Saturday, August 27, 2011

Words of Reassurance

In which the blogger stretches the reach of this blog and offers a few word-treasures extracted from the geological depths of language.

As I anticipate many hours of wind and rain from Hurricane Irene, and know that our electricity will go out (possibly for days), I wonder what would be best to read by our battery-powered lamp during the long, dark night before me, something to distract me, reduce my anxiety.  A masterful biography of a great scientist?  A detective novel oozing atmosphere set in Victorian England?  An engrossing tale of science fiction weirdness written for “young adults” (a category awash in amazing literature)?  An essay by a once robust poet, now slipping away?  Will the written word suffice, offer me a literary hug machine?

At the moment, with the electricity still on, perhaps the act of composing a blog posting might distract me for awhile.  As usual, I’ve been collecting words new to me and, perhaps, a brief offering of a trinity of those in the vault might do the trick.  Admittedly, only one of these words holds any kind of explicit link to the general focus of this blog.  So be it.  Here they are in no particular order.


The boy, often called Bobby by members of his family and sometimes Charley, earned the nickname Gas from his classmates at his boarding school because of the chemistry experiments he conducted at night with the gas lamp that lit the shabby, overcrowded room in which the boys slept.  In Bobby’s own account of his life, he noted that the headmaster, upon discovering these illicit activities, applied a different name to him:
He called me very unjustly a ‘poco curante,’ and as I did not understand what he meant it seemed to me a fearful reproach.
According to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (3rd edition, 1996), a pococurante is “one who does not care.”  The word comes from Latin, via Italian (poco meaning “little” and curare meaning “care”).  But, that’s not quite how the headmaster was using the term, according to science historian Janet Browne who recounted Charles ("Bobby," "Charley," "Gas") Darwin’s exploits with gas in volume one of her definitive and wonderfully readable biography of the man (Charles Darwin:  Voyaging, 1995, p. 33).  “Pococurantism, in his day, meant someone who was only interested in trifles.”  Indeed.


Novelist Anne Perry introduced me to this word in her Victorian mystery novels.  In A Dangerous Mourning (1991), Perry described the streets outside a courthouse where a trial is underway (a carryover from a previous novel, The Face of a Stranger, the marvelous first volume of the William Monk series).  She wrote, that, amid the large and excited crowd,
Running patterers recounted the whole case, with much detail added, for the benefit of the ignorant – or any who simply wished to hear it all again.  (p. 40)
Oral recounting of the news of the day served a population in a time and place where literacy was not universal and, of course, there was no television.  Those who offered that service were patterers.  The 1907 New American Encyclopedic Dictionary offered this definition:
One who disposes of his wares in the public streets by long harangues.  (p. 3033)
Though I knew the noun patter (“glib, rapid speech”), I’d never encountered patterer.  The origin of this constellation of words is most delightful.  These words come from the Middle English patren which is derived from Paternoster, Latin for the Our Father or the Lord’s Prayer.  This use presumably was inspired by the mechanical, rote way in which the prayer was often intoned.


The fantastically (I chose this adverb carefully) inventive mind of author William Sleator blinked off earlier this month with his death at age 66 (yes, the books still remain).  Sleator created aliens of grotesque features inhabiting worlds where the rules remained unclear for vulnerable teenage humans, an uncertainty with potentially deadly consequences – worlds all too familiar to his intended audience of so-called “young adults” (and to a host of others outside that demographic).

Sleator loved words, and the beings who inhabit his novels (e.g., the classic Interstellar Pig) play or wrestle with them.  His collection of autobiographical stories (Oddballs) makes clear that he grew up in an environment where words, real or invented, were loved and used to great effect (his sister Vicky, particularly, was a consummate artist with words).

But, it’s not a word from his books that I offer here.  Rather, Margalit Fox in her New York Times obituary of Sleator seduced me with a word in her discussion of Sleator’s parents.  His parents fit no conventional models of parenting.  One example should suffice.  His father would play what I can only describe as an urban survival game with Billy and his sister Vicky when both children were under the age of 10.  The two children would be blindfolded and then driven by their father to some remote corner of the city, released from their blindfolds, and left to get home on their own.  The only small piece of a safety net – a dime for a phone call.

As Fox noted in the obituary,
Billy, as he was known, grew up amid art, intellectual ferment and a laissez-faire approach to child rearing that would give helicopter parents the fantods.
That’s the word – fantods.  Clearly invented, worthy of Sleator or his sister Vicky, its first use predating them by over a century.  The American Heritage Dictionary asserts “origin unknown.”  Meaning of the noun?  “A state of nervous irritability” or “the  movements caused by tension.”  Merriam-Webster’s does it better – “fidgets.”  Just reading about his father’s “game” gave me the fantods.

Geology of Words

Four years before his death, Walt Whitman published a collection of poems and essays titled November Boughs.  Trust Whitman, even in his last years, to expand the reach of words, to enrich them to an overflowing abundance; trust him to connect mind and body.

As Hurricane Irene draws up the coast toward Long Island where my rickety summer cottage awaits her onslaught, I drink in this volume’s poetry about Paumanok (the Native American name for the island).
Sea-beauty ! stretch’d and basking !
One side thy inland ocean laving, broad, with copious commerce,
steamers, sails,
And one the Atlantic’s wind caressing, fierce or gentle – mighty
hulls dark-gliding in the distance.
Isle of sweet brooks of drinking-water – healthy air and soil !
Isle of the salty shore and breeze and brine !
Whitman, a consummate shaper of words, sought words among people of all stations and occupations.  He came to this endeavor with an appreciation of the process through which words are born and live and often die.  In his essay Slang in America which appeared in November Boughs, Whitman wrote,
To make it plainer, it is certain that many of the oldest and solidest words we use, were originally generated from the daring and license of slang. In the processes of word-formation, myriads die, but here and there the attempt attracts superior meanings, becomes valuable and indispensable, and lives forever.  (p. 68)
Trust Whitman to not be content to merely describe this process, but to reach for more, to draw in an encompassing natural history.  As he concluded the essay, he stated,
The science of language has large and close analogies in geological science, with its ceaseless evolution, its fossils, and its numberless submerged layers and hidden strata, the infinite go-before of the present.  (p. 72)
The “infinite go-before of the present” . . . perhaps Whitman would be the best companion for the late night vigil amid the howling winds.

Friday, August 19, 2011

A Boatload About Eupleura caudata (Say, 1822)

Splashing my bare feet in the edge of the summer ripples on
                   Paumanok’s sands, . . . .
                               ~ Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

On my annual pilgrimage to the fossil-forsaken wilds of Long Island (New York), I am free to spend days embracing the abundance that nature nicely brings to my summer cottage door (and, often, across my doorsill).  This has been a summer of seashells, fossil and otherwise, largely because I began my visit with a purchase at a local gem and mineral show of an inexpensive fossil shell of Aporrhais pespelecani (Linnaeus, 1758), that had been found at a Pliocene (5 to 3 million years ago) site in Italy.  According to the Paleobiology Database, A. pespelecani has been collected from European sites dating back to the Miocene (23 to 5 million years ago).  (More on the Database at the end of the posting.)  The fossil specimen below is 1 ¾ inches in length.   A. pespelecani is extant, living in the eastern Atlantic.

The wildly flowing “lip” of this gastropod (snail) shell generated its common name – Pelican’s Foot Shell – as well as its scientific name.  The genus portion is from the Greek aporrheo meaning to “flow away” and its species name is from the Latin pes and pelecani for, what else, “pelican’s foot.”

