Sections

Services

Information

UK United Kingdom

Eat your heart out, scientists: evidence is a balancing act

The Book of the Dead describes the ancient Egyptian “weighing of the heart” ceremony as the placing of a heart on one side of a set of scales and a feather on the other. Goddess Ma'at’s feather represents…

Rhetoric, even when light as a feather, can carry more weight than scientific evidence. Ark in Time

The Book of the Dead describes the ancient Egyptian “weighing of the heart” ceremony as the placing of a heart on one side of a set of scales and a feather on the other.

Goddess Ma'at’s feather represents truth and justice. If the heart proves true and the life good, feather and heart will balance equally, granting access to the afterlife.

If the heart is heavier than the feather it is considered evidence of corruption. A corrupt heart is then eaten by Ammit – the “gobbler” beast.

Ancient Egyptians believed the heart to be the seat of life and a record of how it was lived. But where does the evidence of goodness live? Is it in the tissue of the heart or in some mystic area that the ancient Greeks called the soul?

This is of course the stuff of myth but without this myth, Egyptian mummification may not exist. At the heart (cough) of the matter is whether the word “evidence” can be considered as ideology, with scientific and cultural consequences.

On a set of scales, where things are weighed against each other, evidence expresses the value of proof on one side and speculation on the other.

Culture, like the ancient Egyptian gods involved in the scribing, weighing and judging of hearts, watches over and considers the balance between proof and speculation.

But culture has many gatekeepers, each with their own sets of rules and regulations. These help determine the value of proof, the nature of evidence and the judgement of experimental findings.

While the ancient Greeks pioneered the use of evidence, early Christianity used faith against it. The struggle between evidence, faith, power and money remains today – in the climate change debate, for example.

In Queensland one change of government has suddenly turned “climate change” into a dirty phrase, in spite of global evidence in its favour.

The American biologist Edward O. Wilson called science a “culture of illuminations”. Science, he says, has given us “the most powerful way of knowing about the world ever devised”.

But this illumination takes place in a world of politics. Politics, argued playwright Harold Pinter, prefers people to “remain in ignorance”. To “live in ignorance of the truth, even the truth of their own lives” politics has to maintain power and control.

Whether evidence can trump expediency in the struggle between a “science that serves agendas” and a “science that reveals knowledge” depends on the society.

“Proof” – already a tricky construct – tends to translate in our society as “knowledge based on current understanding”, a definition that gives scepticism and faith an upper hand. A raised eyebrow can usurp an elegant formula in the hands of a media hungry for conflict and opposing points of view.

Science uses evidence against faith, but it can never win this kind of conflict because the paradigms are not equal. Religion and politics are a bit like Ma’ats feather. They represent the moral politics of society against which science is perpetually weighed.

That the moral politics do not necessarily represent majority views is mostly irrelevant. Rhetoric cannot be weighed and rhetoric is the system through which scientific evidence is often resisted.

Peer review, reproducibility and objectivity are often referred to as the touchstones of science. But hindsight is the ghost of science, haunting science and scientists with its past mistakes. The Japanese earthquakes and tsunami in 2011 retrospectively revealed the folly of building nuclear reactors near fault lines.

It is perhaps this hindsight that complicates the relationship between science, evidence and culture more than anything else. History reveals flaws in studies, corruption in processes, loss of ecologies and socially-confronting practices, such as animal testing and genetic modification.

As a result, many people have become suspicious of the word “evidence” – and perhaps rightly so. After all, evidence is a product of human endeavour and as such is fallible.

Seeking evaluation and certainty are not just laboratory endeavours; they are political and community ones as well. Such complexity can lead to unpredictable side-effects and devastating mistakes, such as Australia’s cane toad problem.

Evidence is crucial to conviction and advancement in law and science, yet wrongful convictions happen, meaning today’s proof can be tomorrow’s lawsuit.

Scientific results can be manipulated to serve agendas that ultimately undermine an experiment’s intrinsic value. Evidence, as a construct, resists the cultural rhetoric of politics, economics, ambition and fashion but it’s also inscribed by these forces – it is rarely as neutral or independent as we might like.

Sometimes it’s the covering-up of evidence, the destruction or the suppression of “truth”, that interferes with smart decision making; sometimes there might be a temptation by politicians and economists to ignore evidence in favour of maintaining a healthy “bottom line”.

