Can we ever be certain about scientific theories?

(I will be traveling for a few weeks and rather than put this blog on hiatus, thought that I would continue with my weekday posting schedule by reposting some of the very early items, for those who might have missed them the first time around.)

A commenter to a previous posting raised an interesting perspective that requires a fresh posting, because it reflects a commonly held view about how the validity of scientific theories get established.

The commenter says:

A scientist cannot be certain about a theory until that theory has truly been tested, and thus far, I am unaware of our having observed the evolution of one species from another species. Perhaps, in time, we will observe this, at which point the theory will have been verified. But until then, Evolution is merely a theory and a model.

While we may have the opportunity to test Evolution as time passes, it is very highly doubtful that we will ever be able to test any of the various theories for the origins of the Universe.

I would like to address just two points: What does it mean to “test” a theory? And can scientists ever “verify” a theory and “be certain” about it?

Verificationism as a concept to validate scientific theories has been tried and found to be wanting. The problem is that any non-trivial theory generates an infinite number of predictions. All the predictions cannot be exhaustively verified. Only a sample of the possible predictions can be tested and there is no universal yardstick that can be used to measure when a theory has been verified. It is a matter of consensus judgment on the part of scientists as to when a theory becomes an accepted one, and this is done on a case-by-case basis by the practitioners in that field or sub-field.

This means, however, that people who are opposed to a theory can always point to at least one particular result that has not been directly observed and claim that the theory has not been ‘verified’ or ‘proven.’ This is the strategy adopted by ID supporters to attack evolutionary theory. But using this kind of reasoning will result in every single theory in science being denied scientific status.

Theories do get tested. Testing a theory has been a cornerstone of science practice ever since Galileo but it means different things depending on whether you are talking about an experimental science like chemistry and condensed matter physics, or a historical science like cosmology, evolution, geology, and astronomy.

Any scientific theory is always more than an explanation of prior events. It also must necessarily predict new observations and it is these predictions that are used to test theories. In the case of experimental sciences, laboratory experiments can be performed under controlled conditions in order to generate new data that can be compared with predictions or used to infer new theories.

In the case of historical sciences, however, observations are used to unearth data that are pre-existing but as yet unknown. Hence the ‘predictions’ may be more appropriately called ‘retrodictions’, in that they predict that you will find things that already exist. For example, in cosmology the retrodictions were the existence of a cosmic microwave background radiation of a certain temperature, the relative abundances of light nuclei, and so forth. The discovery of the planet Neptune was considered a successful ‘prediction’ of Newtonian theory, although Neptune had presumably always been there.

The testing of a historical science is analogous is to that of the investigation of a crime where the detective says things like “If the criminal went through the woods, then we should be able to see footprints.” This kind of evidence is also historical but is as powerful as those of futuristic predictions, so historical sciences are not necessarily at a lower level of credibility than experimental sciences.

Theories in cosmology, astronomy, geology, and evolution are all tested in this way. As Ernst Mayr (who died a few days ago at the age of 100) said in What Evolution Is (2001): “Evolution as a whole, and the explanation of particular evolutionary events, must be inferred from observations. Such inferences must be tested again and again against new observations, and the original inference is either falsified or considerably strengthened when confirmed by all of these tests. However, most inferences made by evolutionists have by now been tested successfully so often that they are accepted as certainties.” (emphasis added).

In saying that most inferences are ‘accepted as certainties’, Mayr is exaggerating a little. Ever since the turn of the 20th century, it has been accepted that scientific knowledge is fallible and that absolute certainty cannot be achieved. But scientists do achieve a remarkable consensus on deciding at any given time what theoretical frameworks they have confidence in and will be used to guide future research. Such frameworks have been given the name ‘paradigms’ by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1970).

When scientists say they ‘believe’ in evolution (or the Big Bang), the word is being used in quite a different way from that used in religion. It is used as shorthand to say that they have confidence that the underlying mechanism of the theory has been well tested by seeing where its predictions lead. It is definitely not “merely a theory and a model” if by the word ‘merely’ the commenter implies a theory that is unsupported or untested.

So yes, evolution, like all the other major scientific paradigms, both historical and experimental, has been well tested.

Wanted: ‘Godwin’s Law’-type rule for science

(I will be traveling for the next few weeks and rather than put this blog on hiatus, thought that I would continue with my weekday posting schedule by reposting some of the very early items, for those who might have missed them the first time around.)

Mike Godwin coined a law (now known as Godwin’s Law) that states: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.”

This makes sense. As the discussion drags on, people start running out of fresh or relevant arguments, begin repeating themselves, lose their tempers, reach for something new to say, and Hitler/Nazi comparisons inevitably follow.

But Godwin’s rule has been extended beyond its original intent and is now used as a decision rule to indicate that a discussion has ceased to be meaningful and should be terminated. In other words, as soon as the Hitler/Nazi comparison is brought into any discussion where it is not relevant, Godwin’s rule can be invoked to say that the discussion is over and the person who introduced the Hitler/Nazi motif has lost the argument.

I was thinking that this might be a good model to follow in finding a resolution to the interminable discussions over whether so-called ‘intelligent design’ theory (ID) is a part of science. My rule would read as follows:

“As soon as the advocates of any theory go to legislative or other non-scientific bodies to get their theory labeled as a science, they have lost the argument and their theory is automatically declared to be not a science.”