The outstretched wing (or foot) on these shells has inspired artists for centuries.  The website Gastropoda Stromboidea offers a wealth of information on, and historical images of, members of the Stromboidea, including the A. pespelecani.  The plate (shown below) from Niccolò Gualtieri’s Index Testarum Conchyliorum, quae adservantur in Museo Nicolai Gualtieri (1743), is particularly enjoyable.  Geologist Mark Wilson on the blog Wooster Geologists aptly described it as appearing to show the shells dancing.  (Source credit for the Gastropoda Stromboidea site is provided at the end of this posting.)

Now, that’s the European style of free flowing skirt on a gastropod.  There’s an American Aporrhais but the pictures I’ve seen suggest it’s much less attractive, somehow seeming to overdo the extended skirt.  Besides, A. occidentalis doesn’t appear on my Long Island beaches.  So, I’ve spent my time chasing the modestly flaring skirts of the shells of the gastropod Eupleura caudata (Say, 1822), the Thick-lipped Oyster Drill, a marine snail that does frequent Flander’s Bay, a short walk or bike ride away.  These sands teem with animal life of the invertebrate variety and with copious evidence of the death of same.  Here I can readily find the shells from E. caudata, with its two varices (prominent ridges), one of which flares outward as a skirt on the rim of the aperture on the underside.  Its style is decidedly more demure than that of its taxonomically and geographically far, far distant cousin A. pespelecani, though I think it can dance a gentle dance.  The specimen pictured below is 5/8 inches long.  The picture does not do it justice.

That I favor its attractive search image might contribute to the preponderance of E. caudata in my bags, far in excess of the spindle-shaped shells of its nearer cousin Urosalpinx cinerea (Say, 1822), the Atlantic Oyster Drill, an imbalance contrary to the conchology literature for this area.  Or perhaps the robustness of E. caudata shell enables it to more easily survive intact the constant scouring of the waves on sand.  I am thankful for what the bay gives me.  The U. cinerea pictured below is 11/16 inches long.  The lip curves in; certainly stylish in its own right.

I originally took the beach picture that opens this posting to highlight how E. caudata stands out, at least to me, from among all of the other distractions on the beach.  In this small stretch of sand, I’d spotted two E. caudata among the various shells on the sand; the others mostly Crepidula fornicata (Linnaeus, 1758), the Common Slipper Shell.  But, it’s now a testament to the limits of my “fine-tuned” search image.  As I put in the black arrows to mark the E. caudata shells in the beach picture, I spotted yet another one of these Drills.  The uncollected and embarrassingly obvious intruder is the smaller one of the pair on the left.

Admittedly, E. caudata has a well-earned reputation as a voracious killer, preying on young oysters and other bivalves by drilling a precise small hole through their shells to gain access to the soft animals within.  In its defense . . . Hey, that’s life.  Besides, cousin U. cinerea is more the villain in the Muricidae family, being the acknowledged devastator of oyster seed crops in Long Island Sound and the Chesapeake Bay.

Names are all important.  As noted, E. caudata carries the unflattering common name of “Thick-lipped Oyster Drill” – an unimaginative description of the outer edge of its aperture joined with a literal description of how it earns its living.  In contrast, the genus portion of its scientific name sings a bit, praising the aesthetic virtues of its shell, specifically that flaring varix.  Eupleura – the Greek eu means “good,” “well,” or “pleasing” and pleura means “side.”  “Pleasing side” or “pleasing sided” – I like it.  (The species name cauda reverts to the mundane – Latin for “tail.”)

As conchologists William K. Emerson and Morris K. Jacobson note, “Common names may change from place to place, scientific names from time to time.”  (Shells from Cape Cod to Cape May with Special Reference to the New York City Area, 1971)  The “Say” in the extended scientific name for E. caudata refers to Thomas Say (1787 – 1834) who, in a volume published in 1822, was the first to describe this creature and its shell and U. cinerea, though, as the parentheses note, the names he gave them changed after his publication.

