Thursday, 4 June 2009

Violence of Truth

“Why is it that anything on this earth we do not understand we are pushed down on our knees to warship or to damn” (Matt Johnson)

A couple of recent and successive events have reminded me how oblivious people are to the things that make them believe in something. What is it, really, that make us accept one argument as truth and not the other? To me, a self declared skeptic, the answer seems dead obvious; yet it is clear this is not the case with most people.
Let’s start this story with the account of these successive events that made me write this post.

As our two year old Dylan has been the dominant force in my life for the past three years, this story starts with him. Again.
Since Dylan was three to four months old, we have been putting him to bed in sleeping bags. At the time we got into them because they were recommended as a means for reducing the risk SIDS, but since then we grew to like them more and more: Dylan associates them with sleeping, they are easy to deal with, and because he can’t untangle himself out of one we reduce the chances of him waking up cold and waking us up in the middle of the night (the thing every parent wants to avoid the most). Baby sleeping bags have been such a success we have changed models whenever Dylan grew out of them and have been regularly maintaining three sets of sleeping bags: one for hot weather, one for medium weather, and one for cold weather (the most useful set given Melbourne’s weather).
Yet despite the success they have proved to be, my family routinely raises doubts about the sleeping bags. Whenever Dylan is sick they harass me with anti sleeping bag questions and statements along the lines of “I have never heard of anyone using sleeping bags for their baby”. Obviously, they’ve never heard of me, which is where their problem lies:
My family is world renowned for never starting a morning without reading a couple of peer reviewed scientific papers published in reputable publications. They’re also famous for their highly intellectual peers, with whom they regularly debate philosophical mattes. I am being sarcastic, of course, but my point is that my family will accept what their peers tell them as truth no matter how insensible these things are, yet they will never accept what I tell them, regardless of the evidence I bring forth.
Given that it’s currently Melbourne winter, I was recently asked by a member of my family whether we warm Dylan’s room up at night. Again, it was an attempt to explain why he is sick so often. I answered that we warm it up to 18 degrees and in return I get the shocked reply aimed at making me think I have just performed genocide on my baby: Not only do I let him sleep in a sickness inducing sleeping bag, I also dare to heat his room only up to the temperature widely recommended for babies by the majority of medical authorities? How dare I!

The second incident took place at work. A colleague of mine had stumbled upon the copy of Scientific American I had on my desk waiting for my lunch break read. Having carefully studied the magazine’s cover he started what could have been a roller-coaster of a ride by moving on to inform me that evolution is just a theory which has never been proven.
Work code of conduct regulations aimed at keeping all employees comfortably numb with their set of beliefs, no matter how far these are from the objective truth, prevented me from standing up and giving everyone in my vicinity the speech I wanted to give. Instead, I questioned the guy’s perception on the concept of “proof” by asking whether Einstein’s Theory of Relativity has been proven.
Of course, was the answer; it was proved on numerous occasions. I moved in with the challenge: was it proved or is it “just” a case of the theory being able to explain various measurable phenomena, like the bending of light near the sun? And how do you deal with this so called proved theory’s inability to explain various things taking place at the quantum level?
I moved on to germ theory. Was that proved? Did anyone check to see that every case of a diseased person that has ever been pinned on a germ was truly the result of small living beings doing their worst? I doubt (but I'll welcome the news I'm in error) anyone had ever looked up a microscope to see a virus in the process of making a cell duplicate its RNA strands; it’s too small level a phenomena. It’s just that this theory explains how we become sick and how we become healthy; it explains a lot of things very well, so the evidence in its favor make us accept it as fact even though it cannot be proven in the exact mathematical sense.
The same applies to The Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. No, it cannot be proved in the strict mathematical sense, but yes – and that’s a big time yes – there is so much evidence to support it that you have to be either totally ignorant or a total fool to reject it as anything but real. The reason why people keep on picking on Evolution of all theories is that they are, indeed, ignorant and fools, fooled by their own religious beliefs.
The point I am trying to make is that information at our hands, in the shape of evidence and such, can never prove something to be absolutely right. With the exception of those of us who venture into space, none of us can be absolutely sure (absolutely being the key word) the earth is not flat; it’s just that the earth being round explains so many things so well. The satellite photos of the earth show it is round, but can you trust them a hundred percent? Some people don’t, as evidenced by the stupidly popular movement denouncing the Apollo moon landings as fake.
What evidence can do for us is to reduce our uncertainty. Gather enough evidence to support a claim beyond the threshold of disbelief and you might as well accept that claim as the objective truth. This is how our courts work: ask your favorite judge and they will tell you they are never absolutely sure about the verdicts they pass; they tend to aspire for 95% certainty.

In my case, and in the case of all rational people, the evidence in favour of evolution has reduced the uncertainty around it way past the threshold of disbelief. Yet a question still remains, what qualifies a piece of evidence, conveyed indirectly to us through quotes and news we stumble upon, to be viable evidence we can genuinely use to reduce our uncertainty in favor of accepting a certain argument as true?
The best advice I have received there comes from Bertrnad Russell’s book, Sceptical Essays. Russell is arguing that today’s world is too complicated for everyone to be an expert at everything, therefore necessitating the need for us to seek help with the experts of their respected fields. If the experts are in agreement, we should accept their opinion. If they disagree, we should suspend judgment; there is nothing wrong with suspending judgment when there is not enough evidence to support a certain claim.

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