Why do we need such a rule? Because ID advocates are the latest in a long line of people who have tried to bypass the normal processes of science by going outside the scientific community to implement their agenda.

The historical record of such attempts is not pretty. The Roman Catholic Church attempted in 1616 to ban Copernicus’ theory. The Soviet Central Committee tried in 1949 to dismiss Mendelian genetics as pseudoscience. Louisiana and Arkansas passed legislation in the 1980s to force the teaching of so-called ‘creation science’ in science classes and were overturned by the US Supreme Court. Even more recently Kansas tried to ban the teaching of evolution and failed. All these attempts ended as debacles for their proponents but in the process wasted the time and energy of huge numbers of people.

ID advocates, like their predecessors in having failed to convince the scientific community of the merits of their case, now argue that the scientific community is conspiring to unfairly keep their theory out, and that this is why they need to appeal to legislative or judicial bodies to get their way. In making this argument, they reveal a profound misunderstanding of the way science operates.

The agenda of scientists is not a secret. It is, simply, to have good science. And few will deny that science has delivered the goods in spectacular ways. It has achieved this by allowing the scientific community to achieve consensus as to what is the best paradigm to govern research activity in any given field at any given time.

This does not mean that individual scientists always make the best decisions in any given situation. It does not mean that scientists are incapable of making mistakes. It does not mean that scientists don’t have philosophical and scientific prejudices that color their views. It does not mean that scientists cannot be arrogant or pig-headed.

But despite all this, no reasonable person will dispute the point that science has been extraordinarily successful. This happens because scientists, whatever their other views and attributes, need to have good science because that is what is important to the health of their profession. Good science is in their best self-interest.

Good science would not happen if outside bodies were the arbiters of what is science, since they have their own agendas and can thus be pressured to make decisions on political or other grounds. So if ID advocates are successful in their efforts, they would be threatening the very foundations of science’s success.

In their opposition to such legislative intrusions, scientists are similar to artists and craftsmen. Would anyone argue that legislatures should decide on what constitutes a good painting?

In the long run, academic communities in scientific disciplines, despite their wide internal divergences, know that they must serve as the judges of what is good for their field and take that responsibility seriously. This is why the elaborate mechanism of peer-review, despite its faults, plays such an important role and why scientists, despite their differences in nationalities, religions, ethnicities, languages, ages, and genders, repeatedly arrive at remarkable levels of worldwide consensus on what is good science and what is bad science, and what is science and what is not science.

As the philosopher of science Barry Barnes says in his T.S. Kuhn and Social Science, (1982): “In science…there is no basis for validation superior to the collective contingent judgment of the paradigm-sharing community itself.”

But the proponents of ID, like their predecessors, just don’t get this and keep trying to have outside agencies legislate what scientists should and should not do. These discussions, like those on internet discussion boards, can drag on and on and waste the time and energy of everyone concerned since, if history is any guide, the net result is to revert to the original situation where scientists decide what science is.

So let’s invoke my rule and declare that ID is not a science. Then we can get on with real work.

Evolution III: Scientific knowledge is an interconnected web

(I will be traveling for the next few weeks and rather than put this blog on hiatus, thought that I would continue with my weekday posting schedule by reposting some of the very early items, for those who might have missed them the first time around.)

In an <a href=http://blog.case.edu/mxs24/2005/02/09/evolution_ii_science_is_not_a_smorgasbordearlier posting, the question was posed as to whether it was intellectually consistent to reject the findings of an entire modern scientific discipline (like biology) or of a major theoretical structure (like the theory of evolution) while accepting all the other theories of science.

The short answer is no. Why this is so can be seen by examining closely the most minimal of creationist theories, the one that goes under the label of ‘intelligent design’ or ID.

ID supporters take great pains to claim that theirs is a scientific theory that has nothing to do with religion or God, and hence belongs in the school science curriculum. (This particular question whether ID can be considered a part of science or of religion will be revisited in a later posting. This is becoming a longer series than I anticipated…)

ID advocates say that there are five specific biochemical systems and processes (bacterial flagella and cilia, blood clotting, protein transport within a cell, the immune system, and metabolic pathways) whose existence and/or workings cannot be explained by evolutionary theory and that hence one has to postulate that such phenomena are evidence of design and of the existence of a designer.

The substance of their arguments is: “You can claim all the other results for evolutionary theory. What would be the harm in allowing these five small systems to have an alternative explanation?”

Leaving aside the many other arguments that can be raised against this position (including those from biologists that these five systems are hardly intractable problems for evolutionary theory), I want to focus on just one feature of the argument. Is it possible to accept that just these five processes were created by a ‘designer,’ while retaining a belief in all the other theories of science?

No you cannot. If some undetectable agent had intervened to create the cilia (say), then in that single act at a microscopic level, you have violated fundamental laws of physics such as the law of conservation of energy, the law of conservation of momentum, and (possibly) the law of conservation of angular momentum. These laws are the bedrock of science and to abandon them is to abandon some of the most fundamental elements of modern science.

So rejecting a seemingly small element of evolutionary theory triggers a catastrophe in a seemingly far-removed area of science, a kind of chaotic ‘butterfly effect’ for scientific theories.

Scientific theories are so interconnected that some philosophers of science have taken this to the extreme (as philosophers are wont to do) and argued that we can only think of one big scientific theory that encompasses everything. It is this entire system (and not any single part of it) that should be compared with nature.

