Did Dinosaurs Exist? <Br> <i> Drawing out Leviathan</i> and the Science Wars

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Biology 103

2005 Final Paper

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Did Dinosaurs Exist?
Drawing out Leviathan and the Science Wars

Norma Altshuler

How do we know that dinosaurs existed? As humans, we have (and, some would argue, are shaped by) cultural forces and economic interests. Is science contingent on inherently subjective perspectives? How can scientists remove themselves from their cultural ideologies and maternal interests to make unbiased claims about dinosaurs?

In Drawing out Leviathan, Keith Parsons attempts to mobilize the history of dinosaurs in science to support the validity of traditional scientific methods and discourses. Parsons portrays the "science wars" - the ongoing disputes about the subjectivity of science - as a battle between rational sciencists and constructivists, whom Parsons claims are committed to one or both of two theses. First, all modes of knowledge are "necessarily relative and parochial" - palentological methods or factual claims have no more objective validity than Greek mythology (Parsons 82). Second, even if rational standards exist (or are constructed), consensus is based on conflict and negotiation rather than these standards. He describes his book as "another shot fired in the science wars," which he claims that "rational people have a duty to win" (Parsons xv). The point of this book review is not to determine who won (or should win) the science wars, but rather to summarize and critique Parsons' argument, and to extrapolate lessons about how to approach the constructivist-rationalist debate.

Despite his negative (and, at times, mocking) portrait of constructivists, Parsons does not dismiss all arguments about the influence of culture on science. Indeed, one of his examples, the Carnegie Museum's decision to put the head of the wrong kind of dinosaur on its prize skeleton, shows that the museum's desire for public acclaim lead to a decision that scientific consensus would later refute. However, Parsons claims that "rationalists hold that in the long run... science can transcend ideology and politics and achieve the rigorous constraint of theory" by observing or interacting with nature (Parsons 81).

Central to Parson' arguments are four case studies of episodes in the history of dinosaurs in science, and an examination of the theories of constructivist Bruno Latour. In these, Parsons does an excellent job of engaging closely with relevant scientific theories, historical events and constructivist arguments. His contention that despite the significant influence of social factors, "reason and evidence, the traditional 'scientific' factors, also modeled every step" of the aforementioned Carnegie episode is well documented, as is his argument that similar methods of rationality prevailed in all of David Raup's work. The later case is significant because (Parsons argues) David Raup's "conversion" to accepting the argument of a group of scientists, including Luis and Walter Alavarez, that dinosaur extinction was caused by a large asteroid resembles a Kuhnian paradigm shift. Thomas Kuhn's theory, often invoked by constructionists, claims that scientific standards, methods and theoretical commitments periodically shift radically - and, in Parsons words, that scientists "experience something like a religious conversion" (Parsons 52). Parsons uses his analysis of Raup to argue that scientists generally have a "wide array of broadly shared and deeply grounded standards, criteria, methods, techniques, data, etc." that allow them to make "fully rational decisions" about whether to accept or reject theories (Parsons 78, emphasis in original). In brief, Parsons contends that scientific rationality remains consistent over time.

However, Parsons would do well to say more about what rationality - the school of thought that he sets out to defend - means. In relation to Raup, whose work he argues was "traditionally rational," Parsons defines rational theory change as "persuaded.... by evidence and arguments based on... broadly shared standards, criteria, methods, techniques, and so on," and claims that it is present "across theories and disciplines" (Parson 59). But Parsons does not directly expand on what this shared notion and practice of science look like, leaving the reader to fill in the gaps. Given the universal nature of this definition, it can, presumably, generalized to the rest of Parsons' argument about rationality. By asserted the omnipresence of rationality to challenge Kuhn's concept of shifts, Parsons does not engage with the development of scientific rationality, or allow that it can evolve or vary. He is skeptical of a universal Scientific Method, but sees rationally behind all scientific methods. This broad a claim deserves more explication.

Further, Parsons inappropriately allows scientific methodology to seep into his methods of analyzing paleontology. He gives examples of paleontologists uncovering more bones (and facts) and developing of better methodological tools, and claims that constructionists cannot account for progress. Instead, Parson contends, constructions discount the standards used to evaluate progress as socially formed and meaningless. Since constructivism cannot "deliver the goods" of adequately accounting for progress, Parsons argues, it will "therefore be abandoned" (Parsons 133). But doesn't this conclusion assume that theories about science will be accepted or rejected rationally? Parsons seeks to prove that science operates rationally - isn't he prematurely concluded that not only science but also common ideas of science operate according to standards of rationality?

Parsons' definition of constructionists (outlined in the second paragraph of this review) risk homogenizing constructionists. While Parsons outlines constructionists' two purported hypotheses clearly and specifically, he provides no real support for generalizing constructivists in this way. He claims that they see science as "sophisticated mythology, the folk beliefs of a tribe of scientists... no more or less true than Zande beliefs in witches" (Parsons ix). Surely some fall between Parsons' portrait (albeit vague) of rationalists, and construvistists who would take this extreme of an approach. Parsons draws upon an excerpt David Young's The Discovery of Evolution as the coda for his central chapter, a selection of which appears below:
A sensible view of science must lie somewhere in between" the rationalist extreme of science as free from human influence and the constructivist extreme that "scientific knowledge is... no more than the expression of a particular social group... a sensible view of scientific theory must lie somewhere between these two extremes (Young in Parsons, 104).
Surely much of the interesting (not to mention important) work of the history and philosophy of sciences lies in exploring the terrain between these extremes, and engaging with these possibilities.

Surprisingly, given his attempts to discredit constructionists, Parsons concludes Drawing Out Leviathan with "possible grounds for rapprochement" that "might satisfy the intuitions of rationalists while accommodating the genuine insights of constructivists" (Parsons xx-xxi). Citing Richard Bernstein's interpretations of Kuhn, Parsons suggests that perhaps we can draw on constructivism to show that science cannot be reduced to an algorithmic formal, when realizing that we can use reason to decide what theories to test and to choose between scientific paradigms. Parsons hopes that this model will lead to the end of the science wars (although he does not express overwhelming optimism on this point). But if constructivism is really what Parsons claims it is - if it contends that reasonable standards do not exist and/or that scientific outcomes are always constructed - then this model would not be acceptable to rationalists. Indeed, Parsons' aim - "firing another shot in the science wars" –hardly lends itself to the notion of reconciliation (Parsons xv, emphasis added).

Parsons fears that the "two cultures" in the academy - constructivism and rationality, the literary and the scientific - will make achieving the "traditional goal of a liberal arts education, the formation of a whole person" much harder (Parsons 150). But isn't the process of examining and evaluating conflicting views at the heart of education? If rationalists and constructionists are separated into different divisions, however, it is certainly likely that many students will not put these parts of their educations together.

While this review has criticized Parsons, I do not mean to dismiss his work. His analysis of case studies and particular constructivists' theories engage closely with the events and texts he examines, and his analysis is always careful and sometimes brilliant. Parsons is able to give a range of readers a sense of the nature of paleontology and the debates between rationalists and constructivists. If Parsons, as he claims, is another shot in the science wars, and if, as I argue, this conflict can be a pedagogical process, Parsons is a particularly powerful tool.

Work Cited: Parsons, K. Drawing Out Leviathan: Dinosaurs and the Science Wars. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.

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