Friday, February 06, 2009

Prove It

In science, as in formal debate, both activities that are grounded in logic and reason, the burden of proof for a theory or thesis rests on the affirmative.

That is, you say it's so, you have to prove that it is.

In science, you try to come up with a replicable experiment, one your peers can do that will produce the same or similar results. If you claim you have achieved fusion in a mayonnaise jar full of seawater, somebody else needs to be able to duplicate that, using your data. If nobody anywhere can, your theory dies the Death of a Thousand Laughs.

If you offer a thesis in a debate, you have to bolster it with evidence that will convince a panel of judges that you more nearly achieved that than not. All the negative really has to do is shake his head and say, "Nope, I don't believe it. Show me."

It's the opposite of the criminal system in this country, where you are presumed innocent until proven guilty. In debate, you are presumed to be full of crap until you demonstrate otherwise.

There are a lot of arguments that debaters use when they don't have the weight of evidence on their side. I won't give you the Latin names, but they involve such things as a) arguing from authority -- Well, my teacher said so, and he is an expert! b) circular reasoning -- You aren't smarter than I am because I am smarter than you! c) Attacks against the person arguing -- Yeah, well, you're an asshole, so we can discount anything you have to say. d) Straw-man, you argue against something that isn't really on the table: I'm against the war in Iraq. Really? Why do you hate our troops? e) rejecting facts as opinion: Well, everybody is entitled to their own opinion! Yeah, but not their own facts. You can believe the sun revolves around the Earth if you want, but no matter how many people believe that, it's still wrong.

I could go on, but if you want to see a list of what's good and not-good in debate, go here. You may find that you are inadvertently doing some of these things when you argue. (And like me, you might find that you do some of them on purpose ...)

Back when I was a private eye, the lawyers had one I liked. If you'd caught hubby sneaking around with a girlfriend and it got to divorce court, the lawyer on the other side, having no real defense, would sometimes ask what we called What-color-were-his-socks? questions. That is, things you didn't know, and couldn't, just to get you saying "I don't know." as many times as they could. The idea was that a judge would hear that and be swayed into thinking you weren't very observant, and maybe you had made a mistake. That's why when you were in the field, you took notes, pictures, and anything else that you could in case you had to defend it in court.

Smart judges would allow two or three of these and then tell the lawyer to move on. Wicked judges would sometimes let it go on for a long time, just because they liked watching a desperate lawyer dance ...

Me, I always like to describe the girlfriend as a "very attractive woman," just to watch her smile if she was sitting in the courtroom. I'm trying to nail her boyfriend for adultery, and she's grinning at my flattery. Look on the boyfriend's face was always interesting when he saw her smile.

Normally, when I proffer a thesis here on my blog, I am assuming the role of affirmative, so I have to offer what I consider evidence. There are all kinds of evidence, and some kinds are better than others. An undoctored real-time video beats a drunk eyewitness most of the time. Something accepted generally as fact -- that Earth/Sun thing and which one revolves around which -- carries more weight than, "Well, that's what my uncle said."

I once got into a wonderful argument with a man over a lunar eclipse. About which way the shadow went across the face of the moon, east to west or west to east. Man said, "Well, that depends on where you are, the angle."

Really? And which planet might you be standing on? Not this one. Not unless the local celestial bodies went into reverse when I wasn't looking.

Opinion based on accepted truth beats hearing it from God on your way home from the Safeway.

Elsewhere on the web, I sometimes take the negative position, and if folks don't come up with something that sways me, I figure they lose the argument. How I get that is this: If both sides of the exchange were printed out and given to a disinterested panel (and "disinterested" is not the same as "uninterested," please note) then I'd win the debate on points.

Had a couple of those lately. Fun stuff when you know you have the winning hand, though sometimes you learn more if you have the loosing side ...


Menduir said...

Being a nonconfrontational sort (some might say passive-aggressive), I prefer to ask questions rather than argue. If the person making claims can't answer the questions or contradicts themselves, then it leaves room for doubt.

Not to say they're necessarily wrong (sometimes the claim is correct even if it hasn't been proven yet) but if they're arguing without all the facts then I won't necessarily accept them at face value.

