One Long Experiment: Scale and Process in Earth History

By Ronald E. Martin | Go to book overview

PROLOGUE
Methodology and Proof in
Historical Science

Newtonian tidiness … is coveted. —Allen and Starr

History is science of a different kindpursued, when done well, with
all the power and rigor ascribed to more traditional styles of
science
. —S. J. Gould

Historical sciences occupy the nebulous realm of the middle ground. They lie somewhere between small-number systems and largenumber systems. The former treat their objects (such as planets) with the precision of differential equations (as Newton did), whereas the latter have so many objects to count (atoms, molecules) that only a statistical average is practical (gas laws). In either case, the basic approach is reductionist or mechanistic. If we merely simplify the system to its parts, we can understand the whole (Occam’s razor or the principle of parsimony). In the case of historical sciences, there are too few parts to average their behavior and too many to account for separately with their own differential equation (Allen and Starr, 1982).

A common criticism of any historical science is that historians have a very difficult time proving anything. And if history cannot prove something, then it must not be science. “Good” science (meaning “hard” science, such as chemistry or physics), on the other hand, proceeds by “the scientific method,” commonly but erroneously attributed to the highly influential twentieth-century philosopher Karl Popper (see Bondi, 1994): (1) observation, (2) hypothesis or tentative explanation (more than one hypothesis is preferable, but scientists, being human, favor their pet hypotheses), (3) experiment (to test the validity of the hypothesis), (4) modification or even rejection of the hypothesis, and (5) further testing of the new or modified hypothesis,

-1-

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One Long Experiment: Scale and Process in Earth History
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Preface xi
  • Prologue - Methodology and Proof in Historical Science 1
  • 1 - Scale, Measurement, and Process- An Introduction 9
  • 2 - The Nature of the Stratigraphic Record- Curds and Whey 24
  • 3 - Random Walks in Muck 53
  • 4 - Time and Taphonomy 72
  • 5 - Biological Processes Inferred from the Fossil Record 95
  • 6 - Cycles and Secular Trends 132
  • 7 - Energy and Evolution 163
  • 8 - Extinction 186
  • Epilogue- the Nature of Nature 212
  • References 217
  • Index 253
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