When Say published on what is now known as E. caudata, he expressed displeasure in the generic name he felt compelled to apply, Ranella, a “generic name I think objectionable, inasmuch as it borders too closely upon Renilla, which designates a genus of the class Polypi of Lamarck.”  He characterized this animal as a “rather common species.”  (An Account  of Some of the Marine Shells of the United States, Journal of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, 1822, p. 236-237)

I must shamefully admit that, until I explored this taxonomic history, Thomas Say was unknown to me.  My great loss.  Say has been called the "Father of American Entomology," the "Father of American Conchology," and the "Father of American Zoology," titles David M. Damkaer describes as “well deserved.”  (The Copepodologist’s Cabinet:  A Biographical and Bibliographic History, Vol. 1, 2002.  A copepod is a member of a group of widespread, small crustaceans.)  According to Damkaer, Say was the first American entomologist to be considered equal to European entomologists; in the course of his life, Say identified over 1,500 new insects.  His descriptive volumes on American conchology broke new ground and have stood the test of time.  For the latter portion of his life, “Thomas Say was the highest authority on North American mollusks, insects, and crustaceans.”  (Damkaer, p. 172)

His was a fascinating albeit brief life.  A member of a Quaker family of some means, Say thwarted his father’s efforts to steer him to apothecary, partly by failing at the business.  Instead, his interest in natural history consumed him.  Say joined a Philadelphia circle of men with scientific interests that founded the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia in 1812.  (Guide to the Microfilm Publication of the Minutes and Correspondence of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia 1812 – 1924, Venia T. Phillips, 1967)  Say ventured far afield in his natural history pursuits, exploring areas in the South, and serving as zoologist on two expeditions to the West.

In the winter of 1825 - 1826, he joined several of the Academy of Natural Sciences’ leading scientists who, along with many other educators, artists, and students, journeyed by riverboat to Robert Owen’s communal experiment in New Harmony, Indiana.  Called by Owen, the “boatload of knowledge,” this drawing of intellectual talent to New Harmony was in support of his belief that social reform necessitated widespread distribution of knowledge.  (Donald E. Pitzer, The Original Boatload of Knowledge Down the Ohio River:  William Maclure's and Robert Owen's Transfer of Science and Education to the Midwest, 1825-1826, Ohio Journal of Science, Vol. 89, No. 5, 1989)  The loss of talent negatively affected the Academy of Natural Sciences for many years, with the result, according to Damkaer, that “the U.S. center of natural history shifted to New Haven and Cambridge . . . .” from Philadelphia.  (Damkaer, p. 172)

In New Harmony, Say had responsibility for “Literature, Science, and Education.”  During the brief years left to him, Say completed his masterwork on shells, American Conchology, nearly all of it published in New Harmony during 1830-32.  Of the 68 plates for the work, 66 were by his wife Lucy whom he had married in 1827; she had been a fellow traveler on the “boatload of knowledge.”  Following Thomas’ death in 1834, she returned east and, in 1841, was admitted to the Academy of Natural Sciences, its first woman member.  (The University of Southern Indiana provides a useful website introducing the New Harmony experiment.)

Here is Lucy Say’s (“Mrs. Say” as she signed it) illustration for the Ranella caudata in Thomas Say’s American Conchology.   (The image is taken from The Complete Writings of Thomas Say, on the Conchology of the United States, edited by W. G. Binney, 1858.)

Not very impressive, I’m afraid.  The Maryland Geological Survey published a nice drawing of E. caudata in 1906, showing it as a fossil from the Pleistocene (3 million to 10,000 years ago).  (W. B. Clark, et al., Volume VI, Maryland Geological Survey, 1906.)

Unfortunately, E. caudata just has not inspired artists the way A. pespelecani has.

