Astronomy vs. Paleontology

Having dealt with astronomy and paleontology for much of my life, I thought it would be a good time to compare and contrast the two.

In astronomy 
all the members of the Cosmos are available to anyone to observe with or without a telescope. All the specimens are complete with regard to their visual spectra. Interpretation is straightforward and typically not controversial.

In paleontology
all the undiscovered specimens are available to anyone who puts in the effort to find them and remove or expose them from the matrix, but some specimens cannot be excavated without a permit. Some of the discovered specimens are available for study in museums. A few discovered specimens are kept in desk drawers and offices awaiting description or redescription and are therefore unavailable. Privately held specimens cannot enter the literature, but some do. Complete specimens are relatively rare. Most to all specimens need to be reconstructed from in situ data to their in vivo state, but this is rarely done. Some bits and pieces can be misinterpreted and interpretations can be controversial. Sometimes its hard to tell a suture from a crack. Some bones are buried beneath others or leave only the faintest impressions and stains.

In astronomy
all of the visible specimens follow the law of physics and so are largely predictable and follow paradigms set down decades ago. Dark energy and dark matter remain the only enigmas. The age of the Universe and distances to various heavenly bodies appears to be universally agreed upon. Mistakes rarely if ever occur any more. No specimens need to be reconstructed: WYSIWYG.

In paleontology
most of the specimens fall readily into established clades and can be identified as to their diet and niche. However several specimens and clades have been and continue to be misidentified as to their nesting. Mistakes continue to be made largely due to taxon exclusion, sometimes by oversight, sometimes by refusal. Many determinations are made by opinion and by following tradition rather than by rigorous testing.

In astronomy
anyone can discover a member of the Cosmos, and announce it to the Astronomical Union. Time is often of the essence. The pros don’t mind if an amateur makes a discovery. Every discovery is celebrated.

In paleontology
if you discover something you have to write a paper, then submit it, then wait about six months for referees to review it, then go through the editorial process if accepted, then await its ultimate publication, often a year later. Time is never of the essence. Even so, anyone can make a contribution, if deemed acceptable, The pros don’t like amateurs making discoveries that they should be making. After all, something can only be discovered once. Some discoveries are shunned and ignored.

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2 thoughts on “Astronomy vs. Paleontology

  1. I think most professional astronomers would laugh at this comparison. Not everyone can get access to every observatory, since any given machine observes in a certain range few objects are complete in regard to spectra, interpretation is often controversial (how often do paleontologists even utilize statistics?), objects generally have very generalized characters that get improved upon with more observations, geology of extraterrestrial bodies is just as complicated as for Earth but with less constraining data points, “The age of the [Earth] and distances to various [continents] appears to be universally agreed upon”, “anyone can discover a member of the Cosmos, and announce it to the Astronomical Union. Time is often of the essence.” They can show they found a thing that follows a few rules (comet, meteor, etc.), but the interesting stakes are higher in paleontology. As for “Mistakes rarely if ever occur any more”, you have to compare yourself to astronomy’s equivalents- the people who argue for Planet X, those who think they can find evidence for life on Mars by tracing photos from rovers, etc.. Maybe you’re the one dissenter with access to the truth, but you can’t compare your rebellious perception of paleontology to the professional consensus of another field.

    Do you actually think Bennett, Witton, etc. know you have discovered things they should be finding out? They just shun and ignore yours until they’re ready to publish it themselves? Just what is your hypothesis?

  2. To your point, I know a guy who has discovered extrasolar planets using, admittedly sophisticated, backyard equipment. I don’t see the rancor for ‘other’ hypotheses in astro that I see in paleo. Everything is on the table, so to speak. The paleo workers you mentioned continue to espouse that pterosaurs appeared without obvious precedent, as an example, and avoid/ igonore/ shun/ misrepresent published literature by yours truly while other referees reject manuscripts that reveal new insights because they are ‘heterodox’. Anyone can discover what I have discovered, but will they even try? I think I somehow have ‘poisoned the waters.’ True, I sometimes am the lone dissenter, but the ‘truth’ is available to anyone who expands their taxon list, or performs a more precise appraisal, as I’ve said too often. What is my hypothesis? Did I answer that here? Or would you like to be more specific? One final note, Mickey, I’m glad you subscribed, I appreciate your expertise and insight, but I think my output is going to be greatly reduced in the near future, except for occasional criticism and praise for new discoveries.

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