Tuesday, October 25, 2011

What science doesn't know

I read something recently that caught my attention.

I picked up a recent special edition of TIME magazine related to this year's discoveries in science. (AFAIK)

It had many articles in many subjects, but anthropolgy caught my eye.
It had to do with new finds of early homonids in Africa, and especially with the ecosystem and time period they were found to be contemporaries of.

The new finds debunked a science standard that I had long heard. Perhaps you've heard it, too. In the supposed evolution of Man, the theory goes, apes in Africa adapted to stand erect as a result of tall plains grasses which emerged when Africa became more of a savanna. This was so thuroughly accepted that I always heard it off-hand and in passing, as almost inconsequential and self-evident.

Well, from what I gleaned in the article, the new finds placed erect hominids (pre-humans, post-apes) BEFORE Africa became largely savanna, or at least in a jungle setting. Anyway, that served to basically railroad the whole idea.

It all comes back to blood-letting, doesn't it? For much of human history, blood-letting was a respected, medically-sound practice.

A good scientist would freely and easily admit that theories are just that ... working assumptions, only accepted with a large grain on salt. To learn something new that debunks a theory should be received with enthusiasm. And in many quarters I suspect it is. It's just that so often the preachers of science fail to treat a supposition as what it is, an idea maybe true maybe not.

I came across a quote in a book recently, by Timothy Keller "Again, we see lurking...[a foolish] faith in one's own cognitive functions." If one can't see any better reason besides one's pet theory, then it must be so. (I will look up and fill in the quote soon). It is hard for me to beleive how many people can't see past the end of their own nose, so to speak.


  1. Interesting. I had never even heard of the savannah theory. Did the article suggest a new theory?

  2. A good scientist knows that a working assumption is a hypothesis while a theory has withstood multiple tests and so can reasonably be accepted as truth. You shouldn't worry that you're going to get out of bed one morning and fall up onto the ceiling. On the other hand, if you do, that day will be an incredible day for science.

    I don't know if this "Savannah theory" was actually considered a theory in the biological and anthropological communities, as opposed to a hypothesis, but it would seem to me that tall grass could have been one of many evolutionary pressures for homonins to stand erect. To presume that this change stood on a single pillar is just as short-sighted as you seem to be accusing scientists of being.

    Give scientists enough credit to be able to not fool themselves, to paraphrase Feynman, and to know what they are talking about. And be careful not to fool yourself.

  3. Tobin, I very much respet your input. You caught me: I mis-used the terms theory and hypothesis. However, I used them in a less-rigid sense than does science parlance. Much like the term vegetarian or tortise/turtle, they mean different things to different people, and who is to say whose usage is impure?

    Please note that I made an effort to NOT attack science practitioners, but merely the "preachers of science" who are foolish about their attachment to unproven ideas.