Oct 29, 2009

An Age When Facts Are Irrelevant

Have we reached an age in which facts are of no consequence? Nature.com has posted an article which has sparked my interest on the subject, and one of its premises is this: The assumption is that if they [scientists] explain things very, very clearly, everyone will understand. Unfortunately, this is an uphill battle.

The painfully unenlightened dialogue on the relative truth of scientific claims - we can never really "know" something - has digressed even farther, to the point that people, when confronted with evidence of an overwhelming variety, are able to appeal to belief in order to circumvent what has been said.

A consequence of being so surrounded by technology and knowledge is that we are free to disregard or contradict or subvert any claim with which we do not agree. Even the most uneducated person in America, with a desktop and an internet connection, can find corroborating evidence to support their beliefs, and this notion is specious and, in the end, unscientific. It is a gross misunderstanding of skepticism and thus deserves contemplation.

See, for example, I may believe that the Holocaust never happened. I may also believe that the events of the 'Iliad' never happened, either. Both are historical events, and I can only trust that both happened based on historical accounts, or available evidence. One glance at a photograph from Auschwitz will certainly convince any number of credulous people. Reading an account of an Auschwitz survivor depicted in one of the aforementioned photographs may convince slightly more skeptical people.

At this point, people may be able to still hold a certain amount of skepticism. If a picture and a few firsthand accounts were all we had, then we may feasibly doubt the existence of the Holocaust. It is certainly for that reason that people are unsure of the veracity of the war that is at the center of the 'Iliad'. The accounts are centuries behind the supposed events, so we are confident that we can discredit its actual happening.

The same is not true with the Holocaust. We do not have scant evidence for Hitler's persecution of the Jews, nor do we have very much wiggle room with regard to its truth, and yet people still do insist that the Holocaust either did not exist or was greatly exaggerated, despite the mounds upon mounds of evidence we have to prove otherwise.

I've taken a long detour here, but I'm getting back to my point. Let me, then, ask a question: Are Holocaust deniers mere skeptics? Are they even skeptics at all? How free am I to believe what I wish? Being on the other side, am I a member of the intellectual Gestapo if I insist that beliefs of an unfounded nature are simply unacceptable to hold in today's world? At what point do we stop accepting this kind of half-assed thinking? Is truth, as we experience it, really that malleable?

I do not mean to make a Straw Man out of the Holocaust deniers (though I think that few people would object to me ridiculing them), so let me move onto another subject: ghosts. Spirits. Poltergeists. Whatever you call them, there is a significant amount of observational evidence for their existence, and yet very little empirical, scientific evidence supports that the door that will not stay open in your grandmother's home has anything to do with the four people who were butchered there fifty years ago.

Most rational people reject the existence of ghosts, though, sight unseen. The white dots and inexplicable shadows on photographs do not point immediately to the idea that Uncle Bernie has come back in that form to...well, haunt a photograph. It's because the burden of proof is on the ghost hunters to make it so, and electromagnetic fields and dotted pictures do not pass snuff, just as random alignments of data do not point to the world ending in December of 2012.

The problem is that armchair skepticism has become the normal mode of expression of doubt in this country, and people are able to comfort themselves in constantly moving back the uprights on matters of evidence. Skeptics of evolution say that there are no "transitional" fossils in the record, using science's own language against it, and no matter how many actual, true transitional fossils scientists are able to haul out, people claim to have never seen them.

Perhaps it is because the science has outraced the common intellect. Scientists of two hundred years ago could be scientific hobbyists, and most people could identify with the claims being made and accept the facts because the facts were more or less the result of a thought experiment backed up with science and common sense. It's how we came to understand gravity, the lunar cycle, etc. Science now is so far beyond a common person's understanding that, by comparison, ghosts seem quite easy to believe in.

This, I'm afraid, is a problem. The burden of proof is always on the one who posits a truth - this IS so - rather than those who reject it. You do not, for example, have to prove that there are no fairies in my garden if I say so, or that there is not a pink elephant in my trunk, even if I stomp up and down and shout furiously. It is up to me, at that point, to bring about the compelling evidence. I can find millions of people to agree that there are, indeed, fairies in the garden, or that the squeaking noise in my attic is the spirit of a Civil War soldier come to find his bayonet, or that the Holocaust was a primitive and very successful Photoshop campaign, but if I cannot provide substantive scientific evidence to support my claims, then I really have no claim to proof.

[img source=Paul Gaugin - Don't Listen to the Liar]

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