Scientific Evidence and Proof 101 Wednesday, July 25, 2007Posted by henry000 in anti-creationism, creationism, evolution, rationality, reason, science, Steven Novella.
The skeptic and neurologist Steven Novella has, as usual, posted a clear and concise entry to explain what proof and evidence really mean to refute an evolution-denial claim. While the post itself makes a good read, a reader’s comment caught my eye as it states the same explanation in a creative and convincing way by using a dog-ate-my-homework analogy.
The commenter Matt says:
Regarding evidence vs. proof, I do think this is sufficiently (or at least repeatedly) misunderstood such that a more detailed example might serve.
Your completed homework is missing. You think to yourself that there are several things that might have happened to remove your homework from the top of your bedroom desk. One is that the dog ate it. Another is that your brother stole it to make life difficult for you. Another is that God removed it from the universe as a test of your faith.
Before any other thought is put into practice, these are hypotheses.
Of the three hypotheses, the first two (Dog and Brother) can be considered theories, because presumably you could test those theories and find evidence for them. The third may be significantly harder to find evidence for.
So you look around and see a very few tiny pieces of paper on the floor. These shreds, when inspected closely, look like the paper you used to do your homework, and the edges of the shreds bear what look like tooth marks.
Your brother would probably have just swiped the whole sheet and thrown it out, but it’s not impossible that he used serrated scissors to destroy it. So the current understanding of the homework dilemma is that your dog probably ate it, but that there is some chance your brother swiped it. The God hypothesis is still possible, but looking somewhat less likely.
Finally, you corner your brother and threaten him with a beating and he insists he didn’t do it. An inspection of the house’s garbage cans yields no homework, and the dog doesn’t eat as much for dinner as he usually does.
You now have one very solid theory that the dog ate your homework, you have a minority theory that your brother swiped it (a few honest, and hard-working grad students at smaller colleges are working on tests that would bolster the brother theory and eliminate the dog, but most mainstream universities are heavily funded for additional research into dog-eating-paper studies).
One think tank in the Pacific Northwest maintains that there’s nothing to glean from shredded bits of paper or the *lack* of paper in garbage cans, so God must have removed the paper from the Universe. Reports of the weakness of the law of conservation of paper would lead one to the definite conclusion that God is responsible.
Finally, one field researcher finds a pile of feces in the backyard with tiny pieces of half-digested pieces of paper in it. Three years of labored study yield 30% of a formula that your teacher confirms was the answer to question #4 of the particular homework assignment in question.
Scientific consensus reigns, the few remaining Brother Theorists relent and move on to pursue degrees on who peed on the carpet and the Nobel Prize for Biology is awarded to the field researcher for the publication of “Formulaic Reproduction of Holistic Homework Reconstruction in Canine Fecal Substrate.” The Theory of Dog-Eats-Homework appears as a “fact” in textbooks across the country, and is regularly referred to as such by scientists.
The Discovery Institute announces the founding of the Journal of Alternate Homework Stealing where the Dog-Eats-Homework “theory” is regularly repudiated, papers are peer-reviewed which deny that paper partially decomposes in dogs’ stomachs, and the theory of Intelligent Homework Removal is developed.
I thought this lovely piece of analogy is too good to be left out there buried in the comments section, so I feel obliged to re-post it here. Often when it comes to getting a point across to the layman, short and sharp stories can be more effective. This is because many people don’t have the time, patience and/or the attention span to read through long and dry articles and books. That’s why I enjoy posting comics in this blog.