Monday, August 27, 2007

Night Comes to the Cretaceous

One of the books I'm currently reading is James Lawrence Powell's Night Comes to the Cretaceous. The subtitle is Comets, Craters, Controversy, and the Last Days of the Dinosaurs. I'm really enjoying it, as it includes some really interesting science and science history, and throws in a good deal of philosophy of science.

The book is about the theory, proposed only in 1980 by Walter Alvarez and his father, Luis, that a meteor impact caused the global extinctions (including that of the last dinosaurs) at the end of the Cretaceous. This theory was extremely controversial, and opposition to it was intense. Indeed, there are many parallels to the current controversy within biology, in which the traditionalists (that is, the Darwinian naturalists) are (to say the least) unwilling to examine the overwhelming evidence that threatens their life-long belief in macroevolution.

Despite the vociferous opposition to it as recently as the 1980's, the Alvarez theory is today almost universally accepted among geologists.

But here's an example of the parenthetic but relevant philosophy of science in Powell's book... advances not by proving theories right but by weakening them until they are falsified. Looking back at the history of science, it is clear that this is the way it works. Yet if one were randomly to select a scientist at work and ask, "What are you doing?" one would be apt to get the answer: "I am confirming such and such a theory." In their daily lives, most scientists try to confirm or extend theories, not to falsify them. In part this is because scientists are rewarded for breakthroughs, not for falsification. Rewards aside, however, human beings will not spend long hours and entire careers searching for falsity. Thus a contradiction exists between the way individual scientists behave and the way science as a whole evolves--as the cumulative result of the work of all scientists. A host of them, each trying to shore up their favorite theories, will in time lead to the falsification of the weakest, to the great disappointment of its proponents but to the advancement of science overall.
Though Powell applies this insight to how the impact extinction theory replaced geological uniformitarianism, it could well be applied to the current ongoing falsification of naturalistic evolution.

Two notable events are on tap tonight... our son Nate gets back from Peru and there's a lunar eclipse beginning about 1:00 am. I'll be there for both.

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