Pierre Duhem in his The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory (1906) articulated this position when he declared that: “The only experimental check on a physical theory which is not illogical consists in comparing the entire system of the physical theory with the whole group of experimental laws, and in judging whether the latter is represented by the former in a satisfactory manner.” (emphasis in original)

Of course, in practical terms, we don’t do that. Each scientific subfield proceeds along its own path. And we know that there have been revolutions in one area of science that have left other areas seemingly undisturbed. But this interconnectedness is a reality and explains why scientific theories are so resistant to change. Scientists realize that changing one portion requires, at the very least, making some accommodations in theories that are connected to it, and it is this process of adjustments that takes time and effort and prevents trivial events from triggering changes.

This is why it usually requires a major crisis in an existing theory for scientists to even consider replacing it with a new one. The five cases raised by ID advocates do not come close to creating that kind of crisis. They are like flies in the path of a lumbering evolutionary theory elephant, minor irritants that can be ignored or swatted away easily.

Iran’s president poses some tough questions for Bush

During the run up to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the leaders of those countries tried to open a dialogue with the Bush administration but were summarily rebuffed, since Bush and his neoconservative clique were determined to go to war from the get-go and all their posturing about preferring diplomacy have been revealed to be just that – posturing. The media was complicit in this dismissal of possibilities for peaceful resolution, hardly ever reporting the full extent of the overtures that those governments made to the US.

We see the same thing being repeated with Iran. The latest example is the way the Iranian President Mahmood Ahmadi-Nejad’s letter to Bush is being portrayed and dismissed. I think it is important for people to not depend on selective quotes released by interested parties or the interpretations of the media without also reading the original documents and making judgments for themselves. The full text of the translated letter can be seen here.

The letter is mixture of politics, philosophy, and religion. On the issue of nuclear technology, Ahmadi-Nejad asks a pertinent question:

Why is it that any technological and scientific achievement reached in the Middle East
 regions is translated into and portrayed as a threat to the Zionist regime? Is not scientific 
R&D one of the basic rights of nations.

You are familiar with history. Aside from the Middle Ages, in what other point in history has
 scientific and technical progress been a crime? Can the possibility of scientific achievements being utilised for military purposes be reason enough to oppose science and technology altogether? If such a supposition is true, then all scientific disciplines, including physics, chemistry, mathematics, medicine, engineering, etc. must be opposed.


He may have suspected that he was over-estimating Bush’s familiarity with history (despite majoring in it at Yale), so he helpfully provides him with a Cliff notes version of Iranian grievances against the US, many of which are likely to be also unfamiliar to most Americans:

The brave and faithful people of Iran too have many questions and grievances, including: the 
coup d’etat of 1953 and the subsequent toppling of the legal government of the day, opposition to the Islamic revolution, transformation of an Embassy into a headquarters supporting, the activities of those opposing the Islamic Republic (many thousands of pages of
 documents corroborates this claim), support for Saddam in the war waged against Iran, the shooting down of the Iranian passenger plane, freezing the assets of the Iranian nation, increasing threats, anger and displeasure vis-à-vis the scientific and nuclear progress of the Iranian nation (just when all Iranians are jubilant and collaborating their country’s progress),
and many other grievances that I will not refer to in this letter.

Ahmadi-Nejad’s political analysis can be quite shrewd. For example, he provides a checklist of things by which he thinks a country’s leaders should be judged and it is hard to quarrel with it. But he has clearly selected the items in the list to hit Bush at all the points where he knows he is weak.

[M]y main contention – which I am hoping you will agree to some of
 it – is: Those in power have specific time in office, and do not rule indefinitely, but their names will
 be recorded in history and will be constantly judged in the immediate and distant futures. The people will scrutinize our presidencies.

Did we manage to bring peace, security and prosperity for the people or insecurity and
 unemployment?

Did we intend to establish justice, or just supported especial interest groups, and by forcing 
many people to live in poverty and hardship, made a few people rich and powerful – thus 
trading the approval of the people and the Almighty with theirs?



Did we defend the rights of the underprivileged or ignore them?

Did we defend the rights of all people around the world or imposed wars on them, interfered illegally in their affairs, established hellish prisons and incarcerated some of them?

Did we bring the world peace and security or raised the specter of intimidation and threats?



Did we tell the truth to our nation and others around the world or presented an inverted
 version of it?

Were we on the side of people or the occupiers and oppressors?



Did our administration set out to promote rational behaviour, logic, ethics, peace, fulfilling 
obligations, justice, service to the people, prosperity, progress and respect for human dignity
 or the force of guns.

Intimidation, insecurity, disregard for the people, delaying the progress and excellence of other nations, and trample on people’s rights?

And finally, they will judge us on whether we remained true to our oath of office – to serve
 the people, which is our main task, and the traditions of the prophets – or not?
. . .
If billions of dollars spent on security, military campaigns and troop movement were instead spent on investment and assistance for poor countries, promotion of health, combating different diseases, education and improvement of mental and physical fitness, assistance to the victims of natural disasters, creation of employment opportunities and production, development projects and poverty alleviation, establishment of peace, mediation between disputing states and distinguishing the flames of racial, ethnic and other conflicts were would the world be today? Would not your government, and people be justifiably proud? Would not your administration’s political and economic standing have been stronger? And I am most sorry to say, would there have been an ever increasing global hatred of the American governments?

