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What Is Evidence

5 August, 2008

Over the last couple of weeks, there have been numerous comments regarding the idea of evidence.  Some of the more unusual (interesting?  strange?  bizarre?) comments have shown up on Yunshui’s Right to Think post, I have a shrine to Richard Dawkins in my wardrobe,  Spanish Inquisitor’s post, Where Was God, and many others (including right here on my blog).   These posts and comment threads got me thinking (dangerous, I know). What actually constitutes proof?  Is actual physical evidence required? or does faith itself count as proof.  Do observable physical phenomena constitute proof?  Do predictions based upon a theory which then are proved constitute proof?

This can get tricky.  The theory of evolution is, at this time, the most contentious out there (by the way, here’s a real good working definition of a scientific theory).  The physical evidence to support the theory (most of which was unavailable when Mr. Darwin formulated the idea of evolution through natural selection) is, to large numbers (yes, I know, appealing to popularity) of people (though in the US, a minority), overwhelming.  The clear changes from eohippus through equus equus are well-documented in the fossil record here in the United States.  The theory of evolution has even managed to predict where particular fossils will be found — the evolution of whales  has been recorded through fossils such as pakiocetus, which were found in Pakistan based upon predictions made through geology and evolutionary theory.

However, for a majority of Americans, that is not enough.  Because the first book of the Bible, Genesis, says that God Did It, the entire idea of evolution is not just suspect, but a satanic idea created to, uh, what?  The idea that, if one book says something happened, with no evidence to support the assertion made within the book, is a seemingly ineradicable part of the American consciousness.  If a person believes God was involved, all questions about proof or evidence are discarded.

If someone tells me (((Wife))) is having an affair, I would (in addition to being angry and disturbed) ask for proof.  If someone tells me that the my tire is flat, I will (after a couple of choice swear words) go look.  If someone tells me that I am descended from ape-like beings which lived in Africa between 3 and 5 million years ago, I will ask for the evidence (I don’t have the money or the knowledge to go to Africa and start digging around at Olduvai Gorge (though I would love to)).  The evidence in this last case comes from books.

So why am I willing to accept assertions from books about palaeoanthropology but not from books such as the Bible, the Q’uran, the Book of Hopi, or any other religious book? 

Well, holy books demand that one receive the wisdom within, but without any questions.  Why is God a singular trinity?  Shut up and accept the mystery.  Why do the Gospels contradict each other?  Shut up and accept that we poor humans are too limited to understand.

Science is different, though.  There are a limited number of academic slots available for any scientific discipline.  In order to be hired on in one of these teaching and research positions, a scientist must be outstanding, have many published works, and be right.  Being wrong is a learning experience, but if a post-doc keeps being wrong, they won’t be hired or won’t get tenure.  Pointing out that someone else is wrong, that another scientist has misread the evidence, or has been superseded by new evidence, is a great way to get attention, get published and get tenure.  This means that every paper published in a peer review journal is not only criticized before publication, but is also immediately attacked (academically) by all the other scientists making that particular field their specialty.

Creationists point to Niobrara Man (a misidentification) and Piltdown Man (an outright fraud) as ‘proof’ that evolution is wrong.  Of course, they ignore the fact that these cases prove that the scientists studying evolution and paleaoanthropology are able to spot mistakes and frauds, expose them, and actually strengthen the theory of evolution.  The give and take (along with one-upmanship) ensure that mistakes are caught quickly (though fraud may (MAY) take longer).

The Bible, though, has had verses added (some of the Pauline letters) and suffered mistranslation after mistranslation, yet is considered inerrant.  Because the Bible is inerrant, proof or evidence is unnecessary.  This gives theists (not all of them, of course, but the fundogelical variety) an advantage in the arena of public discourse — scientists have to prove their theory (and if the theory is adjusted to allow for new evidence, that, to a fundogelical, means the theory was wrong) while all the ministers, pastors, priests, bishops, rooks, popes of the world just point to one book and say, “The Bible Proves It.”

Which brings me to a ‘gift of love’ I got at work the other day.  It is a small pamphlet titled “The Romans’ Map to Heaven” and makes the Chick Tracts look professional.  It was created by the Fellowship Tract League and, if you want to feel nauseous, here’s the link (and it is tract 127 (and I hope I never see the previous 126)).

The pamphlet offers ‘proof’ that all people are sinners (the Bible says it), that sin will kill us forever (the Bible says it), that God provided Christ to save us (the Bible says it), and you must trust Jesus (the Bible says it), and that God promises that if you believe in and accept Jesus in just the right way you will be saved (the Bible says it).  Notice a pattern there?  No attempt to use ‘evidence’ from any other  source (the Bible says it is the only source needed).  No attempt to question the evidence (the Bible says it was written by God so who are you to question what was written by God?)