Oh, and if I catch someone using one of those logical fallacies and I *know* they know what they're doing, I pay a *lot* closer attention to what they're trying to sell me.

~ Jas.

Rory said...

It's tempting to do an article on the common logical fallacies. If enough people read it it might help the internet. Maybe.
My only nit in the post is that, by it's nature, the Scientific Method can only disprove false hypotheses. It is incapable of proving anything. Nature of the mechanism.

Personally, I have another issue- when someone puts out something so weak that it is obviously a defense mechanism and not an argument at all, I just let it go. Unless I actually dislike the person.

Steve Perry said...

Thing about debate is that, used correctly, it makes a interesting lens. You can't really argue some questions either way, they aren't open to the notion of proof or disproof. People who will split hairs to the nth degree and obey every rule of good debate on some things will eschew them totally on others.

You can't prove nor disprove the existence of God. If you have blind faith, that's a bulwark upon which all evidential attempts get dashed. If you don't, coming up with proof is nigh impossible. It always ends in a stalemate. So some, you let go.

I sometimes dig into abortion or gun control or other hot-button issues. Most people have decided upon a stance and it's a waste of time if you are thinking to change somebody's mind. Whatever you believe about abortion at the age of, say, thirty-five, you are apt to believe the rest of your life. The exercise can sharpen your critical skills, however, and sometimes is worth the effort.

People who are anti-abortion for any reason get through almost always for religious reasons. If you throw science at them, it doesn't stick. If they believe human life begins at the moment of conception, than any abortion is murder, even if the life of the mother is in peril. I find this stance barking mad.

People who hate/love guns believe the opposing view to be bleeding heart Volvo-driving pinko liberals or whiskey-swilling redneck crackers with Rebel flags on their pick-up truck.

A Volvo-driving liberal with a gun really throws both sides for a loop ...

Steve Perry said...

Well, the scientific method does work better most of the time at showing what doesn't fly, but it also offers much better heuristics than random chance. Fresh water might not always freeze at thirty-two degrees F. but that's the way the smart money bets.

A lot of theories improve your odds of getting to bed alive at the end of the day, and if you are going to pick an operating system, better to pick one that works most of the time and in a relatively predictable fashion.

Rather like Sherlock Holmes eliminating the impossible so that whatever is left, however improbable, is almost surely the solution.

Anything *might* be possible, but the notion that there is a golden-eyed red dragon circling around above my house getting ready to let loose a torrent of fire when I step outside the door isn't one I worry about much ...

Irene said...

Although Dirk Gentley did make a good point about how Holmes' approach falls down when it violates common sense.

Steve Perry said...

Common sense, alas, is seldom common. Much of what it is is the ability to discern reality informally -- you know the answer, but don't know how you know it. Like a math test problem, if you have to show the work, you can't but you have the right answer.

More often than not, you get it by unconsciously applying the syllogisms of reason that have always been there. Nobody invented logic, they merely codified the existing principles.

Worg said...

"by it's nature, the Scientific Method can only disprove false hypotheses. It is incapable of proving anything. Nature of the mechanism."

Say what? That seems to be a completely misunderstanding of what the scientific method is. Surely I'm not reading you right?

By that logic, nothing is capable of proving anything, and therefore proof becomes meaningless.

The Easter Bunny and the Manhattan Project are equally valid?

Steve Perry said...

Rory is splitting a very fine hair here. He likes pulling chains.

Steve Perry said...

Oh, and I think the quote I like about the internet is that it is proof that a million monkeys typing on a million typewriters will *not* produce Shakespeare ...

Menduir said...

"Like a math test problem, if you have to show the work, you can't but you have the right answer."

I always have to laugh at "show the work" comments when I remember the story (possibly apocryphal) that it took some math genius several hundred pages of proof to show that one plus one will always equal two.

I suppose there are a few things I'm willing to accept at face value.

"the internet is that it is proof that a million monkeys typing on a million typewriters will *not* produce Shakespeare ..."

Although they will produce a million theories why Shakespeare didn't produce "Shakespeare".


Tiel Aisha Ansari said...

