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Wednesday, April 22, 2015

If Juries Decided Like Today's Skeptics

Nowadays a group of thought warriors wage a constant battle against anything they deem to be something that strays outside the approved circle of mainstream materialist orthodoxy. These thought warriors call themselves skeptics, even though their attitudes are in some ways the opposite of the original thinkers called skeptics (as I'll explain in a moment). The modern day skeptic has a certain modus operandi that includes the following:

Dismissal of “anecdotal” evidence. One favorite tactic of the contemporary skeptic is to dismiss any undesired evidence involving human testimony, on the grounds that it is merely “anecdotal.” The reasoning is that evidence gathered by machines or in laboratories is good evidence, but evidence that comes from human accounts is not good evidence. This reasoning makes no sense, as anecdotal evidence is simply observational evidence provided by humans, and such evidence is a large part of the facts established by science. Scientists such as zoology are largely founded on anecdotal evidence, an accumulation of anecdotes that particular observers saw particular types of animals at particular places. The skeptic likes to point out that errors might arise from human testimony because of the fallibility of human memory. But evidence gathered by modern machines may be just as prone to error, as modern scientific equipment is controlled by extremely complicated software that was programmed by ordinary fallible humans, and such software typically contains bugs. There are actually many ways in which laboratory evidence can go wrong, including software bugs, misuse of equipment, poor experimental design, manual error while taking readings, and faulty summarizing of data points.  

A lazy dismissal of photographic evidence because of the possibility of fraud. Another favorite tactic of the contemporary skeptic is to dismiss any and all photographs appearing to show something that he doesn't wish to believe in, on the grounds that photos can be faked. But dismissing photographic evidence because of the possibility of faking makes no more sense than dismissing all witness testimony on the grounds that witnesses can lie. A reasonable approach is to consider a scale, one side labeled “Pro” and the other side “Con.” Until it is discreditied, each photograph that appears to show some phenomenon must be considered as prima facie evidence for such a phenomenon, and must be considered as something that is resting on the “Pro” side of this scale. 

The more such photographs there are, the stronger the evidence for the phenomenon. Particular photographs might be removed from the “Pro” side of the scale, by analyzing such photographs and proving they were faked (something that might be done by using a site such as fotoforensics.com). Conceivably, if there are incredibly strong valid reasons for disbelieving in something, then something on the “Con” side of the scale might outweigh a body of photographic evidence piled up on the “Pro” side of the scale. But it is just as wrong to lazily dismiss a large body of photographic evidence because of a possibility of fraud as it is to dismiss a large body of witness testimony because of a possibility of lying. If we followed the same principle of “don't count something as evidence if it might have been faked,” we would have to throw out 90% of the evidence that has been gathered by scientists.

Attempts to dismiss or discredit witnesses based on their beliefs or associations. Another favorite tactic of the contemporary skeptic is to attempt to discredit or dismiss witnesses based on what the witnesses believe or what type of associations the witnesses have. This tactic is repeatedly used in an egregious manner by the pages of wikipedia.com, a web site that should never be trusted on any matter relating to the paranormal. An example of this tactic is as follows: David said he saw a UFO, but some other time David indicated he believes in UFO's; so David's testimony cannot be trusted because he's a “UFO believer.” Such twisted logic is very convenient for the skeptic, as it establishes a bizarre protocol in which we cannot accept the testimony of anyone about a phenomenon if the person indicated his observations led him to believe in that phenomenon – so the only testimony allowed about a phenomenon is by witnesses who did not see convincing evidence of the phenomenon. Such reasoning is absurd. Courts have it right: their rule is all witnesses are of equal value regardless of their beliefs. A judge will never allow the testimony of a witness to be excluded on the basic of something like the religion of the witness (and a good judge will never even allow a lawyer to ask a question about the religion of a witness).

A glib tendency to almost always claim that we understand the cause or causes of something mysterious, rather than to admit that such causes are unknown. The universe is teeming with a million mysteries, and what man knows about nature is very tiny compared to what man does not know. But you might get the opposite idea from listening to a contemporary skeptic. Given some baffling observations, such a skeptic will almost always prefer to say, “This is caused by X” or “This is caused by Y” or “This is caused by X or Y” rather than simply say, “We do not understand what causes these observations.” This is an egotistical form of intellectual hubris. Ignorant little fledgling beings like ourselves (in some ways like plankton in the great cosmic ocean) should not claim to understand things that we do not understand.