No wonder the administration is downplaying the letter. It is hard to see Bush being able to answer these questions.

The letter then veers off into religious talk and appeals to the one thing he says they have in common, the way religious beliefs of Bush and Ahmadi-Nejad influence their political actions. And he is right, he does seem to have a lot in common with Bush and the religious fundamentalists in the US, even to the extent of quoting religious texts in support of public policy. For example,

We believe a return to the teachings of the divine prophets is the only road leading to salvations. I have been told that Your Excellency follows the teachings of Jesus (PBUH), and 
believes in the divine promise of the rule of the righteous on Earth.

We also believe that Jesus Christ (PBUH) was one of the great prophets of the Almighty. He 
has been repeatedly praised in the Koran. Jesus (PBUH) has been quoted in Koran as well; [19,36] And surely Allah is my Lord and your Lord, therefore serves Him; this is the right
 path, Marium.

(Note: PBUH stands for Peace Be Upon Him, and is used by devout Muslims whenever they refer to a revered figure. I don’t know what ‘Marium’ means but it is also probably some religious convention.)

Ahmadi-Nejad even throws in some oblique allusions to the Rapture, speaking of the “belief in the Last Day,” and continues:

The day will come when all humans will congregate before the court of the Almighty, so that
 their deeds are examined. The good will be directed towards Haven and evildoers will meet
 divine retribution.

He even shares Bush’s disdain for the trappings of liberalism and western style democracy, and enthusiastically trumpets the advantages of a theocratic state:

Liberalism and Western style democracy have not been able to help realize the ideals of
 humanity. Today these two concepts have failed. Those with insight can already hear the
 sounds of the shattering and fall of the ideology and thoughts of the liberal democratic
 systems. We increasingly see that people around the world are flocking towards a main focal point -
that is the Almighty God.

(The slight difference between Bush and Ahmadi-Nejad is that Bush still pays lip-service to democracy while undermining it with actions that reflect his belief that he is above the law and can thumb his nose at the courts and the US constitution.)

It is not comforting to think that issues of war and peace are being determined by two leaders who think that liberal democracy is useless, and use religious texts as a source of their policy decision-making.

Read James Wolcott and Justin Raimondo for what the media here left out in their reporting of the Iranian leader’s letter.

And if you have the time, check out the Iranian President’s official website which has a nice Photoshopped picture of him writing a letter at his desk, while in the same room in the corner Bush is seated in a chair thoughtfully reading the letter. Which immediately raised the thought in my mind: Did Bush actually read the letter? Or did some aide give him a one-paragraph summary or a set of bullet points?

POST SCRIPT: Traveling

For the next two or three weeks I will be traveling to Australia and New Zealand to visit family, friends, and the occasional kangaroo, koala bear, and kiwi.

My access to a computer will be somewhat erratic during these days and I will be unable to post any original material. As a result, until my return I will be re-running some of my favorite posts from the very early days of this blog, which may be original for those who started visiting here later.

Burden of proof-3: The role of negative evidence

In my previous post, I suggested that in science, the burden of proof lies with the proponent for the existence of some thing. The default assumption is non-existence. So if you propose the existence of something like electromagnetic radiation or neutrinos or N-rays, then you have to provide some positive evidence that it exists of a kind that others can try to replicate.

But not all assertions, even in science, need meet that positive evidence standard. Sometimes negative evidence, what you don’t see, is important too. Negative evidence is best illustrated by the famous Sherlock Holmes story Silver Blaze, in which the following encounter occurs:

Gregory [Scotland Yard detective]: “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”

There are times when the absence of evidence can be suggestive. This is true with the postulation of universal laws. The substance of such laws (such as that the total energy is conserved) is that they hold in every single instance. But we cannot possibly examine every possibility. The reason that we believe these types of laws to hold is because of negative evidence, what we do not see. If someone postulates the existence of a universal law, the absence of evidence that contradicts it is taken as evidence in support of the law. There is a rule of thumb that scientists use that if something can happen, it will happen. So if we do not see something happening, that suggests that there is a law that prevents it. This is how laws such as baryon and lepton number conservation originated.

Making inferences from absence is different from proving a negative about the existence of something, be it N-rays or god. You can never prove that an entity doesn’t exist. So at least at the beginning, it is incumbent on the person who argues for the existence of something to provide at least some evidence in support of it. The case for the existence of entities (like neutrinos or X-rays or god) requires positive evidence. Once that has been done beyond some standard of reasonable doubt, then the burden can shift to those who argue for non-existence, to show why this evidence is not credible.

This rule about evidence was not followed in the run up to the attack on Iraq. The Bush administration simply asserted that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction without providing credible evidence of it. They then (aided by a compliant media) managed to frame the debate so that the burden of proof shifted to those who did not believe the weapons existed. Even after the invasion, when the weapons did not turn up, Donald Rumsfeld famously said “There’s another way to phrase that and that is that the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. It is basically saying the same thing in a different way. Simply because you do not have evidence that something does exist does not mean that you have evidence that it doesn’t exist.” But he was wrong. When you are asserting the existence of an entity, if you have not provided any evidence that they do exist, then the absence of evidence is evidence of absence.

