The Decline of Evidence

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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.

See his full bio!

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6 thoughts on “The Decline of Evidence

  1. You write that the burden of proof is on you to “prove your assertion.” It’s is commonly understood in academic philosophy that solid proof of anything is impossible. Literally every knowledge claim about the external world falls afoul of Descartes’ demon, or Neo’s matrix. Beyond those there also lay the problem of induction. That is, any universal statement in the form of ‘for any x…’ must necessarily be under-determined by the evidence or else rely in some way upon a further universal statement that will always be under-determined by the evidence or itself rely on yet another universal, ad infinitum (See Russell).

    This is why Karl Popper held to the view that proper science was the advancement of unsupported and fanciful conjectures followed by attempts to falsify them. He saw that since verificationism had failed, and that it was logically impossible to positively prove any statement about the universe some other method must be adopted. His solution was falsificationism. While it may be impossible to prove a universal true because it is impossible to take into account every piece of relevant evidence, it is possible to disprove a universal with only one piece of evidence, namely the evidence that contradicts the universal statement.

    All this to say, perhaps proper science does in fact say “prove me wrong.” Though, on your opinion on the lack of academic sourcing being done by the layman I wholeheartedly agree. Youtube is not science.

    • Right. I agree with you, when it comes to a scientific hypothesis. Within the scientific process, we experiment to falsify the hypothesis that has been made.

      What I’m referring to here are assertions about science that has been done, not hypotheses within the process of science.

      I hope that distinction makes sense, it’s late, so I could be rambling.

      • Like, I guess I see what you’re getting at with the distinction between ‘new’ science and regurgitating ‘old’ science but really, what is the difference between new and old when someone has come across something that is ‘old’ for the first time?

        Science is just a communal effort to learn and understand and the communal nature of science necessarily means that there will always be people who aren’t completely up to date and do not yet have all of the currently known to be false hypothesis at hand.

        I feel like the whole ‘burden of proof is on the person advancing a position’ thing is really just a cop-out by those who have reason to think that a position is wrong and don’t want to take the time to explain. It’s essentially saying “do your homework then come back and talk to me.” Which is definitely fine and called for in some circumstances (like in the academic world while working within and around your area of expertise), however, on the internet I do not think it appropriate to expect everyone to inform themselves before speaking, though I wish it were otherwise. The truth is that most people on the internet simply do not even know enough to realize that there are things they do not know. Simply rejecting their position because they “didn’t properly defend it” is not the best way to teach people to think critically.

        Anyways, I should get off my soap box now.

      • OK, let me know pose it like this.

        Person 1: I have sitting next to me an invisible pink unicorn. You can’t see, taste, feel, or hear it.

        Person 2: I don’t buy it.

        Person 3: Well, if you can’t prove me wrong, then I’m right.

        See the problem?

      • Sure. How about the anti-vaxxer movement.

        Person 1: Vaccines cause autism. 1 discredited and retracted study from years ago says so. Jenny McCarthy says so.

        Person 2: But, the science doesn’t say.

        Person 1: Plenty of science says so.

        Person 2: Ok, show me that science.

        Person 1: No, go look it up yourself!

        It’s nonsensical because person 1 is making an assertion about the world. Person 2 is perfectly justified in saying they don’t buy it until person 1 provides evidence.

        Another example I had the other day. An anti-GMO person told me that there were decades of studies that show GMOs are poisonous. Now, being well versed in the literature on GMOs, I know that those studies don’t exist, so I asked for evidence. He went back and forth with me for 12 hrs straight repeating that assertion, and firing off more assertions, while refusing to support any of them.

        The onus is ALWAYS on the person making a truth claim, not on those who don’t find it believable on it’s own merit, to provide evidence for that truth claim.

        Hitchen put it best when said “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.”

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