Endemic Confusion

PZ Myers has an excellent post on – broadly speaking – the tension between religion and science. Narrowly speaking it’s on a non-excellent post by the widely over-rated Eugene Volokh (though I gather he’s less over-rated now, ever since that post on what a good thing it is to torture certain criminals to death in front of an enraged crowd). And he makes a point that I’ve made here more than once. It’s a very, very widespread mistake and confusion, even among people who – you would think – really ought to know the difference. It’s pretty ominous and disturbing that the confusion is so pervasive even among educated people like lawyers and journalists. Clearly everyone should be learning the difference in kindergarten and having it reinforced throughout their educations – possibly it ought to be the first thing anyone learns. It’s not really possible to think clearly without it.

Here’s the confusion:

What’s more, how exactly do scientists come to the conclusion that “God had no part in this process”? What’s their proof? That’s the sort of thing that can’t really be proved, it seems to me — which makes it sound as if scientists, despite their protestations of requiring proof rather than faith, make assertions about God that they can’t prove.

It seems to him – what, as if he’s the only one who thinks so? Of course it can’t be proved! And ‘scientists’ know that perfectly well, and they don’t make ‘protestations of requiring proof rather than faith’ – they ask for evidence. Not proof, evidence. There’s a difference – a big difference. It’s so basic, and yet so many people seem to have no clue. That’s alarming.

PZ commented on the confusion:

Scientists don’t talk about “proof”, period. We leave that to the mathematicians. This is something I yell at my freshman biology majors, by the way. I know it’s out of the purview of a scholar of constitutional law, but if he’s going to make claims about science, shouldn’t he know the bare basics of the discipline?

Yeah, he should, especially since the difference between evidence and proof is not just a basic of science, surely – it’s a pretty general basic of epistemology. It has to be – because it’s about the difference between certainty and non-certainty, doubt and no doubt, open questions and closed ones, how and when and if we know what we know. Susan Haack points out that scientific inquiry is continuous with other forms of inquiry, as opposed to being special in some way. Saying ‘there is evidence for X’ a very different thing from saying ‘it is proved that X’ in any empirical field you can think of.

It’s odd, and interesting, and somewhat exasperating, to realize that probably most woolly beliefs rest on exactly this stupid confusion. ‘You can’t prove that God doesn’t exist, or that there is no space ship behind the Hale-Bopp comet, or that extra-terrestrials haven’t been abducting and impregnating humans, or that I don’t have a parking angel or a laundry angel or any other kind of angel’ – therefore we might as well believe any of them we want to. That’s probably how the default position works (we’ve been talking about the default position lately – that belief is right and good and it’s non-belief that has to explain itself) – since you can’t prove the belief is nonsense, therefore there is no reason not to believe it. That ‘therefore’ is idiotic, but it’s everywhere.

Brian Leiter makes a similar comment.

What interests me in particular here is what this display tells us about the limited understanding of science and scientific methods even among educated people and scholars. If professional scholars in fields like law have so little understanding of the nature and structure of scientific inquiry, is it any surprise that in the population at large nonsense like creationism and its offshoots, like Intelligent Design, have considerable traction?

Exactly. Discouraging, isn’t it.

15 Responses to “Endemic Confusion”