Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Nature Of Truth And Evidence

To discover the truth of anything requires a careful examination of evidence, information that either confirms or negates the theory under consideration. However compelling or abundant the evidence may be, it is very easy to go wrong.

There are three major reasons for these wrong conclusions.

First, people sometimes resist the evidence and come, with great conviction, to a wrong conclusion. Second, the evidence itself may seem to strongly support a particular conclusion, even though it is wrong. Third, many times there is such a wild overabundance of evidence that it can be used to support any conclusion at all.

Here’s an example of the first error:

I have noticed that women in Bangkok are much less likely to ride motorcycles than women in smaller municipalities. My opinion is based on eight years of observation, and I find the evidence consistent and compelling. In smaller locations, approximately half of motorcycle riders are women; in Bangkok it is closer to ten, or maybe fifteen percent. A huge difference.

But if I were to express this opinion to a new visitor to Thailand, it is likely that they would look around for themselves and seek to challenge the information. They would quickly see a woman or two riding motorcycles, and many more sitting in the passenger position. It is possible that they could thereby conclude that Khun Fred is full of shit, plenty of women ride motorcycles in Bangkok. Not exactly what I was saying, but you know people love to be contrary, and in that mode a little bit of evidence can seem compelling.

The second error is even stronger. An example:

I raised two sons in Los Angeles, in a neighborhood that was, at the time, full of backyard fruit trees. My own backyard had two orange trees, two plum trees, and an apricot tree. Other backyards were similarly decked out. There were lots of boys on the block, so my sons were always running around with groups of from five to eight boys, looking for things to do. Backyard fruit fights were common.

Surely these fruit fights were discouraged by the adults, me included. They made quite a mess. Sometimes the boys would enter a backyard where no children lived and make themselves at home, making mischief and a mess. One day I went into my backyard and discovered several oranges at a great distance from the base, or even the leaf line, of the tree, something like twenty or thirty feet away. I was sure that they got there by being thrown.

Based on this seemingly strong evidence, I confronted my sons. Both denied any involvement. Just as I was explaining to them that oranges just don’t get up and walk around by themselves, encouraging them to come clean, an orange fell out of one of the trees. It landed close to the trunk of the tree, on a root that rose out of the ground, making a little ramp as it were. The orange hit just right, it sailed across the ground with great energy, coming to rest a full twenty five feet from the base of the tree.

Found wrong, I admitted it and apologized. Smoking gun right there! Right up to the end though, I found that the evidence had strongly supported the occurrence of a fruit fight.

The third error is perhaps the most common. Examples abound:

Look at the O.J. Simpson trial, the original murder trial. That thing went on forever and a day, and the jury was subjected to tons of evidence. Too much, as it turned out. They were overwhelmed, they just threw up their hands and said, “reasonable doubt!” The doubt had been engendered by the superabundance of evidence.

Another example would be people’s various reactions to the proposition that Islam is a violent religion. An examination of any culture’s history for over a thousand years will yield lots of instances of peaceful behavior, as well as lots of evidence of violent behavior. There’s plenty of evidence to go around, use it variously to prove any old thing that you want to.

So be reasonable, and be skeptical, and sift the evidence carefully if there’s too much of it.

There is, I suppose, a fourth possibility. One that I alluded to in a recent post about the danger of taking one’s opinions from the directions of others.

Sometimes the evidence of something is explained to people in a strange, counterintuitive way, and they are induced to adopt a wrong conclusion, often one that is not in their best interest. Those politicians again, and those religious leaders, oh! those rascals can make mischief like bees make honey. They remind me of the con man in that W.C. Fields movie, “Never Give a Sucker an Even Break.” “You know,” he says ingratiatingly, wringing his hat in his hands, “I want to prove to you that I’m honest in the worst way.”

The great mass of people are very gullible, this is a famous fact. People want to be led. Why take a chance on being wrong? Let someone else tell you how to think. Let someone else explain it all to you. Most people just want to look around and see which way the wind is blowing, which side is likely to come out on top, and then jump on the bandwagon. Human nature, yeech.

So the next time someone holds up a green thing, and tells you that it is red, trust your own eyes and your judgment too. Especially if the someone is courting your vote. Mischief is in the air this year, Alas Babylon! Don’t let that flag fool you, and pay attention to the man behind the curtain, yes, pay attention. And good luck.

No comments: