Differing Degrees of Evidence

There are two camps on the Internet when it comes to evaluating evidence. I’ll call them the uppers and downers. Both sides think they are on the side of science, reason, and logic. They both believe they base their decisions on data, scrutiny, and skepticism (especially the downers). Yet, for the most part, one side is right, and the other is wrong. (This does not mean that everything each side says is either wrong, or right—this will make a bit more sense later.)

Without knowing who or what the sides or what they stand for, what would the difference between the two sides be? Answer: accepting differing degrees of evidence.

As may be obvious by now: the uppers are the scientifically inclined; the downers the progressives and conservatives, many of whom deny or doubt evolution, think that vaccines are dangerous, and doubt the safety of GMOs and nuclear power, among a host of others issues.

How is it that one side (to be more accurate, one part of one side) advocates the homeopathic hypothesis, unchanging in over 200 years? While the upper hypothesis of the time has gone from the equally absurd notion that sickness and health depended on the interactions of the bodies’ store of black and yellow bile, phlegm, and blood, and wound up at a nuanced understanding of bio-physiology. (To the point where we can now transfer organs, create human insulin, print—yes, print, as in from a printer—bones and blood vessels, perform biopsies, reduce maternal and infant mortality by 99%, and a host of other benefits). That is no small difference. It is the difference between the pea on my plate last night at dinner and the solar system we all live.

The answer, to repeat it, is in accepting and holding differing degrees of evidence.

I think the best way to put it is that there is a continuum between open-mindedness and skeptical scrutiny. That is: one can be so open-minded that everything is accepted without critical inquiry, and so skeptical that nothing is accepted on any data. The difference lies where one pitches their respective flag on this continuum. Carl Sagan wrote once that science is based on finding the right balance between open-mindedness of new ideas and, simultaneously, a ruthless scrutiny of those thoughts. (In that respect, it is more like a two-step process—pitching two flags close to opposite ends and running a hypothesis through twice.) That is what makes science science: the proper application of both. Ascertaining what makes evidence good, reliable, and independent of culture, language, and subjectivity, or to put it simply, what makes evidence evidential.

The downer side, perhaps as a nod to postmodernism, think science is just one way of getting at the truth, that the plural of anecdote is data, and that common-sense holds more weight than rigorous experiment. Einstein famously called common-sense the collection of prejudices acquired by the age of 18. A question rarely explicated by those who hold common-sense in high-esteem is whose common sense should we use? Should we use Korean common sense where being in a closed room with a running fan means certain death? Maybe European common sense where GMOs are not biological? Or how about Bible-Belt American common-sense where it is assumed that if evolution is true, then monkeys should not be around? Lastly, maybe Brazilian common sense where a broom is placed behind a door to sweep away an unwanted visitor’s presence? It always makes sense when viewed from within the solipsism of one’s culture, but that is anything but objective.

This is the fundamental difference between the two sides. The uppers have struck a correct balance between open-mindedness of new ideas and ruthless scrutiny of those ideas to determine one’s degree of confidence in the theory. The downers have not. Though, before I get accused of scientism, this is not to say that everything science sticks its neck out for is correct, or that the current balance is pitch-perfect; just that, on the whole, science will get it right far more often not, and if given time, will almost always get it right.

As always, let me detail some examples:

The downers feel that any amount of mercury, even in the form of organic thimerosal, is unacceptable in vaccines and contributes to autism. They feel that methyl-mercury and ethyl-mercury are the same thing—after all, it makes sense as they both have the word mercury in it. They think that because methyl-mercury is a neurotoxin that one’s kidneys cannot filter out of one’s body, then ethyl-mercury must be at least similar—after all, only one letter was removed. The uppers, aware of the common-sense approach taken by others and maybe even taken in by them at first, wanted to test the hypothesis to ensure the integrity of public policy and social health. They wanted to make sure that we were not just falling for a post hoc ergo propter hoc rationalization (this happened after that; therefore, it was caused by that). The uppers commissioned and performed many studies and used statistical analysis of very public data to determine whether or not there was a significant correlation. They looked at millions of kids, unvaccinated and vaccinated alike, from many countries, and across socioeconomic levels to see if there was any correlation between autism and vaccination and found not even a hint of one. Given that, they were then able to move beyond the now failed hypothesis and give more weighting to other hypothesis’ such as the redefinition of autism that occurred in the 90s that preceded the uptick in autism rates. The downer side has not let go of their initial hypothesis and are now the laughing-stock of the medical world. The uppers, though they may have been taken in by the initial downer hypothesis, by way of their appropriate flag-planting, have ruled out mercury as a result, moved onto other more plausible hypothesis’, and are continuing the study of autism that in the future will benefit millions of children and families. The downers, on the other hand, in their insistence, and unable to pivot upon news of better evidence, have only placed public health in danger. This is because they are unable, or unwilling, to acknowledge the difference between methyl-mercury (bad) and ethyl-mercury (not bad).

The science side has correctly ascertained that the dose makes the poison, and the dose in one’s vaccines (which is minuscule and ably filtered out by one’s kidneys) have not posed any threat to human health, and are unlikely to in the future. Ethyl and methylmercury are two different things with different effects upon the body, and beyond that, the dose is the significant factor in ascertaining any biological effect. They have come to this conclusion using multitudes of good data. This data was sourced from dozens of studies that have looked at millions of children and used robust statistical analysis to ensure that the conclusion was drawn from, and did not overstep, the data. The same goes for formaldehyde, and the other ingredients that go into making a vaccine. The downers, perhaps taken in by their acceptance of homeopathy, think that any dose, no matter how small, poses an ever-increasing risk—especially the smaller the dose!—despite the fact there is no rigorous scientific research to accommodate that position. They have different standards of evidence. In this case, for the downers, that children get diagnosed with autism about the same time as they receive their vaccinations is evidence enough. They are wrong.

Not all scientific statements have equal weight as Carl Sagan once wrote, and there are differing degrees of evidence. The odds of an answer being correct in the absence of empirical verification—as is the case with the downer hypothesis: vaccines induce autism—are quite small. Science increases the odds that we are right and constantly course-corrects to get closer to the truth until such a time as people couldn’t imagine any other way of thinking.

Science is awesome!

10 comments

      1. My wife’s mother used to do it, but her mother (my wife’s grandmother) used to dive under the kitchen sink when a storm was approaching and beat pots and pans together until it’d passed. It worked every single time! Checkmate, heathen!

    1. That is above my pay-grade sir.

      Well, if I were to proffer some suggestions, I’d recommend no preconceived ideas taking Sherlock Holme’s idea of not theorizing until the evidence is in as a prime example. Listen to credentialed experts from the field in question (though that is not to say take their word for it!). Above all, accept that your conclusion, being that it is always based on a finite amount of evidence, can be wrong, and that future experiments may, no matter how unlikely, overturn the status quo. I’m sure you have some of your own. Sharing is caring Ryan 🙂

      1. My suggestion, I believe, is rather cliche and obvious: Education. We need to educate the future generations better. We need to provide examples of fallacious inferences that were based upon exiguous and misleading information. We need to train people to doubt; to examine everything impartially; and to always begin from a position of skepticism. Nothing should be inferred before all the relevant information available has been assessed. To do this, we need to promote and cultivate uncertainty. We need to demonstrate that uncertainty is comforting, not threatening. Until we do this, people will continue to assent to ideas that are congruous with their presupposed beliefs; rather than assenting to ideas despite their presupposed beliefs.

        That is my suggestion, though, I am ignorant as to the appropriate implementation.

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