As for this gastropod’s fossil record, it seems to coincide generally with that of A. pespelecani, at least in terms of when it appears.  In 1890, paleontologist William Healey Dall summarized the taxonomic history of E. caudata and noted that it occurred as a fossil, possibly in the Miocene (23 to 5 mya), but definitely in the Pliocene (5 to 3 mya, South Carolina and Florida), and in, what he termed, the “Post-Pliocene” along “most of the Atlantic coast.”  (Tertiary Fauna of Florida, with Especial Reference to the Miocene Silex-Beds of Tampa and the Pliocene Beds of the Caloosahatchie River, Transactions of the Wagner Free Institute of Science of Philadelphia, Volume 3, August 1890.)  The Paleobiology Database basically confirms Dall, citing examples in the fossil record of E. caudata going back to the Miocene.

Dall went on to consider the distribution of the few Eupleura species that have appeared on either coast of the United States, and noted that on each coast there was a predominant representative joined with another possible species exhibiting greater physical and geographical variability.  He concluded that this group “though containing but few species, presents as pretty a series of modifications in space and time as any evolutionist could wish to see.”  (p. 144)

Which for me prompts a fundamental question, why did a flaring lip or edge evolve on A. pespelecani and E. caudata?  For defense?  For stability?  Because they accompanied genetically some other useful features that evolved in these organisms?  Why so dramatically on the former and not the latter?  Different environment, different pressures?  I need more knowledge.

Additional Source Information

For the sake of consistency with the scientific names for these organisms, I’ve relied exclusively on the World Register of Marine Species (otherwise known as WoRMS).

The Paleobiology Database, originally funded by the National Science Foundation and now by the Australian Research Council, is a very useful website providing taxonomic information (though not always in sync with WoRMS) and collection information for animals and plants regardless of geological age.

The Gualtieri image is from the Gastropoda Stromboidea website:  Ulrich Wieneke and Han Stoutjesdijk (Eds.), "Aporrhais pespelecani". In: Gastropoda Stromboidea. modified: August 16, 2011, at 08:53 PM, URL: (accessed: August 18, 2011, at 07:00 AM).

For information on these various shells, I relied primarily on an idiosyncratic collection of guides (it’s what the mildewy library in my summer cottage, the local library, and a hopelessly messy used bookstore had to offer).  In addition to Emerson and Jacobson’s Shells from Cape Code to Cape May (cited earlier), I used R. Tucker Abbott’s How to Know The American Marine Shells (1961); Kenneth L. Gosner’s A Field Guide to the Atlantic Shore (a Peterson Field Guide) (1978); and Emerson and Jacobson’s The American Museum of Natural History Guide to Shells:  Land, Freshwater, and Marine, from Nova Scotia to Florida (1976).  This last is particularly informative but generally only if you’ve already acquired some knowledge elsewhere and identified the shell at hand.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Fallacy of the Best-in-Field Fallacy

~ In which the blogger gives with one hand (for most of the posting) and takes with other.

I first heard of the best-in-field fallacy in a talk by William DiMichele, the Smithsonian’s curator of fossil plants.  It piqued my interest because at first blush it seems so powerful (and damning if you can claim an opponent has fallen victim to it).  DiMichele has written about it as well and I’ll use one of his articles to explain what the fallacy is all about.

Analyzing the interplay between climate change and changes in flora during two intervals in the Paleozoic, DiMichele warns against what he calls the “best-of-field” (sic) fallacy (DiMichele, et al., Climate and Vegetational Regime Shifts in the Late Paleozoic Ice Age Earth, Geobiology, Volume 7, 2009, p. 200-226).  (As explored below, the person who apparently first identified this fallacy named it “best-in-field” fallacy.)  In this paper, DiMichele cautions that looking well back in time at vegetational responses to climate change may take us where our modern analogues fail to capture the causes and effects that were then in play.  That’s where the fallacy kicks in.  He writes,
In historical science, our experience and imagination constrains what we choose as explanations for the patterns we see.  In what was described as the “best of field fallacy” (Macbeth, 1971), we choose between explanations ‘a’, ‘b’, and ‘c’, when, in fact, the correct answer is ‘d’. (p. 202)
But in casting about for that possibly elusive (and possibly true) ‘d’ choice, we do not put everything on the table.  For instance, in the paleobiology context of his research, DiMichele asserts, “We must . . . assume that the underlying physical principles do not change.”

