Beyond a Reasonable Certainty

This story is interesting in more than one way.

Prof Southall accused Stephen Clark, a solicitor, of smothering his two babies on the basis of a 50-minute Channel 4 Dispatches documentary on the case…The paediatrician said Mr Clark was a double murderer “beyond reasonable doubt”, although he had not read any of the papers in the case, spoken to the parents or seen post mortem reports.

Beyond reasonable doubt – because he watched Clark on TV. Hmm.

Prof Southall refused to apologise and repeated the allegation during the disciplinary hearing. Denis McDevitt, the chairman of the GMC panel, said he was “extremely concerned” by Prof Southall’s actions. “Your view was a theory, which was, however, not presented as a theory but as a near certainty,” he said.

What’s interesting about that (at least to me, at the moment) is the level of certainty involved. And not just certainty, but stupid certainty. Really, really stupid certainty. Which is the worst kind. Not certainty based on masses of compelling evidence, but certainty based on – nothing much. Based on someone’s confidence in his own judgment, apparently – which is exactly what makes it so stupid. Non-stupid people are aware that their judgment is fallible – and if they forget that in the grip of an idea or an obsession or a passion, then they become temporarily stupid. Stupid pro tem. It’s almost one of the first laws of non-stupidity – never forget that you can just damn well be wrong, easily, that anyone can be wrong at any time, and that humans are not particularly well equipped to be infallible.

If I’ve noticed it once I’ve noticed it a million times – it’s the thickies who get obstinately convinced that they’re right when they have no good reason to think so. It’s not always the obvious thickies – it can be your rich, plump, prosperous, ‘succesful’ thicky who gets like that. In fact I’ve known several of that type. The prosperity helps. Rich people think that their richitude is a sure sign of how clever they are, and then they expect an admiring world to gape in wonder at their every hackneyed opinion. Perhaps this Southall guy was one of those.

But certainty on the basis of no or little or flimsy or bad evidence is a mistake, and to be avoided. And what’s funny about that is that very often it’s the certainty-addled thickies who accuse people who know they don’t have certainty, precisely of having too much certainty. It’s very odd. People whose certainty derives from their close personal acquaintance with the deity, or from an inner knowledge that the deity is there, or from an intuition that the deity simply can’t not be there, or from ‘faith’ that the deity is there because the deity is kind and the world is kind – those are the very people who accuse funny rationalist types who go around asking, ‘But what’s the evidence for that?’ of having way too much certainty about their scientistic rationalist way of doing things. Eh? How’s that? Saying ‘what’s the evidence for that?’ equates to certainty? That’s odd – see, I would have thought it equated to pointing out a lack of certainty.

But there’s a lot of confusion about that. I’ve pointed it out before. It’s the same confusion as the one behind the way people translate ‘what’s the evidence for that?’ into a claim to have disproven something. I keep noticing – over and over – that scientists talk about evidence and then whatever fool journalist they’re talking to instantly translates that into proof or disproof. Oy. They’re not the same thing. It’s so basic – and so many people seem not to have noticed the difference.

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