It is analogous to criminal trials. People are presumed innocent until proven guilty, and the onus is on the prosecution to first provide some positive evidence. Once that is done, the accused usually has to counter it in some way to avoid the risk that the jury will find the evidence sufficiently plausible to find the accused guilty.

So the question boils down to whether believers in a god have provided prima facie evidence in support of their thesis, sufficient to shift the burden to those who do not believe in god to show why this evidence is not convincing. Personal testimony by itself is usually not sufficient in courts, unless it is corroborated by physical evidence or direct personal observation by other credible sources who have observed the same phenomenon.

One of the common forms of evidence that is suggested is that since many, many people believe in the existence of god, that should count as evidence. My feeling is that that is not sufficient. After all, there have been universal beliefs that have subsequently been shown to be wrong, such as that the Earth was located at the center of the universe.

Has the evidence for god met the standard that we would accept in science or in a court of law? I personally just don’t see that it has but that is a judgment that each person must make. Of course, people can choose to not require that the evidence for god meet the same standard as for science or law, and if that is the case, then that pretty much ends the discussion. But at least we can all agree as to why we disagree.

Burden of proof-2: What constitutes evidence for god?

If a religious person is asked for evidence of god’s existence, the type of evidence presented usually consist of religious texts, events that are inexplicable according to scientific laws (i.e., miracles), or personal testimonies of direct experience of god. Actually, this can be reduced to just two categories (miracles and personal testimonies) since religious texts can be considered either as miraculously created (in the case of the Koran or those who believe in Biblical inerrancy) or as the testimonies of the writers of the texts, who in turn recorded their own or the testimonies of other people or report on miraculous events. If one wants to be a thoroughgoing reductionist, one might even reduce it to one category by arguing that reports of miracles are also essentially testimonies.

Just being a testimony does not mean that the evidence is invalid. ‘Anecdotal evidence’ often takes the form of testimony and can be the precursor to investigations that produce other kinds of evidence. Even in the hard sciences, personal testimony does play a role. After all, when a scientist discovers something and publishes a paper, that is kind of like a personal testimony since the very definition of a research publication is that it incorporates results nobody else has yet published. But in science those ‘testimonies’ are just the starting point for further investigation by others who try to recreate the conditions and see if the results are replicated. In some cases (neutrinos), they are and in others (N-rays) they are not. So in science, testimonies cease to be considered as such once independent researchers start reproducing results under fairly well controlled conditions.

But with religious testimonies, there is no such promise of such replicability. I recently had a discussion with a woman who described to me her experiences of god and described something she experienced while on a hilltop in California. I have no reason to doubt her story but even she would have thought I was strange if I asked her exactly where the hilltop was and what she did there so that I could try and replicate her experience. Religious testimonies are believed to be intensely personal and unique and idiosyncratic, while in science, personal testimony is the precursor to shared, similar, consistently reproducible experiences, under similar conditions, by an ever-increasing number of people.

The other kind of experience (miracles) again typically consists of unique events that cannot be recreated at will. All attempts at finding either a consistent pattern of god’s intervention in the world (such as the recent prayer study) or unambiguous violations of natural laws have singularly failed. All we really have are the stories in religious texts purporting to report on miraculous events long ago or the personal testimonies of people asserting a miraculous event in their lives.

How one defines a miracle is also difficult. It has to be more than just a highly improbable event. Suppose someone is seriously ill with cancer and the physicians have given up hope. Suppose that person’s family and friends pray to god and the patient suffers a remarkable remission in the disease. Is that a miracle? Believers would say yes, but unbelievers would say not necessarily, asserting that the body has all kinds of mechanisms for fighting disease that we do not know of. So what would constitute an event that everyone would consider a miracle?

Again, it seems to me that it would have to have the quality of replicability to satisfy everyone. If for a certain kind of terminal disease, a certain kind of prayer done under certain conditions invariably produced a cure where medicine could not, then that would constitute a good case for a miracle, because that would be hard to debunk, at least initially. As philosopher David Hume said: “No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish…” (On Miracles)

But even this is problematical, especially for believers who usually do not believe in a god who acts so mechanically and can be summoned at will. Such predictable behavior is more symptomatic of the workings of as-yet-unknown natural laws than of god. The whole allure of belief in god is that god can act in unpredictable ways, to cause the dead to come back to life and the Earth to stop spinning.

So both kinds of evidence (miracles and testimonies) used to support belief in a god are inadequate for what science requires as evidentiary support.

The divide between atheists and religious believers ultimately comes down to whether an individual feels that all beliefs should meet the same standards that we accept for good science or whether we have one set of standards for science or law, and another for religious beliefs. There is nothing that compels anyone to choose either way.

I personally could not justify to myself why I should use different standards. Doing so seemed to me to indicate that I was deciding to believe in god first and then deciding on how to rationalize my belief later. Once I decided to use the yardstick of science uniformly across all areas of knowledge and see where that leads, I found myself agreeing with Laplace that I do not need the god hypothesis.

In a future posting, I will look at the situation where we can infer something from negative evidence, i.e., when something does not happen.

POST SCRIPT: Faith healing

The TV show House had an interesting episode that deals with some of the issues this blog has discussed recently, like faith healing (part 1 and part 2) and what to make of people who say god talks to them.

Here is an extended clip from that episode that pretty much gives away the entire plot, so don’t watch it if you are planning to see it in reruns. But it gets to grips with many of the issues that are discussed in this blog.