He cites Macbeth, 1971, as his source for the identification of the fallacy.  It’s an interesting source.  Norman Macbeth, a lawyer, published a slim volume in 1971 titled Darwin Retried:  An Appeal to Reason, in which he approached his study of the Darwinian theory of evolution as a lawyer would and concluded that it had collapsed under the weight of hopeless contradictions and impossibilities.  Though he acknowledged the fact of evolution, he found no evidence supporting the ability of natural selection to answer the how and why questions of evolution.

It’s fairly readable tract but one that raised my blood pressure and prompted hasty scribbling of marginalia (ranging from “what a crock!” to whole paragraphs sprawling into wherever there was white space).  My primary task in this posting is to show how Macbeth presents the best-in-field fallacy which is a key part of his attack on Darwinian evolution; but then, in an effort to reduce my hypertension, I indulge in a bit of an attack of my own.

The context for his discussion of the “best-in-field” fallacy is what he labels adaptation.  Macbeth first disparagingly describes the Darwinians’ efforts to explain how the accumulation of many small changes accomplishes the creation of complex organs as the “wave-the-wand method” of scientific exposition.  He then quotes Darwin on the centrality to his theory of the effects of this accumulation of small changes:
If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.  (On the Origin of Species)
At this, Macbeth declares
Since this fact [the fatal flaw identified by Darwin] seems to have been demonstrated, if only by default, the reader will ask whether the modern Darwinians concede that the theory has broken down.  The answer is a strange one – they are not greatly troubled by their failure to explain the adaptation because they are sustained and soothed by the best-in-field fallacy.  (p. 76-77)
The Darwinians, according to Macbeth, fall to the fallacy when they compare their theory to the competing ones that been proffered.
The Darwinians have shown that none of these [other] theories are any good. . . .  Thus the Darwinians are able to say that Darwin made a better try than anyone else, and they find real comfort in this. . . . [But,] [i]s there any glory in outrunning a cripple in a foot race?  Being best-in-field means nothing if the field is made up of fumblers.  (p. 77)
In other words, ‘c’ may be the best answer we have among the choices before us of ‘a’, ‘b’, and ‘c’, but that doesn’t make it correct, or, indeed, much better than ‘a’ or ‘b’.

Macbeth lays claim to being the first to identify this fallacy and, as is his usual approach in this book, digs at evolutionary scientists with a bit of sarcasm.
The best-in-field fallacy seems to be my own discovery.  It does not appear in books on fallacies and I have not seen it clearly expressed anywhere else.  Perhaps it appears with unusual frequency among the evolutionary theorists, who seem to have a special weakness for it.  (p. 78)
Macbeth irritates me for a variety of reasons, trivial and significant.  He’s particularly annoying when he labels natural selection a tautology which he is able to do by defining it as an outcome – “differential reproduction.”  As a result, he posits that these scientists enter into the following circular reasoning:
. . . Question:  Why do some [species] multiply, while others remain stable, dwindle, or die out?  To which is offered as Answer:  Because some multiply, while others remain stable, dwindle, or die out.  (p. 47)
The “Answer” Macbeth attributes to evolutionary scientists is not the one they would be likely to give because, as I understand it, natural selection is a process not an outcome.  The “differential reproduction” of which Macbeth speaks is the product of the forces of nature acting on variations among organisms within populations (not species), favoring the survival (and reproduction) of some but not of others, thereby propagating certain variations.  Darwin, in the first edition of On the Origin of Species, wrote, “This preservation of favourable variations and the rejection of injurious variations, I call Natural Selection.”

