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28 July 2013

the nature of evidence or dafuq?

When having online arguments it is often customary to back up your claims with links to supporting evidence. Depending on the level of the argument this evidence may be a newspaper article, a digitized photograph or even a blog posting. For ordinary arguments this works very well and the issue of evidence is quick and easily obtainable.

When the argument involves topics of science then articles from reputable, peer reviewed scientific journals are typically used as evidence. Often, all parties involved in the argument will have access to the same article, or the one with access will read out the relevant portions so that all parties can analyze and judge for themselves what the authors were actually saying, the quality of the author's methodology and whether the author's conclusions were in line with the evidence discovered in the author's research and what the readers themselves actually know.

In addition to this going over the paper itself other papers that verify the findings of a paper's authors are searched for. The more papers in independent research that verify the findings of the originally disputed paper's conclusions the more weight is given to the original paper.

This is how grown up, scientifically minded people argue about science. They go to the source, the research of the scientists themselves.

Arguing with Creationists

Before I dive into this, there are some rational theists, none of whom are Creationists, out there and I wish to acknowledge them and not smear them with the same paintbrush as their more irrational peers.

When arguing with Creationists the nature of evidence often gets called into dispute. Now it's interesting because Creationists want to debate the science of evolution which they often feel is an evil plot, or at best misguided due to human frailties. Science always falls back onto what can be verified and is empirical and often when debating Creationists I insist upon such evidence, preferably from reliable scientific sources. However, it occurs to me that Creationists often do not know what I mean when I say "verfiable", "empirical" or "reliable scientific sources", or they do not wish to know and therein lies the problem.

So, as a service to my Creationist friends, I will provide the following the definitions so that the meanings of these words and phrase are clear to them.

Verifiable

: capable of being verified

Oopsie, it appears that we've run into a once of those problems of using a dictionary. We've been referred to another definition. Alright then.

Verified

: to establish the truth, accuracy, or reality of <verify the claim>

So, when I'm asking for verifiable evidence I'm not asking you to assert that your claim is true. I'm asking you to give me the evidence so that I can establish for myself if the claim is true, accurate or in keeping with what is known about reality. If you're asking me to believe that some sky Djinn "did it" but you can't point the Djinn out to me or show me where scientists have found it in their research then I can't verify it. If I can't verify your claim then your claim is unverifiable and, for lack of a better word, worthless. Sorry.

Empirical

  1. : originating in or based on observation or experience
  2. : relying on experience or observation alone often without due regard for system and theory <an empirical basis for the theory>
  3. : capable of being verified or disproved by observation or experiment <empirical laws>
  4. : of or relating to empiricism

If your evidence comes from a book, well that's fine, but books by themselves aren't evidence. I'm sorry, but no matter how many time you tell me your book is correct because your sky Djinn says it is doesn't make your book any truer. Besides, then we're back to having to verify the existence of your sky Djinn and if you can't point it out to me or where scientists have discovered your sky Djinn then your book fails as empirical evidence.

Sadly, the same thing goes for prophetic predictions, or claims of scientific foreknowledge. Unless, for prophecy, you can show me where you holy book makes a prediction that is clear and testable and not actually a prophecy for the people living at that time in that holy book then your claims of prophetic evidence fail. Claims of scientific foreknowledge also have to be clear and testable. I mean, why did the bible, for example, only predict Hitler after he started persecuting Jews and Homosexuals? In the same vein, why did the bible only reveal dinosaurs (it doesn't, but that's another topic) only after scientists started digging up and classifying their fossilized remains?

Reliable Scientific Sources

Okay, I don't have a dictionary definition for this one so I'll have to do my best to carefully explain what I mean by this phrase. When I say "reliable scientific sources" I'm saying several things:

  1. Articles from reputable, peer reviewed scientific journals
  2. Reputable science magazines

So the first thing you need to do is try to find a supporting article in a reputable, peer reviewed scientific journal...oh dear. By the blank looks on my Creationist friend's faces I seem to have uttered more words that they don't seem to understand. Alright then, let's try some more definitions.

"Reputable

  1. : enjoying good repute : held in esteem
  2. : employed widely or sanctioned by good writers

If you have some claim that birds aren't related to dinosaurs and you pass me off an article from Answers in Genesis: Answers Research Journal, well that's just not a reputable journal. No scientist that has any value in their field publishes their work in Answers Research Journal. There are a couple of reasons for this 1) if you go to Answers about page the publishers quite clearly state that the bible is the ultimate authority and all scientific research must conform to the bible, 2) Answers rarely publishes any research, mostly just rebuttals of science research that they don't agree with, and the odd actual research they do publish is third rate.

Peer Reviewed

: a process by which something proposed (as for research or publication) is evaluated by a group of experts in the appropriate field

Again, if you hand me Creation Ministries International's Journal of Creation claiming I should read it because it's peer reviewed well I'm not. In a reputable journal peer review is carried out by experts that have been selected to perform the review of a particular paper that has been submitted. The more reputable the paper the more experts they have to draw on. In a journal of low repute, such as Journal of Creation, there are very few experts in any scientific field that are associated with them that they can draw on. Also, as in Answers Research Journal, Journal of Creation states on their about page that the bible is the ultimate authority and thereby limits, if not eliminates, the usefulness of any peer review except to perhaps grammar and spelling.

A good source to look for reputable, peer reviewed scientific journals is PAIS.

Carrying Onward

Now, where was I? Oh yes, I was saying the first thing you should do is try to find if there are any articles in any of the reputable, peer reviewed scientific journal that support your claim. Then read it, not just the abstract, but the whole paper, try to understand it, to absorb it. Try to get inside the heads of the scientists and try to see things the way they saw them. Look at their methodology, did they do things correctly? If you don't understand their methodology, ask for help. Try to get a feel for the equations they're using and the graphs they're displaying. Go over the conclusion, does it fit their premise and does it make sense in light of their research?

Do all of this and you might be able to win points against people who accept evolution, be they theist or atheist. In the process you might learn something new about the world around you too.