There was a time, not too far in American history, that people understood the concept of evidence. Now, they may not have really grasped the scientific principles of evidence, but they got the concept. If they made a claim about science, and someone asked them to prove it, they’d point to X scientist or X scientific study they read about. What they didn’t say, typically, is “prove me wrong.”
Whenever someone makes an assertion, followed by a request to prove them wrong, the conversation is a non-starter. It’s nonsense. When you make a positive claim, such as “this is or is not true about the world,” then the onus is on you to prove your assertion. You hold the burden of proof. No one is under any obligation to believe you until you do so, nor do they need to prove you wrong. You’ve provided nothing to disprove.
Evidence, when it comes to a scientific claim, typically refers to a well formed, peer reviewed study. At the very least, the assertion should be based on sound scientific principles that are known to be true, and it should be a falsifiable claim. There must be a solid way to test it. If your claim isn’t able to be tested and attempted to falsify, then you’ve said nothing of value scientifically.
Unfortunately, today, the concept of evidence has been skewed in the public view. The most commonly cited items as evidence in the public are YouTube videos and blog posts. These are not evidence. These wouldn’t even be accepted on a college freshman English paper as citations. If you’re making claims based on them, or worse, you’ve developed a worldview based on them, then you are devoid of intellectual honesty and any credibility whatsoever.
There’s also this strange perception of the peer review as “corporate science.” People often claim that all professional scientific literature is bought and paid for, biased, as if it’s some kind of conspiracy to keep “real” science (the YouTube version?) suppressed.
Let’s unpack this a bit. What would it take for such a conspiracy to exist? First, it would require millions upon millions of scientists to be in on it. That alone would be unwieldy, impossible given….humans. It would also require all universities and professors to be in on it. All regulatory agencies, medical establishments, and governments would also need to be working together. Do you see how crazy this gets?
Let’s look at some realities of how the scientific process works. There’s a specific reason that science, as a method of knowing, is seen to be self correcting. When someone puts forth a paper, it gets peer reviewed. Once it passes that process, which is often not easy, it gets published. This isn’t the endgame. This is the beginning. At this point, scientists from all over the world get to try and prove the results of that paper wrong. Doing so is one of the best ways to gain recognition as a scientist. This is especially true of a scientist can prove something well accepted to be wrong.
So, even if you provide a study as evidence of a claim, one solitary study doesn’t do it. That’s not how it works. Anything that can really be asserted in science with any certainty will have a large body of studies behind it. It will have been tried to be proven wrong many times without success.
We see this problem so often today as anti-vaxxers pull out the Wakefield study and anti-GMOers pull out the Seralini study. Not only are these singular studies, they’ve been discredited and retracted due to serious bias, dishonest practices, and poor methodology. That’s how science works.
So, when someone tries to first off a YouTube video, blog post, or a single poor study as their primary source of evidence, you may need to explain how evidence works in science. They’re obviously doing it wrong.
Contributor: Robert Sacerich
Robert is a Philosophy of Science and Bioethics student, as well as blogger and science advocate/activist. He has worked extensively within the secular community for various secular nonprofit organizations and public communication causes.
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