So a theist would (most likely) go out and look if someone told them their tire was flat.  A theist would (most likely) ask for proof if I said I was giving it to his wife.  A theist would ask for evidence if the word ‘evolution’ is used, and then ignore the thousands, millions, billions of fossils which clearly show the evolutionary process.  A theist (fundogelical variety (Theistisucchus fundogelicus?)) accepts blindly what is in the Bible, even though an entire universe provides evidence to the contrary.

Does belief trump evidence?  Sadly, for a majority of Americans, it does.  This would seem to explain the continued success of a political party which has proved itself incompetent and dishonest.  But, since they like the Bible, evidence does not matter and they get a pass.

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19 comments

  1. Good post, (((Billy))) – I just hope you too don’t get Rhologied…


  2. Notice I did not link to him.


  3. I think it’s good experience to have to deal with Rhology. Of course if you get Rhologied, you have only yourself to blame.


  4. Asking for such crazy things as evidence and conclusive proof tells me that you are an arugula eating arrogant, presumptuous elitist. All you need to know is that taxes are bad, jews are bad, black people are scary, women should be having babies and cooking, gays are evil, G.W. Bush is teh greatest prezident eveh, and jesus loves you. Now stop caring about elitist things like science and theology, and go watch American Idol.


  5. So if I send you pictures of (((wife))) not having an affair, you’ll believe me?

    (I know there’s some sort of logical point in that, but damned if I can figure out what I meant. Sounds good, though. I should probably have an affair. It might clear up my mind.)


  6. Philly: I have faith that the experience would be rhologicious. I have faith that I don’t want to go there. I don’t need evidence on that one.

    Sabrina: How can you write like that and still be able to think coherently? I would think that just writing A—– I—– would take away at least 12 IQ points (much less watching it).

    Ric: I’m starting to notice an obsession about getting laid — do you have a thing for chickens?


  7. You’re a little late on this debate, but better late than never. Rhology would have been here already, but he had a flat tire while following his wife.


  8. Yeah, I know I’m a little late. Family stress (got the bill for (((Boy)))’s first semester at Clarion (AED’s work)).


  9. This is an excellent post, but I think it should be emphasized (as you did when you mentioned that making mistakes is part of a learning process) that scientists can make mistakes. In spite of the scientific method being (in my opinion) the best way to get at facts, especially facts that are not readily apprehensible sometimes even science makes mistakes, but then that’s the beauty of it. Scientists don’t presume to know everything, but they actively pursue the things they don’t know or don’t understand rather than simply declaring them “a mystery”. The fact that scientists are still debating whether the universe will expand forever or collapse back in on itself doesn’t invalidate the whole field of astrophysics. I bring up that example because there’s still debate among scientists about how, exactly, evolution works–a fact which creationists sometimes use to claim that there’s debate among scientists about whether evolution occurs at all. Another good example is gravity. I’m not as well-informed about physics as I’d like to be, but I think I’m right that scientists don’t really know why gravity works the way it does, three centuries after Newton. Just because they aren’t sure, though, doesn’t mean that gravity doesn’t exist.


  10. () –

    Not chickens. Chicks. Or as they’re known among the cognoscenti, women. Or dames. Or broads. Or… hell, I forget the other titles. Hmmm, I wonder if I actually remember how to… never mind. Must be a website somewhere to jog my memory. It’s been such a long time.

    Good post, by the way.


  11. Chris: Excellent point. I could have strengthened the paragraph regarding mistakes and outright fraud. That is the great thing about science — scientists can make mistakes or commit fraud (either one of which can take years to correct), but, because of the built-in competition of science, the errors are generally found.

    Ric: Poorly done joke on my part. Chickens lay eggs, you seem to to be obsessed with getting laid . . . .


  12. Good post. In everyday life, Christians demand evidence for all sorts of things. But faith has its own built-in defense against evidence: if you need evidence, then it’s not faith, which is “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1). Faith is all about unwarranted certitude, not evidence. To require evidence is to devalue faith.


  13. Very good post.

    Had an interesting observation of evidence about two years ago.

    A history professor I know at our local branch of Penn State asked several of us Viet Nam vets so come in one evening to talk about what we saw, experienced, answer questions from the students. There were nine of us.

    One of the profs involved really, really didn’t like us, thought the whole thing was a waste of time, and that we were very much a bunch of mo-mos.

    The questions got around to what happened when we got home, the thing about being spat upon.
    One of our number said he was, in fact, spat on, I wasn’t, but in 1968 a young lady vented her frustration by throwing a soft drink on me in the San Francisco airport.

    “Prof. Hostile” pounced. He said there was never one verified instance recorded of it’s ever having happened. My colleague said maybe not, but it had happened to him and he didn’t need anyone with a research grant to see this to make it a reality.
    “Prof. Hostile” said his statement had no meaning, it was “anecdotal”. He put his nose about an inch from my colleague’s and intoned in a near shout, “An-eck-DOH-tulh”! then glared at us all and sat down. Three of us got up and left.

    A little later, Prof Hostile went up to (as it turned out) relieve himself, and he took a while at it.

