How not to evaluate evidence

With kiddies editing Wikipedia to reflect what they wish was true, and other kiddies believing what they read is authoritative, universities are starting to try to get students to think more critically.  This can only be a good thing.

Unfortunately, in the humanities, critical thinking comes a long way second to herd-instinct.  This process was beautifully documented by Holzberg in his paper Lucian and the Germans, which showed that the academic consensus on Lucian between 1890 and 1945 — that it was second rate literature written by a Jew — was derived from a single important paper — nothing wrong with that — and that this was verbally identical with an article by non-academic Houston Stewart Chamberlain appearing in a popular anti-semitic rag some months earlier.  We could discuss how New Testament Studies always seems to reflect the views of those who control academic appointments in a similar vein.  The problem, then, is with the humanities as a whole, with the nature of the disciplines, rather than any one discipline.

This paper (via here)  is one of the attempts to encourage people to think.  Unfortunately it repeats a bit of atheist polemic without thinking about it, and I think it introduces a pitfall for the unwary.

Finally, the librarian should stress the skeptic’s rule: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

They do, do they?  And  how do we decide whether a claim is “extraordinary”?  Well, “it’s obvious” isn’t it?  Whatever is not considered “normal” in our society, of course!

Is there any practical difference between this and demanding “extraordinary evidence” for whatever we prefer not to believe?  If not, surely this is merely an engine for introducing prejudice?

Perhaps I am influenced here by seeing how this supposed rule is actually used online.  It is used routinely by atheists online to demand that Christians produce far more evidence for anything the atheist wishes to deny than would be the case in any parallel investigation.  The atheists themselves, when questioned about their own beliefs, invariably duck the examination with stock excuses — evidence for their own claims is not something they wish to produce!  It’s just a way to make things difficult for people you know you disagree with.   This should warn us that the “rule” is ill-formulated, and productive of prejudice rather than information.

Suppose that we are investigating a claim that Barack Obama is a shape-shifting alien.  Surely it is of no relevance to demand that a different standard of evidence should be used to that used for other purposes?  We have no idea whether there are shape-shifting aliens — being in politics seems to make people behave oddly without the need for alien intervention!  But I suggest that to dismiss the allegation on this ground would be improper.  Never mind our prejudgements — let the evidence appear; or not.  Let Occam’s Razor prune the unnecessary hypothesis, in favour of the simplest possible explanation of whatever facts there are.  We need no “extraordinary evidence” — we simply need evidence, of a kind that we would consider adequate for any proposition.  Or are we really saying that we don’t believe we have enough evidence for most of our propositions…?

So I would suggest that the correct basis for investigation is to demand to see all the evidence, without prejudging it.  Once we have all the data, we can see whether or not the claim naturally arises from it, or is a wild story imposed upon it.  But not before.  Surely we need rules that promote balanced thinking, that descope our own prejudices, not reinforce and institutionalise them.

UPDATE 19/2/11: A typo fixed, and an explanatory parenthesis to Holzberg added.
UPDATE 30/11/11: Another typo fixed, and an couple of explanatory words added to the parenthesis in response to comment.

3 thoughts on “How not to evaluate evidence

  1. Hello Roger! 🙂 For some reason a few things in this post combined to raise my eyebrow a bit..

    This post was written on the 25th of August 2010.

    At the bottom of the post is written, “UPDATE 19/2/11: A typo fixed, and an explanatory parenthesis to Holzberg added.”

    There is only one mention of Holzberg in this post as it currently stands, which is:

    “This process was beautifully document by Holzberg in his paper Lucian and the Germans, which showed that the academic consensus on Lucian between 1890 and 1945 — second rate literature written by a Jew — was derived from a single important paper — nothing wrong with that — and that this was verbally identical with an article by non-academic Houston Stewart Chamberlain appearing in a popular anti-semitic rag some months earlier.”

    I’m not Jewish myself, nor have I ever (strangely enough) even *met* a Jewish person, but this late-in-the-day edit has me baffled. Did you really edit a blog post 6 months after the fact just to add a dig at an ethnic group?

    It’s your personal blog, of course, and I’m not interested in criticizing your opinions. However, the length of time between the original post and the edit, combined with the unusual nature of the edit, makes me wonder if something like this is the result of hacking. Your blog seems to be peppered with a lot of out-of-place comments on Judaism that are unconnected to the actual content of the posts.

    In this post, for instance, the phrase “second rate literature written by a Jew” seems irrelevant, since the purpose of the sentence is to indicate that, although there’s nothing wrong with academic consensus being built on a single major paper, there is most certainly something wrong with an academic paper being based upon, or wholly plagiarized from, non-academic works.

    I realize Chamberlain was a radical nationalist, and I realize that Wilamowitz wrote a work that largely agreed with Chamberlain’s assertions, but what does Wilamowitz’s Polish-Prussian heritage have to do with poor sourcing in academic papers?

    I was just wondering if these were intentional or unintentional. If intentional, well, good on you for being honest; if unintentional, you might want to fix any security loopholes and check for unusual edits. 🙂

  2. …incidentally, I totally agree with you on your atheism-burden-of-proof example. I suppose what you mean to say is that, somewhat whimsically, both atheists and theists claim that 1) the burden of proof lies with the other side, 2) the other side has no evidence to back up its claims, and 3) that their side has evidence which the other side ignores?

  3. Thanks for your note! (And I do appreciate more than I can say that you didn’t just throw some politically correct rant at me — I have a nasty feeling that we owe at least some of the rise in anti-semitism in the last 10 years to resentment at too much of that sort of thing).

    We’re at cross-purposes, I find; and the fault is mine. I hadn’t realised that it was *possible* to read those words “second rate literature written by a Jew” as being *my* opinion, but evidently it was! (I have modified it accordingly — does it make better sense now?)

    What happened was that, for some reason, my attention was drawn to the post, and I recognised a typo. While fixing that, I must have reread that portion of the post, and realised that I had forgotten to explain what the direction of that consensus was. It was, of course, the rise in anti-semitism in that period, and, without that knowledge, as you correctly observed, the comments made little sense. So I quickly added those words, and thought no more of it. Oops!

    I wonder how many others have seen it, presumed evil of me, and said no more! Thank you, as I said.

    I have no view myself on whether Lucian is second rate — I rather enjoy his works myself, while I find many Greek classical writers unreadable, at least by me — and no-one today would worry whether a classical author was Jewish, nor a patristic author. Indeed I have heard rumours that some of the New Testament authors may actually have been Jewish … :).

    Burden of proof arguments always seem like laziness to me. Except in debating societies, surely what we want is the facts? Let each side present ALL of the facts and show that their explanation is the best fit. IMHO!

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