Of names and committees and people and ?

Michael Gochfeld gochfeld at eohsi.rutgers.edu
Mon Apr 10 21:32:53 EDT 2000

Several people have recently mentioned taxonomy in the same breath as
rocket science.  Holding out "Rocket Science" as some kind of peak to be
attained has always struck me as ludicrous.  Rocket scientists (really
engineers) may use complex mathematics to deal with something which is
basically deterministic and is "merely" an application of Newtonian
science. Rocket scientists are the kind of people who failed to
appreciate that cold temperature might jeopardize the performance of an
O-ring.  See Richard Feynman's account of the Challenger investigation. 
Taxonomy has always seemed to me much more complex than Rocket Science,
although many have tried to apply linear mathematical models to sorting
out different taxa. 

Training in a museum where taxonomic discussions were dominated by
cladists, I appreciated the value of posing hypotheses or questions
regarding relationships, although I didn't always appreciate the
assumptions that went into determining character states. So taxonomy can
be approached in a highly "scientific" way or can incorporate much more
of the art.  

Mike Gochfeld

Andrew Mitchell wrote:
> Norbert Kondla wrote:
> <snipped>
> >
> >5.     Nomenclature and taxonomy is not rocket science; it strikes me as
> >more dynamic opinion than science.  And one could argue that it is not even
> >science if one defines science as that which involves use of the
> >experimental method.  From my perspective this whole topic is about
> >decision-making and consensus-building --- or the lack thereof :-)
> >
> To lump "taxonomy" in with nomenclature and say that neither is a science
> smacks of anti-intellectualism. While some taxonomy papers (mostly in low
> impact journals) are indeed thick on opinion and thin on hard evidence this
> is just bad science. So blame particular authors, reviewers and editors,
> but don't slate taxonomy. Taxonomic questions can be addressed with the
> scientific method as even the quickest glance in a decent taxonomic journal
> will confirm.
> I agree that taxonomy is not rocket science in one sense though (not the
> sense you meant):  Taxonomy is a lot harder because definitive answers are
> extremely difficult (but not impossible) to get.  It's not just a case of
> plugging numbers into an equation to determine whether your rocket will
> generate enough thrust to carry a payload into orbit. Instead one must
> reconstruct historical events in the evolutionary history of life from
> sometimes conflicting clues.
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