of Science' which
I urged everyone on this list to read. It has a lot more to say than just
this thesis that science is ending. And it is a good antidote to
excessive doses of Kuhn which has been needed for a long time. It's a
good read for only $15; trust me.

I only have time now to mention one point: that the word 'science', like
the word 'religion', is too broad and vague. It conflates many different
fields that are at widely different degrees of maturity. Maturity
does not mean quantity of knowledge, but things like comprehensiveness,
the degree of validation to which a theory has undergone in
confrontation with measurements, and the number of researchers in the
field since its beginning. These are quantifiable metrics.

I believe that particle physics is one of the more 'mature' sciences.
We have a 'standard model' that predicts some physical contants to 12 decimal
places; that embraces phenomena over length scales from the nucleus
to the whole universe; that is, as theologians say in reference to the
Bible, 'without error in all that it affirms'. I don't mean that it
embraces everything, but that in terms of composition it does a pretty
good job and is unlikely to require major revision for the kind of
phenomena that we have already observed.

I can't say things like that for the other sciences. I think biology
is just a teenager. Psychology and sociology are in diapers. Chemistry,
in the sense of materials science, is a youth. Earth crustal geology is
perhaps middle-aged. Paleoanthropology is a little kid trying to answer big
questions. We need to be patient and let the kid grow.

I will add an example that seems impressive to me: the American Geophysical
Union has a meeting every year in San Francisco, and they publish an
abstract of every paper to be presented in a bound volume about an inch
thick. In a recent
issue, I made a rough count; there were about 7700 abstracts. This is
one scientific society, one meeting. They also hold semiannual meetings
with additional abstracts. Most of the abstracts contain measurements
of some kind or another regarding geophysics. Obviously there's more to
science than collecting data, but this is an essential part of it, and
my conclusion is that geophysics is not ending, nor is it an infant.

I hope this characterization doesn't offend anybody; the maturity metrics
can be quantified if someone wants to go to the trouble to defend the field
in which they find themselves.

Paul Arveson, Code 724, Signatures Directorate, NSWC
(301) 227-3831 (301) 227-4511 (FAX)