Standards of Evidence

A recent post and the resulting kerfluffle (a highly technical term) plus recent comments resulted in me taking some time to reflect on standards of evidence and things of that nature.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence – Carl Sagan

First, I need to admit to two things.  The first is a bit of personal desire.  You see, I want it to be true that there is life on other planets and perhaps I wasn’t as critical of such claims as I could have been.  I did use a lot of ‘well maybe’ language in the post, but I assumed that the post was legitimate and it looks like it wasn’t.

The second is a bit of journalistic anxiety.  I like writing, but I know I’ll never do a novel (I’ve tried… a lot).  I enjoy teaching, science, technology, etc. and I want to share that.  It wouldn’t hurt my feelings to be asked to be a blogger for a major (or even minor) communication group.  I wanted a scoop.  And I traded my quest for evidence for a chance at being first.  It was wrong.

Now, with those embarrassing lapses out of the way, let’s talk about standards of evidence.

First of all, what is evidence?  Well, that there is a whole ‘nother question.  There doesn’t seem to be a consensus on what evidence is.  As a famous judge says, “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.

To me, scientific evidence is something that is demonstrably true (either a fact or something that can be shown to be a correct statement) that is used to support other statements.

For example, the statement “The grass is my backyard green” is a fact.  A spectrograph of the reflected light of the grass will show that the frequency of light reflected is within the range of what we define as ‘green’.  This fact can be used as evidence for the statement “My lawn is healthy.”  We know that green grass is usually healthy and brown grass is usually unhealthy.  So, my healthy grass statement is supported by evidence.

Now, how do we apply this to science?

Well, let’s say, for example that you have discovered that Einstein’s theory of general relativity was wrong.  Not a little wrong, but completely off the hook.  You write an article that says this.  What kind of evidence do you need?

You need a LOT of evidence.  Einstein’s theory is very, very well supported with mathematical proofs and experimental and observational evidence.  Einstein said that light should bend when passing near massive objects.  This was observationally shown to be true.  Those observations are evidence that Einstein was correct.

If you wanted to overturn Einstein, not only do you have to explain the correct information and explain why Einstein was wrong, but you have to go beyond Einstein, you have to explain why your theory is better.  For example, if your theory did everything Einstein’s general relativity does AND was consistent with quantum mechanics, then you might have something.

At that point, you should be writing papers and have the published in Nature or Science for extensive review by experts in the field.  (One should not attempt to introduce one’s theories to high school level students by legislative action.)  After hundreds of scientists have reviewed your work and many, many experiments have shown you are correct, then you might be placed in textbooks.

Scientists expect this.  They expect hard questions.  Go sit in a six hour thesis defense if you don’t believe me.  Go to a conference and watch the presenter of a paper get hammered for an hour or so.  This is expected, even encouraged.  If no one questions you, then either no one can understand you or your work is insignificant.

Many people, even a few scientists, don’t get this.  They may see the press releases for a new concept and not understand that the six line inches is the result of hundreds (if not thousands) of hours of work.  Days of writing and untold arguments in the cafeteria.

So how does this apply to two major subjects of this blog: aliens and intelligent design?

Aliens: This is a hugely controversial subject.  It will, no doubt, have a huge impact on our society, every culture on the planet, religions and the scientific community and thought.  Further, there have been a fairly consistent stream of claims of this nature from amateur and professional alike for quite a while.  Science is fully aware of the difficulty of not only life outside of our biosphere existing, but it getting to Earth so we can look at it.

There are known to be bacteria very high up in the atmosphere.  That is evidence that many samples of ‘alien’ bacteria that pass through the atmosphere may be contaminated and scientists will have to be prepared to deal with that.  There are a host of other issues and every one will have to be dealt with by the claimant.  That last bit is important.

It is not up to others to support your notions. You have to do the work.  You have to provide the positive claims.

Intelligent Design: The same thing applies here.  There is 150 years of evidence of at least 21 different types that support evolution.  The ID proponent must explain why all of them are wrong.

But that only removes evolution, it does nothing to help Intelligent Design.  There must be positive supporting evidence for ID and there will have to be a lot of it.  After decades of incorrect statements, misrepresentations, and claims that were later proven to be possible without need for the supernatural, ID is pretty much in the same boat that aliens are in.  There needs to be extraordinary evidence to support it.

Again, no one really cares if my lawn is healthy (except for the danged HOA), so my statement and the supporting evidence is trivial.  Something that threatens to overturn 150 years of research is not trivial and the evidence will also have to be non-trivial.

ID especially, but alien claimants too, need to do their own work.  It’s not our job to do their work for them.  It’s also not our job to defend the current scientific consensus.  It’s the scientific consensus for a reason.  The reason is not just because ‘we feel like it’.  It’s so demonstrably correct that no one challenges it anymore.

Sure, people may argue about the relative influence of genetic drift over natural selection, but there is no argument that both influence evolution or the fact that evolution happens and has happened.

Finally, a note about comments.  I’m all for discussion and I’ve had perfectly enjoyable disagreements with people who feel just as strongly one way as I do the other and we remain good friends.  That is the level of discourse that is acceptable here.

If someone asks for evidence, don’t say “There’s tons of evidence.”  Say, “here’s the link to three pieces, if you need more ask me.  Here’s what they say and why they said it that way.”  When you make a claim, back it up.  Give a link or a copy and paste of your own work on the subject.  If someone asks a hard question, they aren’t being stupid or a jerk, they are asking for the benefit of your theory.

