Just the Facts, Please

It surprises people when I say that, No, I can’t prove it to you. That science is not in the proving business. Creationists laugh like hyenas. See! He can’t prove it! Then I ask them to prove that Omaha, Nebraska exists and they are stumped. There are no proofs. There are facts and there are assertions with varying degrees of confidence. So we have facts, proof, and assertions. Let’s look at the three.

Facts are generally indisputable observations that exist independently of the observer. My writing desk is made of Honduran mahogany. Hearts pump blood. Facts will usually make up the premises of arguments, the things that both parties can agree on, and they are the components of scientific hypothesis and theories. But facts might not be proof and are always subject to minor tweaking.

Proof is the least useful of the terms. Its technical use is in philosophical logic where it is used as the conclusion to a set of premises:

Sally is a mammal.
All mammals have hair.
Sally has hair.

If the premises – the first two statements above – are true, then the conclusion must be true and you have proved your point. But technical proofs don’t have to reflect the real world:

Sally is a gold coin.
All gold coins have green skin.
Sally has green skin.

Brains in vats. Can you prove otherwise?

Scientific FactAnd while I can’t prove a thing to be true, it is rare that I can prove a thing to be false. It is possible – and I can’t prove it to be otherwise – that I truly am just a brain in a vat and my entire life experience has been programmed by pizza-eating teenagers from the planet Zoltar. So technical or absolute proof does us no good. It’s recognized that science doesn’t offer or confer proof. From Part 2 of this series we have this statement from the National Center for Science Education regarding theory and proof:

“[Another] misconception is that scientific research provides proof in the sense of attaining the absolute truth. Scientific knowledge is always tentative and subject to revision should new evidence come to light.”

Conversations in science and life are really made up more of assertions. These are statements we make with varying levels of confidence. Much of our conversation is spent shoring up confidence in our statements. We might say “Now I’m not lying here..” or “I’m not making this up, but…” These are verbal codes to lend a certain confidence in what we are saying. Technical talk has it’s own set of confidence codes. A journal abstract is is kind of academic code for “I’m not making this stuff up.” They list the universal nature of the finding (We tested a total of 400 males aged 20-40 from 13 countries…), they set out the known facts (based on Major’s paper from 2008 we know that…), they make a prediction (we intend to show that…), and they tell their story (we find that…). In this way researchers build a staircase of step wise assertions that must, by logical progression, lead to their conclusion making a path from A to Z.

Some statements elicit more confidence than others. Only a few high-school philosophers will argue with me when I say that the sun will rise tomorrow (though we all know that the sun doesn’t ‘rise’). Everyone, everywhere, for all of history has seen the morning sun come each morning. There is no reason to imagine will be any different. We have great confidence in the assertion. That the sky will be blue tomorrow is less so. The sky could be overcast and pour rain all day. If it’s December in New York and I’m predicting eighty and sunny tomorrow – statistically possible – then I’ll be looking hard for takers.

This is exactly how science and evolution works. We look at facts and put together an overarching observation that fits all of the facts. From there me make predictions. We believe that mammals appeared on earth after reptiles because we don’t find mammal fossils embedded in rock strata older than where we find reptiles. Radiometric data supports this finding. Comparative biology does as well. Each time we find another example we are more confident in our assertion. This entire framework is vetted over decades of work from people in several disciplines and we come to recognize the fact that reptiles appeared on earth before mammals. This is exactly how the concepts of quantum theory, germ theory, and evolutionary theory have developed.

Yes. Biology can be messy.

It can be messy. This jumble of descriptions, facts, proofs, and assertions are exactly why we use specific descriptive terms. For example, one definition of species might be ‘a genetically isolated reproducing population’ which is much the same as ‘like animals having sex’ but the first description contains a ream of tacit background information that the second doesn’t. This language isn’t used to sound smart and to confuse people (which is a common charge not always wrong). It’s a way to put a fence around a statement and pack as much information into it as we can. It’s a way, too, to define what we are not saying. Biology is rarely a black and white endeavor. Some people hate this. If you find exceptions to the rule bothersome I suggest a career in chemistry or engineering. Those are sciences of yes or no, of black and white. There are exceptions to every statement in biology and this argues for evolution. All life and every ecosystem is in flux. Every genome is different and changing. Every ecosystem is different this year than it was the year before.

A possibly wrong parenthetical observation:

I suppose it’s to be expected but I find science-minded folk to be the most comfortable with not knowing. After all, it’s the milieu in which science works. Once a thing is figured out the next question is always “why?” Researchers are always pushing against the boundary of what is known to extend into what is not. I find that this is the exact opposite mindset of many religious people and of almost all young-earth creationists. Well, at least of vocal Christian conservative evangelicals. Not knowing is anathema. It’s uncomfortable to the point that some people ‘believe’ just to fill in the gap. I can’t say how many people I’ve run into who shake their heads when I shrug my shoulders at how I can live with not knowing what existed before the Big Bang. I just don’t know. I doubt that we will never know. We are just bags of wet carbon after all and no one owes us an answer. But certain people simply cannot live with that un-answer. It’s weird to me.

And finally, remember that we might all be brains in vats so have a little humility and hold your most dear beliefs a bit more loosely.

Arguments against

Scientific FactPeople argue that we cannot determine prehistoric fact which relegates evolution to a guessing game. But is it a fact that Abraham Lincoln was a US president? And that he was shot? How do we know? Not a soul is alive today who was alive in Lincoln’s time. We know by correlating evidence. We read the DC newspaper at the time he was shot. Was this corroborated in any Paris newspapers? We see Lincoln’s grave. We make a prediction: if Lincoln was shot and killed then we should see that another person was sworn in as US president shortly after Lincoln’s purported date of death. We find that this is true. These historical tools we use are the same that we use for prehistoric findings and give us the same level of confidence. Evidence leads to a hypothesis from which we develop predictions which bolsters or changes our hypothesis. Natch!

Evolution is also dismissed as an invention. “You can make up whatever facts you want.” No, you can’t. Facts exists regardless of who is looking at them. You can make up whatever truth you want and you can certainly have whatever opinion you want but you can’t make up facts. This is closely followed by the statement that we all have our own truth. Again, I agree. You get to make up your own truth. But you don’t get to make up your own facts. Facts, as described above, exist independent of the observer. You can interpret how a fact fits into your worldview but, as they say, the facts remain.

Don’t know where this came from but I love it.

What is the difference between a scientific fact and a religious fact? Aren’t they the same thing? No and there are two keys to understand: source and objectivity. On my desk is a piece of fool’s gold. We can look up the real definition if we want and I’ll guess that the clump weighs fifty grams. These are all observations that exist apart from me, the observer. Each observation can be verified by anyone with the right tools. So it is a fact and the source is empirical. Contrast this with a religious statement: Jesus can save you from drug addiction. It’s true that many Christians quit using drugs. It’s just as true that many non-Christians quit using drugs. It’s also true that many Christians do use drugs. There is simply no way to measure this statement. And how would you set up an experiment to test your theory that Jesus can save one from drug addiction? How would you isolate the variable? And however strongly you believe the statement to be true, I can find ten people who disagree with you. These statement simply don’t approach the rigors of fact and scientific inquiry and are mere opinions.

Come back for the next post when we will look at the most powerful tool for good ever invented – the scientific method.


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