Friday, January 2, 2009

How Science REALLY Works: The "Clovis Comet"

I get sick of religious people – mostly Christian fundamentalist and evangelicals – who simply don't understand science, and use specious and vacuous reasoning to "prove" that science is wrong, doesn't have all the answers, or (my biggest annoyance) that there is disagreement among scientists about issues that are well understood. But here is an example, one that illustrates science at its best, when scientists are offering opinions, hypotheses, and data, working together to converge on an objective truth.

The case in point is illustrated by this article about the Clovis Comet, which (according to proponents of this theory) killed the Native Americans called the Clovis People about 12,900 years ago.

But there is disagreement. Other scientists have proposed other reasons for the Clovis People's disappearance: Overhunting that led to a collapse of the megafauna, a sudden climate change, disease, war, and various combinations of these and other factors.

In other words, we don't know the answer yet ... there are still many competing theories about why the Clovis People disappeared. Superficially, it might even seem like the Clovis scientists are no better than religious people arguing about interpretations of the Bible: Many opinions, sometimes strongly held, heated arguments, often personal, factions that form and break apart ... scientists really are just humans, after all.

But this apparent similarity between science and religion is superficial. Somewhere, under all the facts, data, and speculation, there is a single truth, what actually happened to the Clovis People, and scientists have a methodology to get at that truth. They propose answers, they argue a lot, and then the search for more data, expand our knowledge, reject theories that don't pass muster, argue some more, dig some more ... and sooner or later, they usually converge on the objective truth. And when that happens, the data, the real facts, are all there for everyone to examine, and confirm for themselves.

The cool thing about Clovis-Comet theory is not that it's right or wrong. If it's right, it will solve a mystery that's baffled anthropologists for a long time, and yes, that would be cool. If it's wrong, it will be just another failed hypothesis in the long history of science.

This never happens in religion. You can propose a new interpretation of the Bible, and who is to say you're wrong? You can claim that it's really Thor, not Yahweh, up there in the sky, and who can say you're wrong? Neither you nor the Pope himself can present one shred of evidence. The argument will never converge. There is no objective truth for religion, no foundation. When religous people argue, they're arguing about opinion, and they can argue forever.

But when scientists argue, it's over facts, and sooner or later, the facts prevail. One theory will win out because it is true, and the others will be forgotten. And the scientists will then move on to the next question, to expand our knowledge even more.


  1. Two of your subjects, religion and comets, may be related:

  2. jaw – very interesting indeed, thanks!

  3. If anyone is actually still interested in this comet, I have discovered the actual crater from it.

    Clovis Comet Crater

    You can check it out for yourself :

    Google Maps Discovery Image

    You may now move on to more questions about this remarkable event. Enjoy!

  4. Well said! I'm a new fan of your blog. I hope you don't mind me linking to yours from my own.

  5. My personal distillation:
    People lie
    People make mistakes

    Science: a systematic method to continually remove as many lies and mistakes from the objective truth as possible.

    Thus - it is dumb as hell to "believe" something that doesn't withstand scientific scrutiny.

  6. I understand all of it. From the big bang to the end of time. One question.

    How did the will evolve.

  7. BF – That's like asking, "How did justice evolve?" Will isn't something that evolved. What evolved was our ability to conceptualize and to give names to concepts (that is, language).

    All higher animals have brains with "circuits" that cause them to do things. We just feel those feelings inside ourselves and give them the name "will."

    A male dog senses a female in heat nearby has feels the urge to find her. Is that "will"? A man sees a bikini-clad woman on the beach and is determined to meet her. Is that "will"? And if you answer the two questions differently, then what's the difference?


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