Stop the Name-Calling (But Continue the Debate)

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Let’s do
a little thought experiment. Assume that you, dear reader, believe
in evolution. You are aware that only
13% of Americans have similar beliefs
, but you still consider
yourself in the mainstream because you think of yourself as normal.
Yet, your stance on evolution is not mainstream from a numbers perspective.
You may justify this in one of two ways:

  1. Scientists
    have proved that evolution is true.
  2. Among experts,
    there is a consensus that evolution is true.

Proof

Proof is a
tricky thing. I usually avoid bizarre philosophical reasoning (because
it makes my head hurt), but you can reason anything. I bet there
is some brilliant mind out there who could make a solid argument
that the Earth is flat, despite proof that it is round.

In science,
proof means that all of the evidence supports the conclusion and
that evidence to the contrary has been examined and found to be
flawed. The examination of evidence always relies on some set of
assumptions, and, getting back to brilliant philosophers, a key
assumption is always that the scientist and the reality that he
perceives exist. Boy, is my head hurting.

Now, when it
comes to evolution, scientists can tell you what their assumptions
are. I am not speaking to the validity of the assumptions, just
that if you remove the validity of the assumption, the whole conclusion
necessarily collapses. In evolutionary studies, there are a lot
of assumptions and a lot of correlative evidence, but proof is especially
tricky since measuring small changes over time is technically difficult.

As a scientist,
I was trained to be skeptical of all evidence. You consider the
assumptions and must make a judgment as to whether they are reasonable.
Careful scientists produce very beautiful, convincing evidence allowing
other careful scientists to believe the conclusions.

In sum, at
best, proof is in the eye(s) of the beholder(s). I don’t see how
scientists could be absolutists — there is always a twinkle of doubt
that an error was made along the way, but we try very hard to keep
each other in check to minimize the errors and doubts so that we
can feel more confident in the proof. Maybe 99.9999% confident.

Consensus

Among white
supremacists, there is a consensus that whites are superior. Circular
reasoning, right? So, you say, among experts who study evolution,
who have been educated in institutions that promote evolution, and
who tend towards certain religious and philosophical beliefs, there
is a consensus that evolution is true. This is circular.

What’s the
point?

  1. Just because
    you are in the minority does not make you wrong.
  2. Just because
    a panel of experts agrees with you does not make you right.

And conversely:

  1. If you are
    in the majority, you are not necessarily right.
  2. If a panel
    of experts disagrees with you, you are not necessarily wrong.

We debate issues
such as evolution, global warming, abortion, and the gold standard
because people on each side believe that there is either proof (reason
to be confident in the conclusions) or lack of evidence (reason
to be skeptical of the conclusions). Get over yourself! You are
not intelligent and they are not nutty/crazy/kooky.

We are reasoning,
thinking individuals, so don’t resort to name-calling just because
someone is in the minority or doesn’t have a panel of experts behind
them. That door swings both ways.

Thanks to
my friend, Sanjay, for getting me so riled up over the gold standard
that I just had to write this article.

December
22, 2007

Kathryn
Muratore [send her mail]
has a PhD in biology from UC Berkeley and is currently a postdoctoral
fellow at Johns Hopkins.

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