Saturday, April 16, 2005

It's received but is it wisdom?

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.
--Marcel Proust

I just popped by some English-language websites for news channels. The information which people in the Western news outlets seem to be concerned with on this particular day in history includes preparations to pick a new Pope, Chinese anti-Japanese protests and counter Japanese protests, oil prices and the price of gasoline are continuing to rise in the US, and the US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice has said that if the United Nations does not reform it will die. Some news about talks for disarmament in war-torn places like the (nation of) Ivory Coast and Ecuador's president declares a state of emergency due to growing political unrest. The criminal trial of pop-star Michael Jackson also continues to be featured prominently.

As I am writing I have the window open on a sunny afternoon and some birds in a nearby branch are singing. One of my dog ocassionally barks in the backyard. What is going on right now where you are? I just put away some laundry. Filled the dishwasher. Picked up some trash from last night's dinner that the dogs tried to steal from the garbage can. Other necessary, regular housekeeping chores. What have you been doing with your time today?

So that's the here and now of what will, by the time you read this, be there and when. On to the topic at hand:

I was able to attend a departmental lecture by a distinguished scholar in my specialty yesterday and her ideas were very provocative. Without going into unnecessary detail for a non-technical summation, she was pointing out that a popular idea about how certain animals would have made a cross-ocean migration simply didn't fit with what we know about the prevailing winds, ocean currents, and other information relevant to modelling this popular explanation. And yet this model has become deeply entrenched as "the" best answer for explaining the geographic distribution of this particular group of animals, in no small part because of the historic stature of the paleontologist who suggested the model decades ago. It has been repeated so many times it has practically gone from "one possible model" to "fact".

I find this happens somewhat regularly in my field of study. The identification of species, generating theories of related among taxa, proposing models of biological change and development--while many general ideas and specific-cases are based on well-documented and consistent observations and experiments, here too people often seem to be in a rush to make a definitive conclusion, to find "the answer". The provisional status of knowledge in science requires more than lip service to be effective.

Of course, this process of going from "one possible model" to "fact" based on little or nothing more than the familiarity and longevity of an idea is not limited to academia. How many things do we all take for granted every day? What new ideas and new experience have you exposed yourself to lately?

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