As a result, the “Answer” more properly, more logically, and more likely to be given is that some populations are more likely to survive because they are better equipped for the circumstances in which they find themselves; those less well equipped may be less likely to survive.  In my mind, that answer to the question hardly constitutes a tautology and isn’t meaningless.

Among the other aspects of Macbeth’s book that annoy me are the following:
1) His cleverness in portraying himself as a disinterested lawyer trying Darwinian evolution in a “court of law.”
2) His related claim that, as a critic, he’s under no obligation to offer alternative explanations, just poke holes in the arguments and evidence for evolution.
 3) His marshaling of highly selected quotations from an idiosyncratic group of scientists as well as authors of popular pieces to “prove” terminal uncertainty and contradiction among them regarding evolution, thereby damning the theory.
4) His ploy of reproducing “imaginary conversations” among scientists to prove his points (hardly acceptable in a court of law).
5) His serious misconstruing of the fossil record of his time (and for clearly not being around to try to argue away the past three productive decades of paleontological work).
6) His sleight of hand in leading the reader to believe that it has been proven that there are complex organs that could not have been created through the accumulation of small changes over time.
(On this last point, where and when was this proven?  And, what does Macbeth mean when he writes, “Since this fact seems to have been demonstrated, if only by default”?  I interpret this comment to suggest that he believes Darwinians have the obligation to prove that each complex organ could be derived from the process Darwin describes.  Macbeth should have read the passage from Darwin which he quotes (see above) more closely.  Darwin puts the onus on his critics to find a complex organ that could not have been produced by the agent of natural selection over long periods of time.)

In comments on the book, Stephen Jay Gould proved somewhat more complimentary (Macbeth “raised some disturbing points”) but believed the book was fundamentally flawed because Macbeth came to it applying an “inappropriate” standard:  “the defendant (an opponent of evolution) is accused by the scientific establishment and must be acquitted if the faintest shadow of doubt can be raised against Darwinism. (As science is not a discipline that claims to establish certainty, all its conclusions would fall by this inappropriate procedure.)”  (Impeaching a Self-Appointed Judge, as found in The Unofficial Stephen Jay Gould Archive)

I am left after all of this with a number of questions, but the overarching one is whether the best-in-field fallacy really has any substance as a fallacy.  Two elements are critical in my judgment.

Deliberate manipulations of the options.  On a somewhat trivial level, one potentially valuable aspect of recognizing such a fallacy is that it alerts us to the possibility that what is presented to us as our choices is a biased sample and there are other known or conceivable options, perhaps better ones, which aren’t offered to us.  Nearly any debate in the current political environment in this country offers an example of this skewing of options.  When a politician says, “We have two choices . . . ,” my reaction is to look for the third or fourth choice.

Best of the available options.  In science, which is the venue of this posting, of what validity is the best-in-field fallacy?  DiMichele considers it real and important.  But, frankly, the more I’ve thought about it, the more insignificant I think it is, particularly within science.  Indeed, DiMichele in his article has a sentence immediately following his explanation of the best-in-field fallacy (see quotation above) that seems to me to prove this point.  He writes,
In the best-of-field context, we should expect that our causal explanations of patterns will be, potentially, incorrect, and subject to improvement as new data or new ideas and insights intrude into the explanatory framework.  (p. 202)
If I understand DiMichele, that's what we need to acknowledge to avoid the best-in-field fallacy.  Wait . . . isn’t that what scientists do and what science is about – the testing and retesting of hypotheses, the discovering of new findings that refute or buttress positions, the changing of minds and theories?  So, does the best-in-field fallacy occur simply because the critic fails to understand that science works this way or doesn't find scientists making that clear at every juncture?  To be a bit more generous, perhaps it is a matter of scientists using some restraint and not implying that a prevailing theory is the best there can or ever will be, rather that it's the best of the options we can conceive of at this moment.  Not much of a fallacy in my opinion.

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