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 Scientific Methods 

Skull of Smilodon an extinct Sabertooth cat.
Skull of the sabertooth cat Smilodon
Modified from Matthew, 1910

Here is a picture of a skull of the extinct sabertooth cat Smilodon. This 'Sabertooth Tiger' had big teeth. We can ask - why were the teeth so large? Textbooks say the way science is done is to set up experiments to test hypothesizes. But how can we set up experiments to test why Smilodon had big teeth? This animal is long extinct, and isn't around for us to experiment with.

Experiments, however, are only one part of science. The scientist's toolkit has two basic sets of tools in it: 1) Historical methods, and 2) Experimental methods. Also, absolutely key are creativity and imagination. Neat new ideas are the engine of science.

 Historical Science 

The basic tools of historical reasoning go by fancy names: Dissonance, Staging, Uniformity, Concilience of induction. Hiding behind these terms are very simple ideas.

Staging: The classic story of staging is Charles Darwin's discovery of how Coral Islands form

Dissonance: Dissonance is the fancy name for noticing weird little oddities that tell us something about history. Why does one find so many towns in Massachusetts in the US that have the same names as places in England? This is simply an artifact of the history of colonization of the Americas. Dissonance in biology is often a reflection of the contingent nature of evolution.

A biological example of a weird artifact of history isThe Panda's Thumb

Uniformity: This is the simple idea that things in the past were sort of like the way things are today. Uniformity can mean several things.

Conscilience: Conscilience is a fancy name for the simple idea that something is more likely to be correct if many different lines of evidence all suggest that it is true. A biological example can be found in the tale of Serial Endosymbiosis.

 Experimental Science 
Designing experiments
Fooling yourself

It is not easy to set up a good experiment. Humans tend to set up tests that will confirm their existing ideas rather than trying to falsify them.

 Pulling it all together 

The recognition of Serial Endosymbiosis.

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Sources: Conslilince: Whewell, Wilson, Uniformity: Gould
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Copyright (C) 1997,1999 Athro, Limited. All Rights Reserved.
Written by Paul J. Morris
Mantained by Athro Limited
Date Created: 2 Nov 1997
Last Updated: 4 Dec 1999