Monday, May 24, 2010

Absence of Evidence

"This impatience with ambiguity can be criticized in the phrase: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." ~ Carl Sagan

The first time I heard this quote was in field school. We'd spent the majority of the summer excavating the residence of Dr. J.H. Ward and found about nothing...though I did learn that a claw hammer will totally own century old cement...

When asked what he was going to say about the residence since we'd had such a lean collection of artifacts, Dr. Mullins told me, "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." This was quickly followed with a rather comical debate over what a particular artifact really was to which I was told, "When you hear hoof beats, think Horses not Zebras."

I took both quotes to heart, often repeating them to myself when faced with questions in the field. I still like both, even though recently I learned that the Carl Sagan quote is actually a misquote. The full quote is listed above and can be found on Wikiquote...or better yet in his book Demon-Haunted World

To put it in context, Sagan uses this phrase in his "Baloney Detection Kit". He uses it as a tool to identify and reject an "appeal to ignorance". The phrase appears in Chapter 12, "The Fine Art of Baloney Detection" in the "The Demon-Haunted World"

"appeal to ignorance - the claim that whatever has not been proved false must be true, and vice versa (e.g., There is no compelling evidence that UFOs are not visiting the Earth; therefore UFOs exist - and there is intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe. Or: There may be seventy kazillion other worlds, but not one is known to have the moral advancement of the Earth, so we're still central to the Universe.) This impatience with ambiguity can be criticized in the phrase: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."

So, this quote didn't mean what I thought it meant. What Sagan appears to be doing here is pointing out that absence of evidence IS evidence of absence.

What does this have to do with archaeology you ask? Oh my, so much. Especially when you are dealing with pseudoarchaeology.

I've been doing research for a video that will be on Ancient Astronauts building the Pyramids, not a topic I was familiar with, and frankly the more I "learn" the more my brain hurts. What I've been finding is that Ancient Astronauts supporters use the appeal to ignorance to support their claims, up to the point of quoting Sagan. This tells me is that not only do they not know anything about ancient Egyptian civilization / building techniques, they also have never read Sagan. This bothers me since in both cases they are speaking as if from positions of authority, and five minutes on the internet can blow their arguments out of the water.

I blame von Daniken for this. The man simply refuses to see fact, even when it's place right before him. He is also a prolific author on the topic of pseudoarchaeolgoy, claiming that professional archaeologists either don't know what they are doing, or are purposefully covering up the "truth". To him I ask, what do we have to gain by hiding the truth?

Daniken likes to point to known artifacts, hieroglyphs, and paintings, claiming that Archaeologists translated them incorrectly, that they are really ancient depictions of aliens, or even parts of a spaceship. He goes as far as to say that everything we know is wrong, and we have something to gain by not telling the lay public the truth. Daniken apparently never had the benefit of someone telling him to think Horses not Zebras.

To all this I say, Ancient Astronauts supporters: you have no evidence, you have no facts, most damningly, you have no practical applied experience. When you misquote Sagan, you show you have no grasp of basic concepts. As in all things, Occam's Razor comes into play, and since your extraordinary claims cannot be backed with extraordinary evidence, you really should let it go. Have a little faith in your own species, we really are a very clever and capable ape.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Why it's Hard to Debate the Scientifically Illiterate

I’ve been wanting to write this entry for a while, since it’s a growing area of concern for me, I am of course talking of the decline of Scientific Literacy in America, and specifically the Midwest, since that’s where I’m from. I feel that we as a country are racing towards a dark age of our own, where ignorance is seen as a virtue, and education is look down upon. I see this in the rejection of “Elites” and “Scientists” and the constant attacks on legitimate scientists by people who barely understand the concepts being discussed. I see feelings and beliefs trumping facts and evidence, and I see misunderstandings of facts and evidence being used as attacks against scientific fields.

This is a hard article to write because of the people I know who will read this and feel that I am speaking directly to them…which I am…but what I have to say isn’t really friendly.