A tendency to uncritically accept the orthodoxy of a favored authority. In ancient times skeptics were those critical of all authorities. Such skeptics maintained that all human knowledge was subject to doubt, and that no human authority (whether scientific, philosophical, religious, or governmental) could be regarded as a source of certainty. But the contemporary skeptic typically has a very different attitude. The contemporary skeptic seems to be always bowing down prostrate before the authority of scientific academia. Such a skeptic throws away all skepticism when considering the opinions of academics, and seemingly regards their opinions as a kind of sacrosanct holy writ, to be treated as reverently as a papal encyclical. This type of attitude is the exact opposite of the attitude promoted by the original skeptics of ancient times, causing many people to say that contemporary skeptics should be called pseudo-skeptics. The modern skeptic often acts as a kind of orthodoxy enforcer, an agent of punishment for those who deviate from the entrenched dogmas of materialist thought.

Luckily our legal system does not operate according to the principles of contemporary skeptics. But it is interesting to consider: what might happen if a jury were to decide a court case using such principles? Let us imagine a jury deliberating a murder case while following such principles.

Foreman: Well, here we are, ladies and gentlemen. We finally get to decide this murder case after listening to 5 days of testimony. Should we find Sister Mary Agnes guilty of murdering her 98-year-old mother, or should we find her innocent? We must now decide. Let's now try to remember the key parts of the testimony we just heard.
Jane: I remember the testimony that all those nuns gave. Ten nuns testified that on the night the mother of Sister Mary Agnes died in Paris, Sister Mary Agnes was working with them in their convent near Los Angeles, almost 6000 miles away. That sounded pretty convincing, so shouldn't we just vote “not guilty”?
Foreman: No, not at all. You see that testimony was merely “anecdotal” evidence, and anecdotal evidence isn't real evidence, at least not like evidence provided in laboratories. Since the testimony of the ten nuns was just anecdotal, we should just ignore it entirely, and count it as nothing.
John: Okay, so we'll ignore that testimony. But what about the photographs? The defense produced 24 photographs showing that on the night her mother died in Paris, Sister Mary Agnes was in Los Angeles, almost 6000 miles away.
Foreman: But that evidence doesn't count. Those were just photographs, and photographs can be faked.
Jim: Okay, so we'll ignore the 24 photographs. But what about the testimony of the nurse in Paris? She said that she saw the mother of Sister Mary Agnes die, and that nobody killed her.
Foreman: Well we certainly can't accept that testimony. She was a nurse in a Catholic hospital, and you know how those Catholics are. Don't forget, we must always be ready to disqualify a witness whenever that witness holds beliefs that clash with our own preconceptions.
Walter: Okay, so we'll throw out the testimony of the nurse. How do you think we should vote: guilty or not guilty?
Foreman: In this matter we must respect the revered authority of the prosecution. The state has put Sister Mary Agnes on trial, and can we believe that this esteemed authority has got things wrong?
Jane: That would be pretty unlikely. Once you get to be an esteemed authority, you're always right, I would imagine. So it seems we have a reason for voting “guilty.” Is there any other reason?
Foreman: Yes, there is a very strong reason for voting “guilty.” If we vote “guilty” in this matter, the issue is closed, and we don't have to live with some unresolved mystery, that the mother of Sister Mary Agnes died for some unknown reason that we don't know. There is nothing more horrible than a question mark, nothing more abhorrent than a lingering mystery. Rather than making an unsettling statement such as “we don't know why this happened,” we'll be much more comfortable if we say we know exactly why it happened, and say, “She died because her daughter murdered her.”
Bill: So I see how the consensus is developing. So let's see a show of hands: do we all agree to vote guilty?
Foreman: I see twelve hands raised, so the matter is decided. We will tell the court we have voted that Sister Mary Agnes is guilty of the heinous murder of her mother.

Thankfully the case of Sister Mary Agnes is purely imaginary.