The Occasional Joke

Nurse: Patient's name?

Centurion: Marcus Licinius Crassus

Nurse: And his date of birth?

Centurion: 115 BC.

Nurse: All right. And what is he here for?

Centurion: Cataphract surgery.

Monday, October 4, 2010

But seriously, folks ...

I'm always whining about scientific method and data-driven this and that; I thought a couple of recent topics might be useful, partly to illustrate the extent to which many received ideas are still up for grabs and partly because I think they're interesting.

First, there's the "man the hunter" theory about what happened to lots of large critters, back at the end of the Pleistocene. For decades, thought about this has wobbled back and forth between two points of view, a) humans showed up (at least in North America) and hunted them to extinction, and b) no, they didn't. Lately, it looked as though paleoecologists were coming down on the side of yes, we barbequed the mammoth, the giant beaver, and many others. But now, there's stuff being published that says, nope, it was climate change that did the deed.

The point is not which one is right; we may quite literally never come to an agreement on that score, where "agreement" is defined as nobody bothers to try to refute one or the other point of view any longer, simply because the body of evidence is overwhelmingly in its favor. The point is just that what looked settled a year ago is now back in play.

The other game of ping-pong with the received truth involves the hypothetical new hominin, Homo floresiensis, the soi-disant hobbit skeleton. The discoverers of this single example of a small biped have maintained that it represents a new human species, living very late into history and possibly alongside Homo sapiens. Others said, no, it was an H. sapiens specimen with one of several diseases or congenital conditions that made it look the way it did.

Articles earlier in the year seemed to come down on the side of a unique species, despite the small sample and the arguments of the "no, it isn't" group. But now, they're back with a paper that seems (far as I can tell) to make a pretty good case that the hobbit was just a human with hypothyroid cretinism -- basically iodine insufficiency.

As with the roast mammoth versus starved mammoth controversy, my point is just the extent to which these things fluctuate. I doubt whether anyone I know will make life-changing decisions based on these two controversies -- you won't change jobs or sell your BP stock or decide to home-school your kids on the question of who or what killed off the giant beavers. But there are plenty of other things in dispute out there right now, and you might have to decide, say, who you're going to vote for, based on whether you believe one set or another of analyses and opinions. Given the current state of discourse, all I can say is God help us all.