It is difficult to have discussions about scientific fields with people who are not educated. The reason is because those who are not scientifically literate can’t understand the basic concepts of science. This becomes very aggravating when these same people insist that Scientists and science are wrong.

The knee jerk reaction is to be unpleasant to these people, and as rewarding as this may seem, it’s not the best reaction. So what is the alternative? How do you discuss things with those who can’t understand? How you debate the merits of a theory, when the other party doesn't understand what a theory is? This is the dilemma.

We could spend time educating our opponents. We could lay information at their feet, send them videos, talks, books, papers, but it won’t matter if they can’t understand what is being said. We could attempt to go back to the basics with them, but personal experience has shown that this usually upsets people because they view this as talking down to them. It seems like a huge waste of time, but something must be done, so what?

A few sites on the web have attempted to address this problem. Some are aimed at making science accessible to the general public, some are more like support groups. Richard Dawkins and the Amazing James Randi both started educational foundations, Dr. Jeff Goldstein created a blog to be used by teachers to help with student education on the Universe, Hank Campbell, has created a site to promote what he calls Science 2.0, and there are several forums like the League of Reason and Science Blogs that give individuals a space to create a scientific dialogue. Whatever the reason for going to the sites, I think anyone can start to delve into the world of science and self educate. I am a big supporter of self-education, not only does it show that a persona has recognized a weakness, but they’ve taken action to fix it.

Still, many will not go to these sites for one reason or another, but still feel they have a right to be part of the dialogue. What then? How do you debate with the ignorant? I offer Dawkins’ Solution, He simply doesn't.

Cold? Yes. Necessary? Yes.

I wouldn’t go to my mechanic and argue with him on the ways to repair my car. I wouldn't go to a construction site and tell them how their building is wrong. So why should I tolerate someone coming to me to tell me my field is wrong?

So why do people think that by simply reading a half-assed synopsis of an elaborate scientific paper, that they know have all the knowledge they require to challenge career scientists? Just because we live in the Information Age, doesn’t mean you now know everything. Some things require focus and education. Things like advice concepts, require study before they are understood completely. Sometimes, things will never be entirely clear, and often the ability to distinguish those from things that are clear needs to be learned as well. Some theories are not up for debate, and some are. Unless you understand how theories are made and tested, you can’t distinguish between the two.

The point here is not to tell those who don’t know not to talk about science. The point here is that you should take the time to become educated in the topics you wish to discuss. Some will be easier to learn than others, the Scientific Method is a pretty simple concept, as is the formation and testing of a theory. Some will take years, and hours and hours of study. You may need to read books, watch videos, talk to experts in the field. This is the process of education, and education always leads to better understanding.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

A Moment to Celebrate

As many of you may (or my not) know, tomorrow is the National Day of Reason. My local Center for Inquiry is going to be celebrating by having an open mic reading session where we'll share some of our favorite secular writers.

I'm really looking forward to this particular celebration, because I don't think we celebrate our minds and the ability we have to reason our way through life's problems enough. We're always trying to find some supernatural explanation for why we were able to do something, or think of something, or create something particularly wonderful. That kind of belief degrades us as humans. It makes us turn from our own natural strengthens and stop relying on our natural abilities. It makes us weak and fosters mistrust of others.

Whether you believe a supernatural being is guiding you doesn’t change the fact that the ideas you have, and the things you do, all come from you. You got the A on your paper, You passed the test, You got over your addiction, You made your business successful, You created a loving family. You did all these things all on your own, or with the help of other human begins. This is something to truly be awed over, to really be proud of.

Yah the pendulum swings both ways, If you are the one that does all the good stuff, then you are also the one that does all the bad stuff too. There is comfort in this though. Instead of wondering what you did to anger the supernatural beings, or wonder why the supernatural beings are testing/punishing you, you can change. You can identify the problem and figure out a way to stop it or fix it. You can, you've done it all your life.

So tomorrow, during our National Day of Reason, I want you to stop and think about all the things you've done in life, the good more than the bad. I want to you to acknowledge that you did those things, on your own, and I want you to be proud of yourself, proud of your fantastic mind, and praise yourself.

Archy Twits