Worg-- technically that's true. But science is also a consensus activity: when enough people have tried and failed to disprove a hypothesis, and when the hypothesis has generated some predictions that turn out to be true, people start to act as though the hypothesis were "proven". Because you can get good results by using it.

Worg said...

Yes, just like some people act like the law of gravity is proven, because you can get bad results if you try to float down a flight of stairs.

What you're talking about, and what science really is, is a process of successive refinement. A hypothesis is saying "the truth is most likely in this part here somewhere." Then, following experiments partition that piece further.

To say that science doesn't prove anything is petty sophistry. What's the definition of "is?" One way or another it's by far the best tool we have for understanding the world, and in fact it's the only thing that got us out of the dark ages, a time ruled by anti-intellectual religious zealots who killed people over proof by biblical fiat.

Dan Moran said...

A Volvo-driving liberal with a gun really throws both sides for a loop ...

I've been a conservative in the big city most of my life. The majority of the people around me are more liberal than I am.

Spent some time in the Deep South in my late 20s ... where I was just slightly to the right of Joseph Stalin, as far as the people I was working with could tell. Everything is relative ...

Reason and politics are only distantly related. In the rare cases when people agree that X is an important goal, you've got a shot at applying reason to solve the problem. But that doesn't happen often, and the rest of the time, A is looking to sabotage B -- and would rather see B fail in an inefficient way than succeed in an efficient one. Reason has no meaningful place in this process. Explaining to Bush boosters that the Bush administration's "science" wasn't, for example, is a non-starter. Either they know it already and liked it that way, or they didn't want to know it.

Rory said...

Worg- Not yanking chains. The scientific method is a very precise system and hasn't been improved since (Roger Bacon?).
1) Make your observations
2) State your question
3) Create a hypothesis
4)Design and conduct an experiment specifically to DISPROVE your hypothesis
5) Evaluate the results and return to step 3 or 4 depending on the results of the experiment.

It's the most powerful bullshit filter ever devised, but by it's nature it can never prove a hypothesis, only disprove a false one. A hypothesis that has been tested many times is considered 'robust'. That's why Darwin's Theory of Natural selection is still called a theory- despite the fact that there is no basis to really dispute it.

When you get into other aspects of experimental design there are systems to show causality, but that's a different thing.

For that matter, too many people confuse science, technology and the body of knowledge as the same thing.

Sorry for the tangent. Designing experiments (and analyzing them) was my major in college.

Worg said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Worg said...

"Darwin's Theory of Natural selection is still called a theory- despite the fact that there is no basis to really dispute it."

As you apparently know, theory has a very specific definition within the scientific community. It has a specific technical meaning, very different from that of office fantasy-football people arguing around the water cooler about why the Rams lost: "Yeah, well, that's just your theory."

According to science, gravity is only a theory.

The meaning is kind of similar to logical positivism, and linguistic systems such as E-Prime. When asked "What color is your car," they would answer "the side facing me appeared to be green, last time I checked it."

Really, they're the ones hairsplitting, not you. But the reason they do so is to avoid occasions of self-deception.

Natural selection may be "just a theory" but it's the most heavily supported theory in all of science. It's supported to such an extent that no serious scientist disputes it to any extent, and the scientists who do tend to have degrees from unaccredited universities located in tin chicken coops.

At some point, we just have to say "This is the answer we're going with, unless you can come up with something better."

This is what people like creationists don't understand. They can't simply postulate something, on the basis of zero evidence, and then claim that there's a controversy about it within the scientific community. The fact that they do so is absolutely laughable.

Steve Perry said...

Heinlein's Fair Witness ...

Worg said...

I argue a lot with creationists, on YouTube of all places. If you want a crash course in logical fallacies, they're the people to see.

And yeah. I never read "Harsh Mistress." Is it good? Never been much of a Heinlein fan since back when I thought "Between Planets" was the best book ever written.

Steve Perry said...

Stranger in a Strange Land, actually, if memory serves.

Worg said...

Yeah, you're right. And I knew that even as I was typing it. I am not the Heinlein guy. Maybe I should be but it seems like it's sort of from a bygone age.

Sally Shears killed the rock-ribbed space captain.