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Theory and Evidence

02/18/09

  01:00:30 am, by Nimble   , 1111 words  
Categories: Thoughts, Common Sense, Science

Theory and Evidence

The phrase "it's only a theory" is bandied about in some circles these days, but it's inappropriate when it comes to talking about a scientific capital-T Theory, in particular one whose sesquicentennial takes place this year.

Cries of "prove it" and claims of "never been proven" seem to miss what is at the heart of the matter: evidence, not "proof". I hope that a simplistic analogy might shed some light for those who wonder why we constantly need to make scientific discoveries and why the evidence can approach certainty but never attain it.

With the prevalence of legal dramas on screen, despite the liberties they take with techniques and technology, the analogy with evidence in a court case is instructive:

A man stands accused of murdering his wife. The jury looks on, unsure of the facts and evidence of this case. Some are making judgments based on his clean-cut appearance. No matter, though; this is only the beginning. The musical strains, audible only to the viewer, start innocuously enough.

Exhibit A: No sign of forced entry

Well, the wife then probably knew the murderer, but it could have been a careless leaving of the door unlocked

Exhibit B: Reports from witnesses of heated arguments between the couple

Sure, heated arguments happen between couples, but surely that happens the world 'round without murder being involved

Exhibit C: Scratches on the husband's face

Well, scratches do happen when a fight ensues, but this is still circumstantial

Exhibit D: Reports that the husband had a mistress

Rumors are rumors, though this would be slightly disparaging, if true

Exhibit E: E-mails from the husband to another woman, professing love

Okay, not the shining example of a husband, but still...

Exhibit F: E-mails from the husband to another woman, proclaiming that he will kill his wife

Well, that's starting to get a bit creepy, but he can't have meant it, or maybe somebody else sent those e-mails trying to make him look bad

The exhibits fly quickly and furiously:

Exhibit G: Despite claims he was not home, there are bloody shoeprints in his shoe size from his favorite brand of shoe
Exhibit H: A shirt of his was found in the dumpster soaked with blood verified to be his wife's
Exhibit I: His wife's blood was found on the driver's side upholstery of his sports car that only he drove
Exhibit J: The towers used for his cell phone calls on the day in question were in the area of the house and not where the husband claimed he was

Pretty damning evidence, but there's always some tiny, marginal chance of exoneration. Maybe someone else wore his shirt, or the murderer stole his shoes, or the husband just misremembered events and was actually just passing by the house on the way out of town.

Then we get to the good stuff:

Exhibit K: A message left on the putative mistress' answering machine saying "I did it, I killed her" in a voice matched to be the husband's...

...and then the kicker...

Exhibit L: A security camera the wife set up happened to record audio and video of what happened, and it is clear from the voice and appearance of the murderer that it is the husband.

If the husband does not have a twin brother (a plot point legal dramas cannot resist indulging in sometimes), then the nails are pretty much shut on the coffin of this case.

Is this proof, per se? Could you say the husband truly, definitely did this deed?

What if the defense team came back and claimed that the security footage could have been faked?

What if the tape was checked for forged elements and came up clean? Could the defense then say that perhaps a very good body double or unknown twin brother was the real murderer? Or, perhaps, that the experts were in collusion with the prosecuting team?

Perhaps claim that the woman was not actually murdered and is still alive?

There is one other avenue to go, though, when the evidence is not on your side: a PR campaign. Claim that the husband had been blackballed. Find people willing to testify in public against the character of the wife, or to cast doubt on the evidence. Perhaps enough to press for an appeal, get a politician involved, threaten the judge's career, or perhaps worse.


What I am trying to point out here is that for cases that have a lot of very good evidence for them, you find those very kinds of end-points for those who maintain their opposing views despite the evidence:

(1) In proportion to the strength of the evidence, correspondingly more bizarre possibilities must be put forward.

(2) In proportion to the strength of the evidence, correspondingly more paranoid possibilities must be put forward.

(3) To detract from the strength of the evidence, a public relations campaign about fairness, casting aspersions and doubt about the evidence, or both.

This is what you will find in the likes of young-earth creationism versus evolution in particular.

End-point (1) is more likely to be used by the knowledgeable true believers, who will do things like imagine that the rate of radioactive decay was much higher in the past in order to work around the evidence of great age of the earth.

End-point (2) is more likely to be used by less knowledgeable true believers who are convinced of their correctness, who may be convinced that there is a conspiracy of atheists, or Satan, or hedonists.

End-point (3) is more likely to be used by the cynical promoters, or the true believers who have gone with route (1) and failed, or route (2) and been insulted at being ignored.


Now, in our analogy, is it possible that even more evidence could be produced for the husband's guilt?

Well, yes. Other character witnesses could have come forward, traffic cameras that caught the car on film, etc. could happen.

You could also imagine scenarios that are just not possible, but that could be with even better out-of-the-realm-of-current-possibilities technology. They could figure out how to retrieve the last things that the wife saw. They could master time and go back and witness the event. They could forcibly extract what the husband felt and saw. They could figure out a way of beaming any of the above directly into the juror's heads.

Yet even with those advances, you could still maintain the husband's innocence with any of the three techniques.

That is somewhat the problem facing science today, and more scientists are waking up to the harm caused by those maintaining the validity of beliefs that the evidence no longer supports, in particular that purveyor of evidence-free "truth": the PR campaign.

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