Making Up Facts to Fit a Narrative
To be a good evolutionary scientist, write your narrative first. Then observe things. Finally, make up a model that fits the narrative.
Many students are taught to believe that scientists draw their conclusions from observations of facts. That’s so old-fashioned. Facts are just incidental to the real fun in science: telling a good story with imaginary facts. The story is more exciting if observations create a crisis, so that the scientist can invent a model to rescue the main plot. We offer three recent examples.
Imaginary planet factory: Narrative: planets form from the bottom up, through a process of accretion of dust. Observation: radio waves were observed in a dust disk around a T-tauri star, inferred to come from objects 2cm or larger. Model: “Astronomers See Pebbles Poised to Make Planets” (Royal Astronomical Society). (Are other interpretations possible? Certainly. Assuming the objects are pebble-sized, they could be debris from collisions, but that’s not as sexy a story.)
The precocious monkey: Narrative: monkeys evolved into man, and one sign of it was increasing brain size. Observation: An old-world monkey fossil had a skull capacity the size of a plum. Tweak: With a little modeling from a CT scan of the skull, scientists at Duke University could guess at “what the animal’s brain likely looked like” including how many imaginary folds the small brain likely had. Auxiliary hypothesis: the more folds, the smarter the monkey. Model: “Old World Monkey Had Tiny, Complex Brain; Findings offer new clues to how primate brains changed over time.” Visualization: video clip showing 3-D model of folded brain rotating.
Whoops; there’s a problem: didn’t Darwin expect brains to get bigger before they got smarter? Bring in the rescue device:
“In the part of the primate family tree that includes apes and humans, the thinking is that brains got bigger and then they get more folded and complex,” Gonzales said. “But this study is some of the hardest proof that in monkeys, the order of events was reversed — complexity came first and bigger brains came later.”
The findings also lend support to claims that the small brain of the human ancestor* Homo floresiensis, whose 18,000-year-old skull was discovered on a remote Indonesian island in 2003, isn’t as remarkable as it might seem. In spite of their pint-sized brains, Homo floresiensis were able to make fire and use stone tools to kill and butcher large animals.
“Brain size and brain complexity can evolve independently; they don’t have to evolve together at the same time,” Benefit said.
How Enceladus stayed old: Narrative: Enceladus formed 4.5 billion years ago (see A.S.S.) as a satellite of Saturn. Observation: geysers at the south pole give off several gigawatts of heat. Crisis: that kind of energy output cannot go on for 4.5 billion years:
The source of this energy is believed to be tidal dissipation. However, the observed south polar heat flux cannot be sustained over the age of the Solar System. Furthermore, thermal evolution models suggest that any global subsurface ocean should freeze on a timescale of tens to hundreds of My, sharply reducing future tidal heating, unless large amounts of antifreeze are present in the ocean.
Rescue device: James H. Roberts invents a model that won’t give ammo to young-earth creationists:
Here I propose an alternative internal structure for Enceladus, in which the silicate core is fragmented, and that the tidal deformation of the core may be partially controlled by interstitial ice. I find that fragmentation of the core increases tidal dissipation by a factor of 20, consistent with the long-term dynamically sustainable level, even when the interior is completely frozen, but only if the interior starts out warm and tidal heating is strong from the beginning. If this is not the case, radioactive heating will be insufficient to prevent the interior from cooling. Although an ocean need not be present in order for the interior to experience significant tidal heating, all models that dissipate enough heat to prevent runaway cooling are also warm enough to have an ocean. Tidal dissipation in the weak core provides an additional source of heat that may prevent a global subsurface ocean from freezing.
This is the 21st century way of doing science. Modern audiences love stories. Scientists cannot thrive on epistemic modesty alone; they need to get with the theater generation to make science trendy. The only rule with today’s science theater is never to question the meta-narrative (scientific materialism). That requires never giving aid and comfort to those who question the meta-narrative. The penalty for that is expulsion from the scientific community.
*”Hobbit man” is not considered a human ancestor by most paleoanthropologists, but a side branch of Homo erectus perhaps (but it seems too recent to fit that narrative). As for brain size and intelligence, see the 6/26/15 entry.
“Science is truth; do not be misled by facts” (Finagle’s Creed). If you were to look at the observations in each of these articles alone, they would be so narrow as to be boring. It’s essential for the mandarins of science to maintain the illusion that the men behind the curtain have special powers of divination. They can see beyond the empirical evidence into the mystical realms of possibility.
The meta-narrative (big bang to man) is Accepted Truth that must never be questioned. And yet anomalies crop up. The job of the scientist is to creatively fit any troublesome observation into a “model” that not only preserves the meta-narrative, but brings glory to the mandarins. This enables the mandarins to finance the outrage industry (a.k.a. Darwin Lobby) against doubters.
What? You thought science was about following the evidence where it leads with an open mind? Get over it. (6/25/14)