In technology, agriculture, medicine and engineering, scientific evidence and processes have brought us astonishing advances in health and quality of life. A side-effect of this, however, is the impact these advances have had on the Earth’s environment and its human, and non-human, inhabitants.

When these results are weighed against each other, a great deal clearly hangs in the balance. Evidence has a big role to play in deciding which way the scales will tilt.

Sign in to Favourite

Join the conversation

29 Comments sorted by

  1. Matt Harris

    logged in via Facebook

    How do you write an article about truth and evidence without referring to *any* of the philosophical work focusing on theories of truth and epistemic justification? Without that sort of framework it's not clear what this article actually says.

    report
    1. Matt Harris

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Matt Harris

      If the claim is "the notion of evidence is problematic" then that's true but unconstructive; there are principled ways of deciding between theories of epistemic justification and the author could have provided some background with respect to the competing claims.

      report
    2. Bruce Caithness

      Retiree

      In reply to Matt Harris

      Matt,

      How many authorities would be sufficient? One turtle or a hundred?

      That is a problem for so-called epistemic justification.

      Bruce

      report
    3. Matt Harris

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Bruce Caithness

      Bruce, what is your view in epistemology? I assume that you think that you typed out your comment on a device of some kind, but how can you justify that belief? Even if you're a nihilist about knowledge, you have to have some concept that for you fills the role that justified belief fills for the rest of us.

      report
    4. Bruce Caithness

      Retiree

      In reply to Matt Harris

      Matt,

      I do think that certain ideas are "true", but that is an act of faith, there is no lock-tight logical justification. I believe we are born with expectations and one of the most important is the tendency to look out for regularities and patterns (this is deduction, not induction). I have crossed roads many times in my shortish life and I suppose it partly corroborates my road-crossing techniques that I am still here - but it does not confirm them. My road crossing theory (or guess, or guesses…

      Read more
    5. Matt Harris

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Bruce Caithness

      So to tie things back to the above article, when faced with choices about issues like nuclear power we need what you might call a theory of corroboration - which of our observations provide corroborating evidence to support which courses of actions? Just as you need some basis for your future decisions as to road-crossing, as a society we need a rational basis for decisions about which kinds of power plants to build, or how much land to clear, etc etc. My criticism of the article was that it failed to engage with any of the live theories of epistemic justification (or of corroboration, if you prefer), and so didn't really say much.

      report
    6. Bruce Caithness

      Retiree

      In reply to Matt Harris

      We must be in agreement that problem solving is paramount. I hope the "live theories" are valid, or are they only authoritative?

      When a scientist tests a theory he or she is trying to see whether it can be broken. If it withstands the tests it has been corroborated. isn't this why we have the null hypothesis?

      Of course we depend on our tentative solutions - all living things do.

      I would have thought that the difference between science and religion for instance is that science is permanently conjectural. A theory ceases to be scientific when it hides behind vagueness or is protected by only collecting supporting "evidence".

      report
    7. Emma Anderson

      Artist and Science Junkie

      In reply to Bruce Caithness

      "I do think that certain ideas are "true", but that is an act of faith, there is no lock-tight logical justification."

      Are your observations ideas?

      "I believe we are born with expectations and one of the most important is the tendency to look out for regularities and patterns (this is deduction, not induction)."

      Really? What does a new born infant expect? I thought it just reacted, and then through experience, learned to expect.

      "I have crossed roads many times in my shortish life…

      Read more
    8. Bruce Caithness

      Retiree

      In reply to Emma Anderson

      “Really? What does a new born infant expect? I thought it just reacted, and then through experience, learned to expect.”

      Emma,

      I think on this point you are falling into the bias of traditional epistemology of studying knowledge in a subjective sense e.g. “I think”, or “I know”. Karl Popper’s revolution was to bring knowledge out of the subjective sphere to the objective and to remind us that knowledge like genes is a product of evolution.

