Monday, April 5, 2010

Epistemology and Spiders: This is how it should be done

OK, so assessing and revising the contents and standards of one's knowledge has nothing to do with Mindless Self-Indulgence - if anything, it's mindful self-restraint. But one of my recent forays into the world of Science Blogs handed me a case-in-point so neat and pat that I just had to share.

A bit of background: there's this wonderful little program called Before the Dinosaurs: Walking with Monsters (buy!) which goes through the history of life from Anomalocaris to Lystrosaurus. It's just awesome, and you should watch it. One of my favorite parts of that program was the puppy-sized spider, mesothelae, which lived at a time of eagle-sized dragonflies because the atmosphere was so oxygen-rich that giant bugs could get away with enormous bodies and simple respiratory apparatus.

Now, I love spiders. I really do. They're nature's ninjas, out-ninjered only by certain species of squid and octopus (ninjas of the sea). So a spider the size of a small dog is, like, my new favorite fantasy pet. Excluding giant spider-steed, of course (what it loses in ninjery, it more than gains in bad-assitude). OK, now we're good. My point is that I was very fucking excited to hear about this mesothelae, so excited that I went around telling people about it for weeks.

Fast-forward to last week, and I see this Laelaps headline link while catching up on Pharyngula: Megarachne, the Giant Spider That Wasn't. My first thought: "Ooh, spiders!" Second thought: "Aww, fake spiders?" So I click through and read the whole thing, and as it turns out, Before the Dinosaurs was originally slated to include megarachne, but during production it was discovered that the giant spider wasn't a giant spider, but a sea scorpion. Well, shit on toast! But the show must go on, and so the BBC just re-cast mesothelae in the role that megarachne had been written to play and fudged a couple details (bah, details!).

If you're like me, then right about now you've got to have a tangled web in your head involving sense, reference, justification, and a couple theories of truth, all wrapped up in a package labeled, "D's beliefs about carboniferous arthropods". OK, now that I put it that way, you're probably not like me. But that's what was going through my head as I processed this article. Of course, sorting out that Gordian knot would be like trying to diagram one of Nathaniel Hawthorne's third-of-a-page sentences, so I took the Alexandrian solution:

"Huh. Looks like I was wrong."

Because at the end of the day, it doesn't really matter that a bleeding-edge breakthrough in paleobiology took a backseat to a deadline, it doesn't really matter that there was still a kernel of truth in it, it doesn't really matter how much I love the idea of giant spiders, and it doesn't really matter exactly what labels or confidence levels I had for this or that bit of belief. What matters is that I became aware of one instance wherein my picture of the world failed to match up with the best our investigations have to offer. So I fixed it, The End. As Carl Sagan wrote,
Science thrives on errors, cutting them away one by one. False conclusions are drawn all the time, but they are drawn tentatively. Hypotheses are framed so they are capable of being disproved. A succession of alternative hypotheses is confronted by experiment and observation. Science gropes and staggers toward improved understanding. Proprietary feelings are of course offended when a scientific hypothesis is disproved, but such disproofs are recognized as central to the scientific enterprise.
(The Demon-Haunted World, page 20)
So I was reading about this Jesus fellow the other day... or was it Krishna? Or Mithras? Wait, Horus! Or maybe even Moses... look, you see where this is going.

1 comment:

Steve Bowen said...

As Asimov pointed out science gradually makes us less wrong.