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.

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