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