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Sunday, October 11, 2015

What the Brontosaurus skull can teach us about science

I enjoy visiting science museums as much as I enjoy art museums. Just as you don't have to be an artist to appreciate art, you don't have to be a scientist to appreciate science and how discoveries are made and new theories formed. The latter is one of the things that tends to strike me about exhibits that admit to having set things up incorrectly based on mistaken assumptions about, say how the dinosaur was likely to have stood,  on two feet or all four (as was the case for a star dinosaur at the Museum of Natural History in New York).

In the case of the Peabody Museums's Brontosaurus, the exhibitors actually lost their head. That is, to say, they now realize that the skull they put on it doesn't belong to the species at all. Unfortunately, they do not have the right skull to complete the skeleton, so the one on view is admittedly wrong, as you can see from the explanations posted here:

But, wait, there's more!  What you thought of a Brontosaurus might, in fact, be an Apatosaurus. With respect to the identification, what had been proposed back in the 1870s proved to be more correct than what was said in 1903, as was proven by a study as late as 2015!

Fascinating, isn't it, that  even something based on truly ancient and fixed evidence -- the fossils of long-extinct dinosaurs -- can be subject to changing theories that have to be revised.  Scientific advancement requires some measure of humility, the ability to say, "we were wrong" and accept the better explanation rather than force the contrary evidence to fit into the pre-established paradigm.

This what I believe Richard Feynman meant in his often quoted, "Science is the belief in the ignorance of the experts." Science can only advance if people do not accept previously established theories as axiomatic but continue to test and experiment. The job of  the true scientist is not to make the data fit the theory that corresponds to a particular agenda but to make the theory fit the data.

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