Today we continue our talk on anecdotal evidence by exposing its weakness. The problem with most anecdotal claims is that it is likely to be unfalsifiable. What does it mean? Let’s say your friend Tucker says he saw a flying saucer the other night. He took no photographs and there was nobody else to corroborate his story. This makes it unfalsifiable, meaning he has no proof the event happened, but we as a skeptical observer have no proof that it didn’t. Claiming the story both true or false based on the flimsy evidence provided puts us into the dreaded Negative Proof Logical Fallacy, where we assume the story is false because there is no evidence to the contrary, or we assume it is true because there is no evidence to the contrary. We can only sit there and nod our heads, trusting that some guy named ‘Tucker’ doesn’t just make stuff up.
Luckily for us, the Burden of Proof falls upon claimant. A classic weasel move during a debate is to pull a switcheroo and place the burden of proof on the skeptic, and not the guy whose parents must have hated him enough to name him ‘Tucker’. The article title says it all. The crazier the claim, the bigger the guns you’ll need to back it up. In most social situations, the claim is harmless enough to only require something concrete like a photograph (“Pics or it didn’t happen” as the kids say) or to check the claimant’s breath for rum-y smells. Heck, unless you’re a jerkass like me, a corroborating story from another witness is usually all it takes. But I know better.
I’ll leave you today with an excerpt from an article written by comedian Ricky Gervais around the holidays about his atheist beliefs:
Science seeks the truth. And it does not discriminate. For better or worse it finds things out. Science is humble. It knows what it knows and it knows what it doesn’t know. It bases its conclusions and beliefs on hard evidence -- evidence that is constantly updated and upgraded. It doesn’t get offended when new facts come along. It embraces the body of knowledge. It doesn’t hold on to medieval practices because they are tradition. If it did, you wouldn’t get a shot of penicillin, you’d pop a leach down your trousers and pray. Whatever you “believe,” this is not as effective as medicine. Again you can say, “It works for me,” but so do placebos. My point being, I’m saying God doesn’t exist. I’m not saying faith doesn’t exist. I know faith exists. I see it all the time. But believing in something doesn’t make it true. Hoping that something is true doesn’t make it true. The existence of God is not subjective. He either exists or he doesn’t. It’s not a matter of opinion. You can have your own opinions. But you can’t have your own facts.
Why don’t I believe in God? No, no no, why do YOU believe in God? Surely the burden of proof is on the believer. You started all this. If I came up to you and said, “Why don’t you believe I can fly?” You’d say, “Why would I?” I’d reply, “Because it’s a matter of faith.” If I then said, “Prove I can’t fly. Prove I can’t fly see, see, you can’t prove it can you?” You’d probably either walk away, call security or throw me out of the window and shout, ‘’F—ing fly then you lunatic.”
Everyone loves a good story. That’s why you have so many stupid friends. They’re entertaining. Myths are born and supernatural biases are reinforced partially due to social grace. You can’t keep a friend by telling them their enthusiastic ghost story was scientifically idiotic. And if they’re a girl, fuhgedaboutit. You’re not getting anywhere near those mams if you tell her that eyewitness accounts are notoriously unreliable, and even recent memories are subject to personal bias and malleable through the merest suggestion. Also don’t call her breasts “mams”. But I don’t have to tell you that, you know that. That’s why instead of talking, you just smile and buy her another drink. Then maybe you woo her with a caricature when she’s drunk, and maybe you use an alias so when you leave the next morning before she wakes, she can’t find you on facebook.
Erroneous anecdotal beliefs linger because people who know better don’t want to cause offence. That’s basically why pretty people are so detached from reality. (I sit firmly in the ‘exceptions’ portion of this Venn diagram, as no doubt, does every single other person reading this. *eye-roll*)
This post has been brought to you by Sodium (Na).