In which fangirling turns into philosophy

Textbooks may portray science as a codification of facts, but it is really a disciplined way of asking about the unknown. — Andrew Knoll, Life on a Young Planet

Some books change your life. When I was 12 or 13 or thereabouts, SJ Gould and others’ Book of Life rekindled my interest in prehistoric life, introduced me to the Cambrian explosion, and opened my eyes to a whole new worldview. It’s one of the reasons I hold a degree in evolutionary biology.

Life on a Young Planet was not a life-changer, precisely. That’s not why I love it to pieces. By the time I read it, I’d gained an appreciation of just how complex and full of uncertainty natural science was, and the book was permeated by an awareness of this complexity. Also, it was simply beautiful writing.

(I can’t emphasise the importance of good writing enough. I’ve read too many papers and books [Crucible of Creation and The Plausibility of Life, I’m looking at you] that had good information but were so atrociously written that I nearly put them down despite being fascinated by their subject.)

Last month, the author of Life on a Young Planet, Harvard professor Andy Knoll, came to visit my university. I was practically bouncing with excitement from the moment I saw his name on a newsletter. He gave four lectures in total; until the very last one, I actually contemplated getting my copy of the book signed. Or, to be a fangirl and a nerd, my printout of his lovely biomineralisation review. (I still can’t decide if I made a mistake. Damn, I didn’t even ask a stupid question. Four lectures, and I just sat there and drooled over my notebook.)

Knoll is nearly as good a speaker as he is a writer. He doesn’t have the liveliest voice and speaks quite slowly, but if you can get past that, his lectures are really good. (I’m glad of that; I really don’t like losing my illusions!) They are solid structures that you have no difficulty following the logic of.

Let me put it this way – Andy Knoll is an excellent storyteller.

That got me worrying, because I’m a sceptic and (truth be told) a little bit of a cynic at heart, and because over the years I’ve done a lot of navel-gazing about belief and knowledge and conviction. I have a tendency to grow suspicious when I feel too certain about something.

Am I – are we – too often blinded by good storytelling? How often do we get so enamoured of good ideas that we try to force them on situations they don’t fit? And how often do we doubt something just because it sounds too neat?

Here’s the specific example from the Knoll lectures that made me think of this. Knoll is a champion of the oxygen + predation explanation of the Cambrian explosion. (I didn’t realise he was involved in that paper until it came up in the lectures…) He is also an advocate of a similar explanation for the diversification of single-celled eukaryotes 250 million years before the Cambrian. He convinced me well enough, but then I immediately thought – really? Is it really that simple? Does one size really fit both events?

I often take note of these “pet ideas” as I read scientific literature. A group of phylogeneticists uses microRNAs to tackle every tough problem ever. A palaeontologist interprets every squishy-looking Cambrian weirdo as a mollusc. Researchers in the biomineral field look for slushy amorphous precursors to crystalline hard parts everywhere. (Remember, all generalisations are false ;))

Just to be clear: I’m not at all saying that being a “pet idea” automatically makes something wrong or suspicious. For instance, the hunters of amorphous biominerals have some good theoretical reasons to look, and they often do find what they’re looking for. Likewise, I’m impressed enough with Andy Knoll’s pet hypothesis about the Cambrian that I’ve rethought my own pet ideas about the subject.

I’m also not accusing these people of being closed-minded. Going back to Knoll, IMO he demonstrated ample healthy scepticism about his pets during his post-lecture Q&A sessions. (Which makes me a bit less nervous about the neatness of his stories.)

Someone better versed in the philosophy and sociology of science could probably write a long treatise involving paradigms and confirmation bias and contrariness here. I’m even less of a philosopher than I am a geologist, so I think I’ll leave the deeper insights to those who have them.

Meanwhile, I’ll continue to be a fan of Andy Knoll and appreciate a good scientific story. So long as I remember to look beneath the surface – both of good stories and of my own suspicion of them…

 

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