If your theory can’t stand up to constant hard questions, then it has no merit.  Ask yourself (and observe others in the comments) if you really answered a hard question with an eye toward making yourself understood, describing why you think the way you do in easy to read, unambiguous language, and is there links to supporting evidence (keeping in mind the extraordinary claim quote above).  If you fluffed off a hard question with a single sentence answer (and part of the answer was “you’re ignorant”), then it’s a clue that your ideas are without evidence (or merit).

Feel free to let me know if this doesn’t make sense or add to it in the comments. What are your definitions of ‘evidence’?

With that, my son wants to go play football.  See ya.


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7 Responses to Standards of Evidence

  1. Pingback: Alien Life in Meteorites – It May Be Real This Time… or not | Cassandra's Tears

  2. Joe G says:

    There is 150 years of evidence of at least 21 different types that support evolution. The ID proponent must explain why all of them are wrong.

    Intelligent Design is not anti-evolution. And I have already provided links and explanations a to why that is. I cannot force you to read it but by acting as if it doesn’t exist isn’t the right thing to do. Perhaps you could have a discussion and present the definition of evolution that you use that excludes ID.

    As for extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence- to say this is all some accident* requires something to support it. Default is “we don’t know”.

    What is that hypothesis? Please I am trying to understand your standards of evidence.

    * the earth is allegedly a collection of cosmic collisions and (the) “Diversity (of life) is the sum total of variations that accumulated in different lines of descent over the past 3.8 billion years, as by natural selection and other processes of evolution.” Page 16 Biology- concepts and applications Starr 5th ed.- and the variation is said to be random, chance events, mistakes/ errors/ accidents.

  3. Joe G says:

    Wet electricity.

    Whereas the electricity that powers our computers comes from the flow of electrons through a conductor and “hates” water, the electricity that runs our bodies is designed for a wet environment and uses pumped ions to help convey differing messages to our command center.

    In this environment mere electrons are of little use because they would be easily dispersed. What is needed is something bigger. And as I eluded to in my opening an ion or ions will fit the bill. Well there just happen to be two atoms well suited for ionization- two atoms with 1 outer valence electron.

    If we take a look at the Periodic Table, and also a look at the electron shell arrangement (note the sodium diagram on the right and also thepotassium arrangement, we see these atoms are perfect fits for the job of positive ions (as both have only one outer valence electron).

    Now we have the ions but we need a way for them to get into and out of the cell-> Ion Channels

    Ion channels are proteins that line holes in the plasma membrane. They can open on demand to let ions in and out of the cell. They allow nerve impulses to travel, cause your heart to beat, and allow your muscles to contract. In many cells, channels and another kind of protein called a pump together maintain a relatively constant negative charge within your cells. This net negative charge, or membrane potential, affects the entry and exit of a variety of materials. page 15 of Bioinformatics, Genomics, and Proteomics: Getting the Big Picture

    10 million to 100 million per second!

    The importance of these precise structures and hence functioning of protein machines like these channels cannot be understated. Potassium channels, like other channels that pass other ions from one side of the cell membrane to the other, have a particular architecture that allows them to open and close upon command. We now know that intricately designed and mechanically fine-tuned ion channels determine the rhythm and allow an electrical impulse initiated when we stub our toe to be transmitted to the brain.- Ibid page 19

    However even these, in comparison to electrons, huge ions also get lost in the wet environment. So what is needed are pumps along the way to pump ions in and also out. In the case of our nerve cells, ions go in to start the signal and are pumped out to reset that part of the system so it is ready for the next (or continuing) sensation. See nerve cell.

    (Some venoms and poisons effect these pumps (stop them from working) thereby shutting down the nervous system of the inflicted- ie paralysis sets in.)

    However our nerves to not touch each other as wires do in an electrical system to make a circuit. Neurons have functional connections called synapses. These can connect neuron to neuron or other types of cells (for example muscle). Between the synapse and the next cell is a gap- the synaptic cleft.

    This gap is too large for even ions to traverse. So to make the connection- to send the signal from one cell to the next, neurotransmitters is sent. These flow in one direction. And once the neurotransmitters reach their destination, that cell responds accordingly, and all the neurotransmitters are dismantled and shuttled back to the transmitting site to be refabbed and ready for the next signal. (some do linger a bit longer and then disperse)

    This is key because if the neurotransmitters stay docked the receiving cell would remain locked in that sensation. And if any unused neurotransmitters- the synaptic cleft is basically flooded to ensure signal transmission- remain they will just fill in the docking site when the first arrivals are gone. IOW the receiving cell will be locked in that past sensation.

    And there are different types of neurotransmitters for different sensations and purposes.

    How is this evidence for ID?

    The nervous system exhibits planning- it takes planning to get the right ions, ion channels, pumps and neurotransmitters.

  4. ogremkv says:

    No Joe, those 150 years of evidence are supportive of the hypotheses and the theory of evolution that we have developed.

    You are right, we will never know exactly what happened. In the same way that we will never know exactly what happened in a murder without witnesses. Yet, we can use evidence to support one hypothesis over another, which is what all those millions of research papers do. They support evolution.

  5. ogremkv says:

    This is not evidence Joe. This is “Look how complex it is, only a designer could have done this.” Which, I have shown is almost trivially easy to dispute.

    This is no different than Paley’s argument over 200 years ago.

    What you have to do is show that, 1) there is a designer than could do this 2) that the designer in question did do this. Merely seeing the result is not evidence. No more than seeing a dead body is proof of murder. There are other choices (natural causes for example).

  6. derwood says:

    “The nervous system exhibits planning- it takes planning to get the right ions, ion channels, pumps and neurotransmitters.”

    Pity that Joey cannot recognize special pleading when he uses it.

  7. Pingback: Questions for Intelligent Designers | Cassandra's Tears

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