Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Standards of Evidence


      So this post might be a little long winded, but I want to establish a foundation of what we consider rational evidence. This will do allow us to be honest in our critique of certain issues. At any time anyone can refer back to this post if we allow ourselves to be biased by non ration evidence.

Why having a standard of evidence is important in making decisions

      There is good evidence, bad evidence, and useless evidence. By having a standard on which to base what is good, and why, we can sort through all the bad evidence and get ourselves a truer picture of reality. We can only make decisions based on how good the evidence presented to us is. I don't know about any of the readers, but I myself want to be able to make the best possible decisions for both myself, and my family. Having a higher standard of what you consider evidence leads to better decisions and allows yourself to get a more realistic picture of the world around you. In this article I hope to explain how I came by this standard, and some of the “bad” evidence you should watch out for.

Standards in science

      Modern science has done a great job in realizing how flawed and biased our perception of reality can be. The scientific method is a way in which hypothesis' can be tested, and a true result be obtained in spite of these biases and flaws. You don't need to be a scientist to use the scientific method, just a little bit of rational thought behind how you come to a conclusion is needed. I will get into how our perception of reality is flawed later in this article. The other thing modern science has given us is called the “peer review”. In this process, scientists publish their test, their methodology, and their findings in a journal that is read by other scientists in their field. This way they can be critqued by their peers who have no bias or stake in the results of a certain experiment or trial.

     Understanding how peer review works is an important part of knowing if a result is worth accepting. A lot of articles get published and get media attention, but then once the peer review process finds flaws with the study or trial, often it's not covered again by the media. In this way, we need to be careful that the studies we're looking at for our evidence are not only published, but have also been thoroughly reviewed. A study that is published, but then peer review has shown many flaws, is not a study or trial I would accept as evidence.

Why anecdotal evidence is useless

      Anecdotal evidence, or eyewitness testimony, in matters of finding truth, or reality is not really evidence at all. There are many ways our brains can be tricked into believing in something that isn't true. Let me give you an example. I'm sure most of us have been to see a magic show, or seen one on T.V. Did any of us believe that David Copperfield actually made the statue of liberty disappear? Or that Chris Angel actually levitated? Or that any magician actually sawed a woman in half? Of course we don't believe they actually did this, we understand that they are simply taking advantage of the shortcuts in our brain that have been hardwired by evolution.

      I have great respect for magicians, they freely admit what they do is an illusion. However there are those out there that essentially do the same thing, and try to convince us it's real. Psychics, Alternative medicine practitioners, and Ghost Hunters are just a few of those that take advantage of similar shortcuts in our brains, but unlike magicians, they try to convince us they're powers are real.

      In this respect, if you tell me that you went to a psychic, and they were so good that they knew everything about you, so their powers must be real, should I believe you? Would you believe me if I told you David Copperfield really made the statue of liberty disappear? Of course you wouldn't, you know it's just a trick. In this same way, we can't take the eyewitness account of anyone, unless they can produce some more reliable evidence for their claim. There is two really good videos explaining this process more fully here  and here.

The logical fallacy

      The logical fallacy is when a statement follows what seems to be a logical order, but in reality is not logical at all. A brief explanation of how logic works is: if p, then q, p therefore q. A logical fallacy would be: if p, then q, q therefore p. While this follows the same form, it is not logic. I won't get into any more, but instead I'll take a look at some of the more common logical fallacies that are used.

      Post hoc ergo proper hoc. While I don't know the exact translation, this fallacy is one in which it's believed A happened, then B happened, therefore A caused B. While there is some contributing casue for B, unless it can be shown that A caused B, we can't assume that it is the case. An example of this in real life is the vaccines cause autism scare. Children aren't able to be diagnosed with autism until they are about three years old, around the same time the normal course of vaccinations are done. This link has been thoroughly debunked. This logical fallacy is especially prevalent in the alternative medicine industry. I drink this magic potion, then I got better, it must be the magic potion that made me better. I guess it's not possible for your bodies natural process to make you feel better.

      The natural fallacy. In this fallacy it's believed that everything produced in a lab is bad for you, and anything that come from nature is good for you. Not everything in nature is good for you, in fact, if you ever take a walk through the wilderness, most of the plants that you see will kill you if you eat them. Now I'm not saying everything produced in a lab is good for you, but some things can be better for you than their natural counterpart. Take asprin for example, the natural for of it found in the willow tree, while effective, is also toxic. A little tweaking in the lab and we come out with a safe version, that is still very effective.

      The ad hominem. This fallacy is when the person making a claim, or presenting evidence is attacked. It doesn't matter what the person, or company has done, or what they do, all that matters is the quality of the evidence they're presenting. An example of this is that most people tend to disbelieve any report Monsanto puts out, simply because they have gotten the reputation for being an evil, greedy corporation. Simply being evil and greedy doesn't mean you can't do good science.

      There are plenty of other logical fallacies. While I don't have the space to discuss all of them here, there is a list of them here.

Disproving established science

      So this last section I'll look at what established science is. There are certain things in science that are taken as true, such as the laws of thermodynamics, the theory of relativity, the theory of evolution, mathematics, and a few others. While there is always new things being discovered in these fields, most of the basics are pretty much established. So, if there is a claim that violates any of these laws, or is in contradiction to any of these established sciences, and you want me to believe you, there is one simple way. Publish your findings in a peer review journal, get through the peer review process, then claim your Nobel prize. At that time I will happily believe your claim.

      Hopefully this wasn't too long. Understanding evidence we can make better decisions for us and our children. After all, don't we all want to do whats best.

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