      Even a plant has knowledge, initially encoded in…

      Read more
  2. Dan Smith

    Network Engineer

    I can't quite grasp what you're getting at here. Is it that evidence, as marshalled by political/moral/religious arguments, is often poorly gathered, selectively ignored, maliciously interpreted, retroactively understood, and inaccurately measured? None of those accusations are controversial. But I can't see how you can lay the blame for the outcomes of our (necessarily human) scientific and political processes at the feet of evidence itself. I would argue that evidence is not a "human endeavour…

    Read more
    1. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Dan Smith

      Ms Keane reminds us that Edward O. Wilson called science a “culture of illuminations”, affording us “the most powerful way of knowing about the world ever devised”.

      Ms Keane goes on to note that "this illumination takes place in a world of politics," whereas I'd always considered the role of science as illuminating the world of politics.

      report
    2. Matt Harris

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to David Arthur

      My understanding was that the author was claiming that science takes place in a world of politics; that the practice of science can't be divorced from politics (broadly construed) because the interactions of scientific, academic, and financial institutions are inherently political. One of the major failings of the article is that it doesn't distinguish between the failings of (the practice of) science and the deficiencies of evidence qua evidence.

      report
    3. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Matt Harris

      Thanks for that clarification Matt.

      It seems to me that one of the unique things about science as a human activity is that it generally converges on the truth. Once realities are elucidated, science does not subsequently diverge from that reality.

      If this is so, then science as a field of human endeavour would be fairly unusual, since intellectual fashion in other areas appears to me to sway this way at first, then that way. If so, then perhaps scientific progress could be used as a yardstick of human progress?

      report
    4. Bruce Caithness

      Retiree

      In reply to Dan Smith

      A "scientist" should ask, either explicitly or implicitly, what kind of data could I collect that might prove to me that an idea I think is right is actually wrong.

      According to Karl Popper, the logical asymmetry is that if a basic statement (evidence) is true it may falsify a universal law (theory) whereas it can never verify it. Popper took great care to distinguish between falsifiability (in principle) and falsification (in practice).

      All obervation is directed i.e. theory laden. We do…

      Read more
  3. James Walker

    logged in via Facebook

    oh for the love of -

    Only focusing on the worst errors:
    the distinction between faith and reason was only made by Aquinas in the 13thC - the only reason we *have* any Greek philosophy is generations of Christian monks copying every text they could lay their hands on. The idea that faith is contrary to reason is from the athiest David Hume, who used as an excuse to keep a religious position because he wanted the money.

    The current standard for science is falsification: any scientific theory must make predictions which if incorrect disprove the theory. The standards for scientific truth have grown ever more rigorous, and are a major concern for philosphers.

    report
    1. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to James Walker

      "... the only reason we *have* any Greek philosophy is generations of Christian monks copying every text they could lay their hands on"

      Err, that would be monks who travelled to libraries preserved under the Caliphate.

      report
    2. Emma Anderson

      Artist and Science Junkie

      In reply to James Walker

      "The current standard for science is falsification: any scientific theory must make predictions which if incorrect disprove the theory. The standards for scientific truth have grown ever more rigorous, and are a major concern for philosphers."

      Ahh no, the current standard is falsifiability, which is that the hypothesis must be capable of being shown to be untrue (hence accept the null hypothesis). If not H1 then H0.

      Falsification means if the H1 is worded so that when being shown to be untrue…

      Read more
  4. Helen Scott

    logged in via Facebook

    Well, I say bring back the Egyptian Book of the Dead for application in our legal system. Great starting point for the argument to follow. I really enjoyed this piece. I agree with most of Matt Harris's comments. It is a great conversation starter. I think those who wanted an epistemological argument are missing the point - or at least can go write a short (as if anything on that topic could possibly be short) article that an unenlightened reader could understand. Twenty years experience in criminal law and ten years studying in the Science arena has amply demonstrated to me that both can be manipulated to achieve the desired outcome.

    report
    1. Emma Anderson

      Artist and Science Junkie

      In reply to Helen Scott

      In both cases the manipulation of evidence to suit an agenda other than the service of discovering the truth would be an abuse of the purpose of the process.