House is not very sympathetic to the claims of the 15-year old faith healer that god talks to him. When his medical colleagues argue with House, saying that the boy is merely religious and does not have a psychosis, House replies “You talk to god, you’re religious. God talks to you, you’re psychotic.”

Burden of proof

If a religious person asks me to prove that god does not exist, I freely concede that I cannot do so. The best that I can do is to invoke the Laplacian principle that I have no need of hypothesizing god’s existence to explain things. But clearly most people feel that theydo need to invoke god in order to understand their lives and experience. So how can we resolve this disagreement and make a judgment about the validity of the god hypothesis?

Following a recent posting on atheism and agnosticism, I had an interesting exchange with commenter Mike that made me think more about this issue. Mike (who believes in god) said that in his discussions with atheists, they often were unable to explain why they dismissed god’s existence. He says: “I find that when asked why the ‘god hypothesis’ as Laplace called it doesn’t work for them, they often don’t know how to respond.”

Conversely, Mike was perfectly able to explain why he (and other believers) believed in god’s existence:

The reason is that we have the positive proof we need, in the way we feel, the way we think, the way we act, things that can’t easily be presented as ‘proof’. In other words, the proof comes in a different form. It’s not in a model or an equation or a theory, yet we experience it every day.

So yes, we can ask that a religious belief provide some proof, but we must be open to the possibility that that proof is of a form we don’t expect. I wonder how often we overlook a ‘proof’ – of god, of love or a new particle – simply because it was not in a form we were looking for – or were willing to accept.

Mike makes the point (with which I agree) that it is possible that we do not have the means as yet to detect the existence of god. His argument can be supported by analogies from science. We believe we were all bathed in electromagnetic radiation from the beginning of the universe but we did not realize it until Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism gave us a framework for understanding its existence and enabled us to design detectors to detect it.

The same thing happened with neutrinos. Vast numbers of them have been passing though us and the Earth but we did not know about their existence until the middle of the 20th century when a theory postulated their existence and detectors were designed that were sensitive enough to observe them.

So electromagnetic radiation and neutrinos existed all around us even during the long period of time when no one had any idea that they were there. Why cannot the same argument be applied to god? It can, actually. But does that mean that god exists? I think we would all agree that it does not, anymore than my inability to prove that unicorns do not exist implies that they do. All that this argument does is leave open the possibility of a hitherto undetected existence.

But the point of departure between science and religion is that in the case of electromagnetic radiation and neutrinos, their existence was postulated simultaneously along with suggestions of how and where anyone could look for them. If, after strenuous efforts, they could still not be detected, then scientists would cease to believe in their existence. But eventually, evidence for their existence was forthcoming from many different sources in a reproducible manner.

What if no such evidence was forthcoming? This has happened in the past with other phenomena, such as in 1903 with something called N-rays, which were postulated and seemed to have some evidentiary support initially, but on closer examination were found to be spurious. This does not prevent people from still believing in the phenomenon, but the scientific community would proceed on the assumption that it does not exist.

In the world of science the burden of proof is always on the person arguing for the existence of whatever is being proposed. If that evidence is not forthcoming, then people proceed on the assumption that the thing in question does not exist (the Laplacian principle). It is in parallel to the legal situation. We know that in the legal context in America, the presumption is that of innocence until proven guilty. This results in a much different kind of investigation and legal proceedings than if the presumption were guilty until proven innocent.

So on the question of god’s existence, it seems to me that it all comes down to the question of who has the burden of proof in such situations. Is the onus on the believer, to prove that god exists? Or on the atheist to argue that the evidence provided for god’s existence is not compelling? In other words, do we draw a parallel with the legal situation of ‘presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt’ and postulate a principle ‘non-existence until existence is proven beyond a reasonable doubt’? The latter would be consistent with scientific practice.

As long as we disagree on this fundamental question, there is little hope for resolution. But even if we agree that the burden of proof is the same for religion as for science, and that the person postulating existence of god has to advance at least some proof in support, that still does not end the debate. The question then shifts to what kind of evidence we would consider to be valid and what constitutes ‘reasonable doubt.’.

In the next few postings, we will look at the kinds of evidence that might be provided and how we might evaluate them.

Driving etiquette

Now that the summer driving season is upon us, and I am going to be on the highway today, here are some musings on driving.

Driving means never being able to say you’re sorry

We need a non-verbal sign for drivers to say “I’m sorry.” There have been times when I have inadvertently done something stupid or discourteous while driving, such as changing lanes without giving enough room and thus cutting someone off or accidentally blowing the horn or not stopping early enough at a stop sign or light and thus creating some doubt in the minds of other drivers as to whether I intended to stop. At such times, I have wanted to tell the other driver that I was sorry for unsettling them, but there is no universally recognized gesture to do so.

If we want to thank someone, the raised flat upturned palm works. And there are so many ways to show annoyance at others, ranging from blaring the horn, angry yells, and rude gestures. But there is nothing that says sorry. I think we need one.

Any suggestions?

Car friendliness

When I am walking along the street and pass someone, people almost always make eye-contact, nod, smile, and say “hello” or “how are you?” But when people are in cars, they studiously avoid giving any sign that other people exist. If you stop at a light next to another car, or are cruising along a highway parallel to another car, everyone stares straight ahead. If by chance you make eye-contact, people quickly look away. Why this difference?

