Is there any better way to kick off a paleontology degree than with a philosophy lecture? (One day back in Student Mode and I'm already using rhetorical questions in precisely the way that I say my own students shouldn't.)
The first class meeting of Earth and Environmental Data Analysis focused on lie factor calculations. For those unfamiliar with the math: take the percent change of the relevant visualization of data on a graph or chart, divide it by the actual percent change in the data represented, and see how close the result is to 1. The first class meeting ended with a classmate asking how far a departure from the golden value "1" is acceptable. My new adviser, Edward Davis, warned me that I'd be "diving in the deep end" with my choice of a first course. Good news: I've already drowned in this pool!
Dr. Davis replied, "I prefer not to lie at all," and somewhere across time and space Kant smiled. But not so fast, Kant! When we visualize climate change on an absolute scale, the result is misleading: a change in two degrees is numerically minuscule, but that change makes an outsized difference to the biosphere. In that case, a "lying" visualization makes the more truthful point. So the "lie factor" doesn't measure the kinds of lies discouraged in normative ethics, wherein willful deceit plays the villainous role.
The only truth by this measure is a perfect correspondence between the natural world and measured data. So if we assume the fossil record to be incomplete, then most paleontological data is presented untruthfully. It's all lies!
I might keep this to myself when I join my first lab meeting on Thursday.