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The use of logics in science

The goal of scientists is to retrieve data and emit hypotheses on a question they ask themselves. They seek the truth about something using logics to guide them through their work. Taking into consideration the facts, the data, they try to treat it correctly, in an objective manner, and have results that reflect the real phenomenon. But how well does this work? There are some examples that reflect this idea, I’m going to talk about the one that I know best, having encountered it during my studies.

There is this known controversy of mathematicians and physicists against evolutionary biologists and palaeontologists: the first two fail to understand how it is possible for organisms with survival rates close to zero to actually survive. Following the laws of probabilities it is indeed impossible for living beings (such as the horse or even humans to take as some popular examples) to survive in the struggle for life. Yet they still exist and others, with better mathematical survival-probabilities, disappear very rapidly. Should these scientists think a bit outside the box, would they understand how evolution works; it is not about what we should find, nature -and life- does not always work that way.

But this is only an example of how scientific logic works. How can we be sure that we are open-minded or that we even can be right in the treatment of data?

In the book of Stephen Jay Gould “Time’s arrow, time’s cycle”, the author refers to F. Engels saying how it is impossible to think out of the trends and the ideas of our times. This is just another point to the fact that scientists do not know everything, as much as they’d like to think they do (I admit that I should include myself in this category…).

So can scientists be certain to explore a problem from every possible aspect?

Understanding the history of the earth before the discovery of tectonics

While reading S.J. Gould’s “Time’s arrow, time’s cycle  – Myth and metaphore in the Discovery of Geological Time“, I noticed a few things.

In the first part of the book, Gould describes the ideas on the -brief- history of the earth as seen by Thomas Burnett (late 17th century). It gets far more interesting, as far as the modern thought is concerned, in the second part of the book. There, we find the work of James Hutton, a scottish geologist of the 18th century. He had made very accurate and original observations in his homeland (discordances, discontinuities…). He tried to explain them but in vain. How would it be possible to understand a discontinuity, sediment orientation, etc. without having any knowledge of a mechanism that would allow change of the surface of the earth? How is it possible to study and understand the history of the earth without using tectonics?

The third part of the book is dedicated to the work of Charles Lyell (19th century). There again, we see that he observes faults and other landscape results of earthquakes. As much as Lyell’s work is significant to Geology, the mechanism responsible for some of his observations was still unknown; raising the same problems of the changes of the surface of the earth. All the theories preceding the discovery of tectonics were speculative even if the scientists tried to be realistic.

If we want to do a parallel with evolutionary biology, I remember the famous quote of Theodosius Dobzhansky: “Nothing makes sense in Biology except in the light of Evolution”. Well, I think that something similar can be said about tectonics: “Nothing makes sense in Geology, except in the light of Tectonics”. Therefore, Tectonics is to Geology what Evolution is to Biology.

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