    He came back rather shaken, claimed he’d finished his business, left the lavatory, and, lo! someone had tripped him and punched him a couple of times. I don’t think he was too popular with his students, because he was asked if he saw who did it, or if anyone saw it, and he said no, but he knew who did it.

    Someone in the back said, “Was he really jumped at all”? Someone else opined, “Sounds anecdotal to me”! and yet another, in a pretty good imitation of the alleged victim bawled, “An-eck-DOH-tulh”!

    And being as there were no witnesses or marks, that’s how the cops viewed it. Yet he wasn’t happy with their assessment.

    The prof I know told me later that the cops had no doubt that it happened, but this guy had a “peanut face” so they really had too many people who might have…ond only “anecdotal” evidence.

    By the way, a “peanut face” is one of those you can’t punch just once and stop.


  14. Peanut face. Very nice. I’ll remember that one.

    Of course though this is what the religious always spout. They saw a demon, they know someone who saw a demon, or they know someone who heard of someone who saw a demon, so therefore they’re real. There are reasons for not accepting “An-eck-DOH-tuhl” tales as evidence.


  15. Philly, it has become even worse for the religious than pawning it off on “someone they know.” Now I get “personal evidence” on blog comments as if I am going to trust that someone directly experienced something profound via a blog comment. It has morphed from “I know someone who heard of someone who saw a demon” to “I saw a demon so trust me it’s real.” Wtf.

    Sweet post btw. Any of those clowns who think the Bible is 100% true are as diluted as the Bible has become.


  16. DB: I like to ask Biblical literalists which version they think is infallable, which translation, which addons.

    So far I haven’t had anyone witness a demon, though (((Wife))) did see Cheney’s motorcade on I-81 a few years ago. She gave him the finger from the opposite lanes.


  17. Omigod, I love your wife!


  18. The evidence of God and proof the Bible is completely correct is out there. All that is required is looking for that evidence (which many have been found). The fact of the matter is, the main way we obtain information here in America is through mainstream media. Now we all know that the media is highly unbalanced, leftist, and un-religious. There are hundreds of prophesies in the Bible that have been fulfilled in history (they can be found), and several being fulfilled even today. Personally I know of a prophecy that came true around just a few dozen years ago. The prophesy that people would “fly” to Jerusalem, which was written in the bible thousands of years ago, now is fulfilled through what we call airplanes.
    Its not just prophesies that serve as proof, but concrete facts in the bible that disproved the ideas of people in history. For example, the bible states the world is round. No one believed this to be true a thousand years ago, not even the leading scientists of the time, until it was scientifically discovered by Christopher Columbus. So once again, science repeats itself. Another example; the earth revolves around the sun. Again, at the time, no one believed it until it was scientifically proven, although this was written in the bible thousands of years ago.
    There are many things that serve as evidence of the Bible and that of God, I am just giving you a few.
    Talking about evolution, since its a scientific theory, the only way to prove it is to put it to the test: The Scientific Method. That’s where the problem comes in, the only way to complete the scientific method when applying evolution to it is to have concrete fact. Scientists insert theories as a basis for proving evolution, this is where they flaw, not to mention the scientific method is used to show fact aside from the hypothesis (in this case evolution is the hypothesis), not the other way around as scientists today want. The only way to have the Scientific Method functional is if all other implications (evidences) are invariable (hard fact), and the only thing that is variable is the hypothesis. An example of a theory being implied as evidence for evolution is Carbon-Dating. Although it is highly used in determining fossil age, it is only theoretical, not to mention it is also inaccurate. The only true way to make fact of the age of a fossil is to be there when the fossil appeared, or when the animal died. Theories always have margin for error. They can always be adjusted or fixed if a fact conflicts with it. The problem with the theories being implied as evidence for evolution is that they can’t be adjusted, so if it is wrong, who would know? Since these “evidences” of evolution are just adjustable mysterious theories, would that too make evolution the same? Just a theory.


  19. Right then:

    First up – biblical prophecy. Let’s see you quote chapter and verse, please. The Bible is full of unfullfilled prophecy, and those that do appear to have been fulfilled are so vague and nebulous that any circumstances could have brought about their “truth”. Here are some examples.

    No-one believed in a spherical earth until Columbus? Sorry to burst your bubble, history-boy, but the ancient Greeks knew the Earth was round a hell of a long time before that – indeed, thanks to Eratosthenes, they even knew how big it was. Aristarchus also theorized that the Earth revolved around the Sun, although this idea wasn’t generally accepted, especially by the Church, who had a tendancy to set fire to people who proposed the Earth was not te centre of the universe.

    Evolution has been observed in effect many times, and is an integral part of modern biology – the only arguments that still continue are over how its processes work. Carbon dating is neither theoretical nor innaccurate.

    Andre, you display a complete lack of original research, an extreme willingness to accept, without evidence, anything which confirms your worldview, and an inability to quote from your own holy book. Consider your little essay marked – you get an F, for FAIL.



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