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Discussion 2 to Meditation 812
We should resist forming opinions when we don't need to.

by: Clay Chesney

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Thanks to Will for an interesting and thought-provoking article. In my field of geology, the question of likelihood (of events, manifestations, causes, etc) arises continually and requires gathering and weighing evidence and evaluating multiple possibilities without benefit of the kind of definitive rules found in some other sciences. Our earlier conclusions are eventually held up for review, so we are generally cautious in making affirmative statements. Even so, there have been many cases where apparently sound logic led to spectacularly incorrect visions of how the world functions. Those cases provide us with some prime examples of why we should resist forming opinions when we don't need to.

Where can our system of reason lead us astray? I first started thinking about the question during a college course on the philosophy of science. The teacher posed the question, "If I say there are no white crows, does it count as evidence for that claim every time I see a black crow?" The answer was "Yes, it does." My immediate thought was that if one in a million crows is white, then every piece of visual evidence you collect from all the black crows you see is leading you in the wrong direction. And there is plenty of evidence to convince you. The point is we are especially vulnerable to misinterpretation of rare events.

The problem became particularly evident in 1980 when Luis and Walter Alvarez proposed that the extinction of the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous was caused by the catastrophic impact of a large meteorite. The hypothesis was met with a firestorm of ridicule from geologists. This reaction came, in large part, because of a conflict between religion and the fledgling science of geology in the 1800s. The religious establishment saw the earth as having been shaped by cataclysms induced by God's wrath, while the geologists countered with the principle of uniformitarianism which emphasized the influence of slow natural processes of the kind we see acting around us every day. As a counterweight to religion and superstition, uniformitarianism became so entrenched in the basic wisdom of geology, that claims of catastrophic events were immediately rejected. When the Alvarezes announced their meteorite theory, with all its attendant public media attention, geologists rushed forward, hotly proclaiming that the story was like something from the pulp magazines at the check out counter. It took a number of years before the accumulated evidence was persuasive enough to win over the geological establishment, which is still not entirely convinced. Extremely rare events, especially highly destructive ones, were just not a part of the normal criteria for evaluating the world, even among a group that studied eons of earth history.

Another leading cause for rejection of a hypothesis is the lack of a mechanism to explain it. When it was first proposed, the theory of continental drift, which offered a good explanation for the matching coastlines of South America and Africa, was soundly rejected because the idea that solid rocks could move across the surface of the earth was considered impossible. It wasn't until the mechanics of plate tectonics became established that geologists could accept the idea that the continents were once joined together. What had seemed impossible now appeared possible based on a new understanding of physical processes.

Our misinterpretation can take various forms. In 1960s geology texts it was noted that the mountain chains we see today have very thick sections of sedimentary rocks which appear to be a result of the accumulation of massive amounts of sediments in long, trough-shaped basins which later rose up to form mountain ranges, such as the Appalachians. The geologic basins, dubbed geosynclines, were mysterious structures which had no counterpart in the modern world and were puzzled over for many years until the developing concepts of plate tectonics revealed that they had never been basins, but were ancient continental shelf and slope deposits.

Geologists' work requires them to make judgments about the earth, but we are not bound by any such requirement for questions on the nature of God. We will always question the likelihood of rare events, and we might even think that a proposal violates physical laws, but we need to remember that the universe has not been entirely revealed to us.

That is why I am an agnostic rather than an atheist, because atheism requires not only a rejection based on what we know, but a rejection based on all that we will ever know.