Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Science Against Personal Testimony

While reading through a copy of the Austin Chronicle yesterday, I stumbled upon an interesting and somewhat horrifying statement: "Science does not trump the testimony of individuals." In what context did I find this little gem? Was it in a religious critique of some new atheist book? An article quoting one of the many scientifically-illiterate creationists on our State Board of Education? Actually, this statement comes from a Detroit prosecutor's defense of the incarceration of a man accused of rape, even after DNA evidence has cleared him.

The thing about science is that it absolutely trumps individual testimony, partly because that's the reason why we have it. Science is tremendously valuable for providing independent confirmation of subjective experiences. The medical field is rife with examples. Symptoms are cataloged, tests are conducted, and we come to appreciate that conditions like epilepsy are objectively real. Would it make any sense for a physician to accept the word of a patient who says they have epilepsy when they show none of the signs? Science serves as a means for evaluating the veracity of individual testimony.

Of course, the mystically-inclined don't like such an understanding of science. They want their healing crystals, ghost encounters, alien abductions, and religious visitations on equal footing with science, because having their own testimony called into question is just too much. Mind you, it's never really the experience itself that is being doubted, but merely the individual's interpretation of their experience that is called into question by skeptics. While science and its advocates are labeled as pompous and pretentious for raining on someone's delusion parade, is it not the epitome of self-righteous nausea to think that you are above being mistaken about your experiences?

It disturbs me to know that there are people out there like this prosecutor, who would prefer the word of some traumatized, fallible person over the impartial, hard evidence of DNA. Why is science allowed to be viewed with suspicion, yet the testimony of an emotionally fragile individual is not? This sort of lack of common sense and scientific literacy is what bothers me about the direction of American politics. Some may see little to no connection, but when science is placed below subjective experience - where many religious folk put it - this is precisely what happens. If you would trust DNA evidence against the word of a well-meaning but easily mistaken witness, then why wouldn't you trust science against other kinds of personal testimony?

We're happy to let science have its little corner away from the religion stuff, but the two don't like to stay separate for long. Perhaps it's because religion has tried to lay claim to many of the same truths that science has had the final say on. Or maybe it's because science relentlessly pursues the unknown, when religion is quite content to let it remain 'mysterious.' Nonetheless, individual testimony is only as valuable as the base of evidence that supports it. Science is not its enemy, but its companion. The sole reason for it to be seen as the enemy is when ideology fuels that testimony and finds itself in conflict with the truth.

Science has trumped the testimonies of human beings for centuries, and in many cases, it has helped to free innocent men and women, helped to give credence to their experiences, and much more.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Everything is Evidence of God? Even Michael Bay?

Admittedly, there are many things a religious believer can say that will get on my nerves. Usually they involve close-minded bigotry and hatred of others, but not always. Pascal's Wager can be supremely annoying when it's phrased in an arrogant tone, like the proponent thinks it's the first time anyone has ever gotten you to consider that you might be wrong. Another one of these irritating statements I encounter from time to time has recently been put to me on YouTube.

Your very existence is proof of a Creator. Look everywhere. Matter is proof. Light is proof. Life is proof. In fact, even civilization is proof. With all of your intelligence and reasoning, how could you overlook such glaring evidence?

I'm never quite sure how to respond to such a remark, not because it stumps me, but because I would like to think that people are not so naive. I know that Christians believe god created everything, but an atheist obviously does not believe that. Even when I was a believer, I would not have made a pathetic argument as generic and useless as this one. There's nothing about existence, matter, light, life, or civilization that compels us to accept theism. In fact, the latter four are pretty well understood in terms of natural explanations. As for my existence, I take it as proof that an egg containing my genetic material was fertilized and carried to term, but beyond that, nothing more can be reasonably assumed.

For an analogy (and I do love using analogies so very much), this is kind of like a Mac user trying to explain the 'obvious' superiority of Macs to a PC user. The two have different perspectives, which means that it cannot be assumed that one will share the same approach to the issue as the other will. But it's even worse in what this Christian is saying, since he's making an argument based on things which have natural explanations. Supernatural stories are not necessary. It's like a Mac user telling a PC user that Macs are better because they have monitors, keyboards, processors, and hard drives. Both have them! More importantly, there is no logical progression one can follow to conclude that such an argument favors Macs, just as there is no logical progression to demonstrate that earth, wind, and fire (couldn't resist) favor the existence of a deity.

I can't really see why any intelligent person would find this to be persuasive. It seems that the believer's only source here can be the bible, and in that case, the argument is circular. The bible says god created everything, so we can look at everything as evidence that a creator god exists, just like the bible claims. But why the Christian god? The Qur'an claims Allah created everything. The Babylonian epic Enuma Elish claims that Marduk created the world out of Tiamat by dismembering her corpse. Existence, matter, light, life, and civilization no more prove that the creator is Yahweh than they prove that Allah or Marduk is responsible for creating it all. Then there are those things that believers never seem to bring up. Is matter evidence for god when it's assembled in the form of a hydrogen bomb that devastates an entire city? What about those corners of the world where light barely reaches - is god not present there? And Michael Bay? Surely, if anything, he's evidence of an incompetent creator!

A being that can be proven to exist by anything is worth nothing. It's funny, then, that the most common application of the god concept - and the reason for its very origin, I'd say - is to explain what is not understood. We use god to fill in the gaps and then we point to the gaps to find god. Unfortunately, even when something is well understood by science, some believers take their own ignorance as widespread truth and plug god into that gap. In cases like these, it is difficult to know what to say. How do you tell an uninformed person he's wrong when he will accept any trivial thing as confirmation of his faith? Perhaps it's not even worth bothering. As a dead Jewish carpenter is thought to have once said, "do not throw your pearls before swine."