It is as if the inside of a car is considered a zone of privacy, although it is almost as public as standing in the street. I am not sure why this is but it does explain why people do things in cars (eat, read, comb their hair, put on makeup, pick their teeth, check for zits, etc.) that they might not normally do in public.

The only exceptions to this rule seem to be if there are friendly-looking dogs or small children in the car. The owners of such dogs tend to welcome attention, and nods and smiles are exchanged. Small children will also wave cheerily to you.

I have been trying a small experiment these last few days. I decided that when I stop at lights or am in a traffic jam, I would glance around and if I make eye-contact with people in adjoining cars, I would smile and nod, just as if I were passing them in the street. Interestingly, only one person so far has made eye contact with me, and we exchanged smiles and nods. Everyone else stares straight ahead, sometimes rapidly turning away after a very brief look.

I hope no one reports me to the police as this weird guy who is smiling at them while driving.

Merging on highways

I am sure everyone has experienced this on highways. You are driving along and see a sign that says your lane is closed ahead and to merge into the adjacent lane. What you will observe is that traffic in your lane will slow down and even stop long before the actual merge point, as drivers seek to blend into the other lane.

It seems to me that the most efficient thing to do is to drive right up to the point where your lane ends and then merge. If you start merging earlier, you are effectively making the amount of highway that has a reduced number of lanes even longer than it is, and thus slowing down your journey even more. But although no one has explicitly told me this, I get the feeling that to do this is impolite, as if I am jumping the queue. So although I feel that the sensible thing to do is to cruise right up to the end and then merge, I succumb to this pressure and merge earlier. Of course, it increases travel time usually by just a few minutes so time is not primarily the issue. The issue is why it seems to be considered impolite to merge early.

Could we start spreading the word that it is actually more sensible for everyone to merge as late as possible?

Madman theory: Bush and god

Recently trial balloons have been floated by the administration that they are seeking to carry out an attack on Iran, even to the extent of using nuclear ‘bunker buster’ bombs. Seymour Hersh reports in The New Yorker that: “One of the military’s initial option plans, as presented to the White House by the Pentagon this winter, calls for the use of a bunker-buster tactical nuclear weapon, such as the B61-11, against underground nuclear sites.”

This revelation naturally prompts the question “Are they insane?” And that prompts the further question “Does the administration want people to think that Bush is insane as a means of achieving some goals?” Now it is true that the Pentagon develops contingency plans for all kinds of bizarre scenarios (even involving invading Canada) but Hersh’s article seems to indicate that these contingency plans are operational which implies a greater likelihood of being actually implemented.

Faking insanity, or at least recklessness, to achieve certain ends has a long history, both in fact and fiction. Hamlet did it. President Nixon, frustrated by the indomitable attitude of the Vietnamese forces opposing the US tried the same tactic, hoping that it would cause the North Vietnamese to negotiate terms more palatable to the US because of fears that he would do something stupid and extreme, such as use a nuclear weapon. (See here for a review of the use of ‘madman theory’ to achieve political ends.) Nixon also liked to talk about his religion but in his case it was to refer to his own Quaker background, to exploit that religious groups’ reputation for strong ethical behavior, at a time when his own ethics were under severe scrutiny.

Bush does have one advantage over Nixon in making his madman theory more plausible in that he has put the word out earlier that god had chosen him to be president. In 2003, a news report says that “Bush believes he was called by God to lead the nation at this time, says Commerce Secretary Don Evans, a close friend who talks with Bush every day.” Bush’s claims to close links with god have been reported periodically.

More recently, it was revealed that god is so chummy with Bush that he even calls him by his first name. (I mean that god calls Bush by his first name, of course, not the other way around. Bush has probably given god a nickname like he gives everyone else.) During these chats god tells him what to do. In a BBC program, Nabil Shaath who met with Bush as part of a delegation is quoted as saying:

President Bush said to all of us: ‘I’m driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, “George, go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan.” And I did, and then God would tell me, “George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq. . .” And I did. And now, again, I feel God’s words coming to me, “Go get the Palestinians their state and get the Israelis their security, and get peace in the Middle East.” And by God I’m gonna do it.’

What are we to make of something that reads like Tuesdays with God? Those of us who are atheists would say that Bush is either lying about his tete-a-tetes with the almighty to pander to his extremist religious base or suffers from the same kind of delusions that cause some people to see the Virgin Mary in a slice of toast, neither of which is reassuring for those of us who seek a more down-to-earth basis for actions by political leaders, especially those who have the power to cause tremendous damage.

Of course, all of our actions are influenced by our beliefs and values, and for religious people their religious beliefs are bound to be influential in the principles that guide their decision making. That is not the question here. The question is whether even religious people are reassured when Bush says that he took some concrete action because god specifically directed him to do so.

Somehow, even if I were still religious, I would still be uneasy about political leaders claiming to be acting under direct instructions from god because we know that schizophrenics also sometimes think they hear such voices. People who claim to have their actions explicitly directed by god are usually considered to be delusional and at worst insane.

But I am curious as to what religious people think of Bush’s claims to have this kind of hotline to god. Are they pleased? Or, despite their own religious beliefs, are they uneasy? It would be interesting to survey religious people with this question: “If Bush says god told him to attack Iran, would that be sufficient justification for you to support such an action?”