      Even as law is rhetoric laden sophistry. Hawdidihawhaw, shucks.

      report
  5. Geoff Russell

    Computer Programmer, Author

    An article that embodies its own truth ... politics and tribal chanting trumps science and evidence. What does the evidence say about building nuclear plants on fault lines? Pretty clearly the safest place for anybody to have been when the quake and tsunami devastated that part of Japan was in any of the 11 nuclear reactors on that part of the coast. Bridges collapsed, sea walls were overrun, building collapsed, 19,000 dead or missing. But the toll in the 11 reactors ... I think it was 3 and zero…

    Read more
  6. Jayne Fenton Keane

    Manager Inspiring Australia (Qld) and Tutor, Master of Design at Griffith University

    I'm heartened that responses to this piece have demonstrated a range of personal-political biases (Geoff is emphatically pro-nuclear and determined to persuade), epistemological objections and religious sensitivity I think this article demonstrates my point - that evidence is not a neutral word.

    What is the point of the article? Helen rightly observed it as a conversation starter. The impetus was to look at what might contribute to public resistance to scientific evidence, not to push any ideologies…

    Read more
    1. Geoff Russell

      Computer Programmer, Author

      In reply to Jayne Fenton Keane

      " ... not to push any ideologies." But you did. You pushed an ideology that equates fear with danger. Horror films are scary but not dangerous. We desperately need to replace your ideology by one that looks at actual danger.

      Why? Because climate change is the real deal. It is seriously dangerous and we can't let fear of things which aren't dangerous prevent us using the best tools available to head off the worst impacts. 21 million Pakistanis displaced in the 2010 floods, 130,000 killed in cyclone Nargis. These are climate events, besides which the deathless fears of Fukushima are small. It isn't danger that is stopping people moving back into the evacuation area around Fukushima, it is fear whipped up by people who have no idea about relative strengths or cancer causes.

      I urge you to read James Hansen's "Storms of our Grand Children" and to clearly distinguish between fear and danger.

      report
    2. Matt Harris

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Jayne Fenton Keane

      My point was that the article is essentially an article in epistemology that doesn't engage with any current or past work in epistemology whatsoever. Evidence is neither a neutral word nor a simple notion, but there are real solutions to the issues surrounding epistemic justification, and the article doesn't present any of these for consideration, even in their simplest form. It reads like an argument for epistemic relativism, but that's a position that few people would (or should) accept.

      report
    3. Dan Smith

      Network Engineer

      In reply to Jayne Fenton Keane

      "Conversation starter" reads like a cop-out for a piece that wasn't clear in its purpose to the readers. A more coherent argument might have started a better (and longer) conversation.

      Honestly, I sense concern trolling. This doesn't feel like a piece exploring the misuse of scientific evidence; it reads, as Matt Harris succinctly puts it, as a veiled argument for epistemic relativism.

      As for commenters' "range of personal-political biases": I'd rather have them front and centre than shadow box with sophistry.

      report
    4. Bruce Caithness

      Retiree

      In reply to Matt Harris

      I'm sorry Matt but I don't think you can effectively argue for epistemic justification, unless you hold the creed that we "derive" theories from the "evidence" of the senses. To deny "justified" knowledge does not necessarily imply relativism. Science is not a set of empirically-justified true beliefs. What makes it rational is that it is ever fallible, a never-justified process of conjectures and tests. The logic of discovery is the logic of discovering our errors.

      A temperate and thoughtful reference is Joe Barnhart's essay on Karl Popper, not the "straw man" Popper of Thomas Kuhn and others.

      http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1374/is_n4_v56/ai_18501025/?tag=content;col1

      report
    5. Bruce Caithness

      Retiree

      In reply to Jayne Fenton Keane

      Jayne, I pressed the + button but it came through as a red tag. I liked you article. Scientific theories are "explanations" and are permanently open to being questioned - otherwise they would not be "scientific". We can and should always be critical of our positions as evidence can secure no positive "authority" in itself.

      report
    6. Jayne Fenton Keane

      Manager Inspiring Australia (Qld) and Tutor, Master of Design at Griffith University

      In reply to Dan Smith

      i wans't attempting to explore the misuse of science and accusations of relativism are just a way of deflecting from the central discussion

      report
    7. Bruce Caithness

      Retiree

      In reply to Matt Harris

      Rationality is critical debate, said Popper. As Joseph Agassi remarked, "rationality is not any critical debate, but only that which is oriented towards a specific goal as well as might be reasonably expected", and this goal, it must be suggested, is truth.

      The appropriate standards of criticism are not those that appeal to justification, but those that appeal to truth.

      The “modus tollens” deductive argument is the key feature of falsifiability.

      If the theory is true then the prediction…

      Read more