Scientific methods, which are central to the study of dinosaurs, have a foundation of evidence-based reasoning that involves hypothesis forming, testing of hypotheses, peer review, and construction of theories through the interrelations of hypotheses. These methods also have many applications to decision making in the everyday, ordinary lives of non-scientists. Knowing what is or is not science is important for critical thinking, which can help in assessing whether a given argument deserves a second thought. In this respect, knowing the differences between a fact, hypothesis, theory, and opinion can allow people to make informed decisions. Hypothesis forming typically consists of two phases, description and interpretation; descriptions can contain both qualitative and quantitative information. Quantitative information can be further described through statistics, such as the mean, median, and standard deviation. Interpretations are explanations of the observed data that form the basis for a hypothesis.
Finding dinosaur body and trace fossils requires development of some observational skills, which can be cultivated through looking at illustrations of fossils, drawing actual fossil specimens, and reading descriptions of them. Sharpened observations of details in everyday life can help with establishing search patterns that can be applied to the natural world. Fieldwork is one way to test skills and learn how scientific methods can be applied in the course of an investigation, as exemplified by fossil identification. Additionally, descriptions of fossils include measurements and calculations. Numbers are used to describe aspects of dinosaur fossils or fossils of other organisms found. Measurements and calculations also can be used to communicate descriptions much more effectively to a paleontologist if a potentially important fossil is found.
Ethics is an especially important subject in dinosaur studies because of the economic value placed on some dinosaur fossils, which causes competition between collectors (either amateurs or commercial) and professional paleontologists. Understanding how these ethical situations affect human relationships in dinosaur studies provides some parallels for other ethical dilemmas that might be faced in both scientific areas and the personal matters of daily life. Such decisions can affect the well being of other people. Using a combination of scientific methods and an awareness of ethics, people thus have the tools for using knowledge combined with values and understanding the effects of their decisions on other people.
1. Think of an example in your life lately where you used scientific methods to make a decision and explain it in terms of your initial observation, hypothesis, testing of your hypothesis, and peer review.
2. Which of the hypotheses presented in association with
Figure 2.3 do you think was the most likely, based on the available evidence? If you do not accept any of the hypotheses, what is one that you propose? See if you can combine aspects of the different hypotheses to make a new hypothesis.
3. Ask your instructor to change some feature of your classroom before you meet for class but not to tell you what was changed, then try to identify what is different. What might help to make this an easier task for the people doing the identification?
4. Is the statement "a theory must be falsifiable" non-falsifiable, thus making it unscientific? Explain why or why not.
5. Take the commonly used term "conspiracy theory" and discuss it in the context of the definitions given for facts, observations, hypotheses, theories, and opinions. Which definitions best apply to this term, and how could a conspiracy theory be demonstrated as a valid hypothesis? How could the use of the term bias your first impression of the "theory" it describes?
6. Name some fields of study that are not normally classified as science in which you think scientific methods, as described in this chapter, are used. What evidence do you have to support your hypotheses?
7. Why do dinosaur paleontologists frequently look for fossils in desert areas, as opposed to forests or jungles?
8. Ask your instructor to let you borrow a fossil or use one that you already have, then draw it as accurately as possible but do not add a scale indicator to the illustration. When it is completed, show the illustration to someone else who is not knowledgeable about fossils, and ask this person to estimate the size of the fossil. How far off from reality was their answer?
9. While doing fieldwork, you discover what you think is a dinosaur nesting ground, composed of five circular depressions. You make the following diameter measurements: 1.2, 1.3, 1.0, 1.4, and 1.25 meters.
a. Construct a histogram similar to the one depicted in Figure 2.1.
Why is it different from Figure 2.6?
b. What are the mean, range, and standard deviation for the sample?
10. In the discussion about ethics in dinosaur studies, which statements made by the author did you think were opinions and which were testable hypotheses? How could you disprove some of the statements?
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