Overcoming the underdetermination of specimens

Author:Wylie, Caitlin, EN-Engineering and SocietyUniversity of Virginia ORCID icon orcid.org/0000-0002-0214-7837

Philosophers of science are well aware that theories are underdetermined by data. But what about the data? Scientific data are selected and processed representations or pieces of nature. What is useless context and what is valuable specimen, as well as how specimens are processed for study, are not obvious or predetermined givens. Instead, they are decisions made by scientists and other research workers, such as technicians, that produce different outcomes for the data. Vertebrate fossils provide a revealing case of this data-processing, because they are embedded in rock that often matches the fossils’ color and texture, requiring an expert eye to judge where the fossil/context interface is. Fossil preparators then permanently define this interface by chiseling away the material they identify as rock. As a result, fossil specimens can emerge in multiple possible forms depending on the preparator’s judgment, skill, and chosen tools. A prepared fossil then is not yet data but potential data, following Leonelli’s (2015) relational framework in which data are defined as evidence that scientists have used to support a proposed theory. This paper draws on ethnographic evidence to assess how scientists overcome this underdetermination of specimens, as potential data, in addition to the underdetermination of theories and of data, to successfully construct specimen-based knowledge. Among other strategies, paleontology maintains a division of labor between data-makers and theory-makers. This distinction serves to justify the omission of preparators’ nonstandard, individualized techniques from scientific publications. This separation has benefits for both scientists and technicians; however, it restricts knowledge production by preventing scientists from understanding how the pieces of nature they study were processed into researchable specimens.

Source Citation:

Wylie, C.D. (2019). Overcoming the underdetermination of specimens. Biology and Philosophy, 34(24).

University of Virginia
Published Date:
December 21, 2020