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Derek Turner writes ...
In his latest post, Adrian Currie makes an excellent case for the value of speculation in paleontology. I agree with him that speculative hypotheses play an important role in the practice of science, but there’s a further question about public paleontology that I hope we can also consider.
In paleontology, there is significant cultural pressure to produce representations of dinosaurs for museum exhibits, books, and films. When there are things that we just don't know, speculative hypotheses often serve to inform the production of these representations. What can happen, then, is that speculative hypotheses get culturally entrenched: nonspecialists see dinosaurs represented in a certain way in a museum exhibit or a book, and it’s known that paleontologists lend their expertise to the production of those representations. It’s hard for nonspecialists to keep track of which aspects of the representation outrun the evidence and which don’t. And the representation as a whole has the weight of scientific authority behind it. Ideally, we want people to form their beliefs about dinosaurs based on the evidence. However, when people form their beliefs on the basis of museum exhibits, and where speculation is built into those exhibits, people can end up with beliefs that outrun the evidence.
So here's my question: What if a major museum were to unveil a new exhibit that portrays tyrannosaurs as pack hunters, with one or two youngsters leaping out ahead after their prey and the full-grown adult coming along behind?
On the one hand, you might think that since speculation has a legitimate role to play in science, an exhibit that builds in a little speculation is, in a sense, true to the science.
But on the more critical side, epistemic austerity, taking care that your beliefs do not outrun the evidence, is a good thing, and it's part of what science is all about. Epistemic austerity is compatible with speculation, as long as you don't actually believe the speculative hypothesis. When a speculative hypothesis is embedded in a museum exhibit, that is (I worry) a way of offering it as something worthy of belief. There's nothing wrong with speculating about tyrannosaur behavior. But I'm not sure if museums should offer such speculation to visitors as something worthy of belief. And--just speculating!--I wonder if that is part of the reason why some other paleontologists took such a dim view of Phil Currie's promotion of the pack-hunting idea in the documentary.