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Okay, Now Prove It!

January 31, 2011

Okay, Now Prove It!

It is probably difficult for people who have never met scientists, spoken to scientists and worked with scientists to see them as anything other than superior intellectuals with nothing more than pure science as the goal. Yet as is often the case an expert in one discipline does not necessarily translate to all others areas of knowledge. This problem is essential to understand that Carl Sagan included it in his Baloney Detector Kit.

Item 3: Arguments from authority carry little weight (in science there are no “authorities”).

In biology exams any student who writes ‘all scientists believe’ will lose a mark for not naming who that scientist is so that claim can be verified. So too it would be incredibly irrational to build any argument upon the grounds that ‘all smart people think this.‘ Just because the greatest and most famous scientist on the planet says that it is true it does not make it true. It may be the scientist’s profession opinion that it is true but without the empirical evidence to support the claim then nothing can be validated.

Unfortunately this fact tends to be ignored if people fall in love with an idea or idolize a hero because of their status. Bad science can be ignored because a good scientist supports it. We can also project this into other spheres where an author of a book is given more weight on a subject despite it having nothing to do with their area of knowledge. The status of being a Hollywood star can be presented as being a qualification in itself. An angry activist can be mistaken for being an intellectual and therefore correct due to the veracity of their convictions. The bottom line is not who said what but whether the claims are valid. Regardless we always need proof.

Yet as is the case in many conflicts the burden of proof and what is convincing evidence can change from person to person. For example when diagnosing a fault on a data connection the tester will look at the components that make up service and test each component until the answer is deduced. After testing the service in the required manner he concludes that the problem is the customer equipment and it is the responsibility of the owner to fix. The problem is proven to the tester because the evidence is clear but as can be the case it may not be enough to convince the customer.

Factors can effect why the customer will believe the answer and the biggest is the possible holes in the testing process or the unwillingness for the customer to pay a separate expert to fix their own equipment. The answer as I have often seen myself is that the customer does not believe the diagnosis is correct and wishes to argue the point. It may seem infantile to argue but nothing is ever as simple as you might assume and strange rare oddities of science have undone the best detectives.

In the real world of egos, money and technical experts, a less qualified person can often be pitted against a professor in the same field who disagrees with their opinion. “You say that the problem is our equipment but our expert Dr Jones disagrees with you and he is a doctor in this field after all.” The situation may be daunting but again it is not the fact that Dr Jones is a Doctor that matters. What matters is convincing Dr Jones that you are correct, but if he is arrogant, snobbish and intransient, then no amount of evidence will be enough to convince him.

The opposite can also be true, when a claim is promoted because an eminent intellectual it somehow becomes uncritically true. The holes in the logic are ignored because of status rather than clearly defined evidence. Why do we need evidence if we have experts willing to tell us what to think instead? Could it be that the so called expert opinion has not been tested in the field and is no more than armchair speculation dressed up as objective science? One question always remains on any claim: Prove it to me.

You can waste and entire life failing to convince people of something if you have no idea what they require as proof. What one person may see as convincing evidence may be rejected by another as unconvincing. The weight of evidence shifts depending upon what assertion needs to be proven and to whom.

Since the advent of Quantum Mechanics a new variable was introduced into what was once seen as straight forward exercise in discovery. The three basic building blocks of science: Observation, Theory and Comparison, was suddenly dealt a blow when in some cases the observation affected the outcome. By observing an event, such as colours on a flower, we need to apply light and in doing so we affect the colour of the flower. Hence we must devise controlled experimentation that is stipulated before testing.

Other questions in science cannot even be tested because no matter how many negative results you produce you will never settle the matter. Is there intelligent life on another planet? In order to test that question we would have to observe every planet and even if we discover life at what cognitive point do call something intelligent? Do Ghosts exist? Do people have souls? Another is the question of the origin of the universe. Where did it come from and how did it get here? We can theorize and create terrific mathematical equations but there no way to test such theories in the field.

Unfortunately despite the scientific evidence that indicate how little we do know we often find that those who know the least are totally convinced that they know everything.

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