The basic question for religious people, even if they do not think Bush is lying, is how they judge whether the voices Bush claims to hear are really from the deity or due to some chemical imbalance in his brain.

Dover’s dominoes-7: The Ohio domino falls

(This is the final installment of the series, which got pre-empted by more topical items. Sorry! See part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6.)

The domino effect of the Dover verdict was seen soon after in Ohio where on February 14, 2006 the Ohio State Board of Education reversed itself and threw out the benchmarks in the state’s science standards that called for the critical analysis of evolution and the lessons plans that had been based on them. This happened even though the Ohio policy did not explicitly mention intelligent design. However, the move was clearly influenced by the ripples from the Dover trial and it is instructive to see why.

What Ohio had done in 2002 was to include a benchmark in its 9th grade biology standards in the section that dealt with biological evolution that said “Describe how scientists continue to investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory.” They added additional language that said (in parentheses) “The intent of this benchmark does not mandate the teaching or testing of intelligent design.”

The pro-IDC OBE members also inserted people into the lesson plan writing team who drafted a lesson plan called Critical Analysis of Evolution that essentially recycled IDC ideas, again without explicitly mentioning intelligent design.

But on February 14, 2006, the Ohio Board of Education voted 11-4 to reverse itself and eliminate both the benchmark and its associated lesson plan. Why did they do so since, as some pro-IDC people on the Board said, they should have nothing to fear from the Dover decision since they had carefully avoided requiring the teaching of IDC?

Again, Judge Jones’ ruling indicates why. In his ruling, he said that what determines whether a law passes constitutional muster is how an informed observer would interpret the law. He said (Kitzmiller, p. 15):

The test consists of the reviewing court determining what message a challenged governmental policy or enactment conveys to a reasonable, objective observer who knows the policy’s language, origins, and legislative history, as well as the history of the community and the broader social and historical context in which the policy arose.

In the case of challenges to evolutionary theory, he looked at precedent and especially (p. 48) at:

a factor that weighed heavily in the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the balanced-treatment law in Edwards, specifically that “[o]ut of many possible science subjects taught in the public schools, the legislature chose to affect the teaching of the one scientific theory that historically has been opposed by certain religious sects.”

He went on (p. 57):

In singling out the one scientific theory that has historically been opposed by certain religious sects, the Board sent the message that it “believes there is some problem peculiar to evolution,” and “[i]n light of the historical opposition to evolution by Christian fundamentalists and creationists[,] . . . the informed, reasonable observer would infer the School Board’s problem with evolution to be that evolution does not acknowledge a creator.”

Notice that the standard used for judging is what an ‘informed, reasonable observer’ would infer from the action. IDC advocates tend to implement their strategy by carefully choosing words and sentences so that it meets the letter of the law and thus hope it will pass constitutional scrutiny. But what Judge Jones says is that it is not merely how the law is worded but also how a particular kind of observer, who is assumed to be much more knowledgeable about the issues than your average person in the street, would interpret the intent of the law:

The test consists of the reviewing court determining what message a challenged governmental policy or enactment conveys to a reasonable, objective observer who knows the policy’s language, origins, and legislative history, as well as the history of the community and the broader social and historical context in which the policy arose. (emphasis added)

And this is the most damaging part of the verdict to the ID case. Their strategy has always been to single out evolutionary theory in science for special scrutiny in order to undermine its credibility. They have never called for ‘teaching the controversy’ in all the other areas of science. Judge Jones said that since an ‘informed, reasonable observer’ would know that Christians have had long-standing objections to evolutionary theory on religious grounds, singling it out for special treatment is tantamount to endorsing a religious viewpoint.

In a further telling statement that has direct implications for the Discovery Institute’s ‘teach the controversy’ strategy, he said (p. 89):

ID’s backers have sought to avoid the scientific scrutiny which we have now determined that it cannot withstand by advocating that the controversy, but not ID itself, should be taught in science class. This tactic is at best disingenuous, and at worst a canard. The goal of the IDM [Intelligent Design Movement] is not to encourage critical thought, but to foment a revolution which would supplant evolutionary theory with ID.

There is no way to see the Dover ruling as anything but a devastating blow to the whole stealth strategy promoted by the Discovery Institute. After all, their strategy had precisely been to single out evolutionary theory for special treatment. They have resolutely opposed any attempt to call for ‘critical analysis’ and ‘teaching the controversy’ in all areas of science.

What will they do in response? It is hard to say. My guess is that they will put all their efforts into supporting the policy adopted by the Kansas school board, which was done according to their preferences, unlike the ham-handed efforts of the people of Dover, El Tejon, and Kirk Cameron’s friend and the banana. (I had not known who Kirk Cameron was before this. I have been informed that he used to be a TV sitcom actor before he saw the light.)

The next domino is the science standards adopted by Kansas’s Board of Education. I have not looked too closely at what the school board decided there, so will defer commenting on it until I do so. But it is likely to end up in the courts too.

POST SCRIPT: More on The Israel Lobby article

A few days ago, I wrote about the stir created by the Mearsheimer and Walt article on The Israel Lobby and the petition started by Juan Cole to defend them against charges of anti-Semitism.

In the May 15, 2006 issue of The Nation, Philip Weiss has a good analysis titled Ferment Over ‘The Israel Lobby’ on the personalities of the authors and the other people involved, what went on behind the scenes of the article prior to and after its publication, and why it had the effect it did.