Unevidence

Some things get accepted into culture, maybe unintentionally, maybe in a casual way, but then become established enough that we get fooled into thinking they came from a reputable source, or from careful consideration; most of philosophy is this way, it seems. One that I’m going to address here is something that I’ve coined unevidence.

Unevidence should not be confused with the curious concept of negative evidence, which I’ve had fun with before. Negative evidence is the proof that something doesn’t exist, which cannot actually be done at all – we can either have evidence, or the lack thereof. Unevidence is slightly different, even though related: it is the practice of questioning some evidence that we actually do have in such a way that the doubt permits some alternate concept in its place. Just defining it makes it rather obvious, perhaps, though let’s look at it in detail.

In any discussion of the shroud of Turin, it is usually well known that the fabric was carbon14 tested and found to be only 700 years old, give or take – by an astounding coincidence, this is just how long ago the first record of its existence appeared. Immediately, however, someone will bring up speculation that the C14 tests could have been contaminated (bacteria is often supposed) and thus inaccurate. This factor is unevidence; no one has actually demonstrated that this could even happen, much less performed any tests at all for the contamination, and somehow those who bring up the possibility do not seem inclined to follow through in this manner. It is simply enough to raise the doubt, so the alternate belief that the cloth is actually the burial shroud of jesus of Nazareth cannot be ruled out.

The same tactic comprises the entirety of Intelligent Design, where no actual process or theory is presented in the slightest (and original research is avoided like eye-contact with a panhandler); the only efforts ever put forth are the attempts to raise questions about natural selection. It can also be seen in UFO circles when any prosaic explanation is offered, and it lies embedded deeply within any conspiracy theory that can be named. Doubt is widely considered support for any favorite alternative.

The flaws are obvious under even cursory examination: lack of confidence in one explanation does not even remotely imply any confidence in another. Somewhat more subtle but just as important is that a lack of confidence does not rule out any explanation either – it can still be perfectly correct without our ability to prove it beyond question (in some cases, any fervent desire for alternatives will perpetuate such questions anyway; people will believe what they want to believe, cognition be damned.) We continue to see the application of unevidence because too few ever stop to think about it, and because the practice has been established in our culture to an extent that it is considered valid. Everyone else is using it, so it must be legitimate.

It is so well established, in fact, that many who pursue critical thinking and skepticism can blow right past it, when the use of it presents a golden opportunity to show what critical thought accomplishes. It is often used as a form of misdirection as well, because doubt is a powerful tool; weakening a case by casting doubt on any factor within can sometimes, by extension, appear to cast doubt on everything – yeah, as a species we can fall for that too. Again, for certain topics this can be seen quite often.

In fact, the use of unevidence is often a red flag, a strong indicator that the person using it is more emotionally involved in their standpoint than rationally convinced (even though the use of rational in this case is a bit too subjective.) Unevidence doesn’t provide a point in favor of anything – instead, it merely opens a gap within which someone will jam their preferred ideas. At times, it even demonstrates a double-standard that verges on hypocrisy; unevidence can manifest as a demand for impossibly strict rigor in supporting all of the evidence that someone doesn’t like, a rigor that is never necessary for the evidence that they do like. The previous example displays this quite clearly: while C14 dating is not considered accurate enough to dismiss the potential holy provenance of the shroud, what, exactly, is supporting this provenance? And how many doubts can be raised about that?

The slightly tricky thing about unevidence is that there are legitimate reasons to question some kinds of evidence, and rigor is actually a good thing to maintain – critically, we should be holding all evidence to a high standard regardless. The crucial difference between weak evidence and unevidence is that weak evidence presents, worst case, a wash – return to null. Unevidence is always considered to strengthen an alternate view, as if there are only two possibilities. I was going to point out that it was an attempt to inflict dichotomous, binary style thinking onto a situation where it wasn’t warranted, but binary is actually useful in illustrating the flaw. Some people seem to believe that evidence consists of two states: either supporting one hypothesis (e.g., that the shroud is legitimate) or the ‘other’ (that the shroud is a fraud.) But binary is actually a choice between positive and null, 1 and 0, and that’s all that evidence really is – it either supports a given idea, or it supports nothing. What is required for any and all alternative proposals is another type of evidence that can produce that positive state, the 1 that is necessary, and it is this that unevidence fails to establish – in fact directing attention away from.

The goal is to recognize this and point it out as needed. Even if evolution were completely discredited tomorrow (heh!) this would not make the adam & eve story any less absurd, or relieve the onus of demonstrating positive evidence for Intelligent Design. UFO stories that lack a mundane explanation are not any more supportive of alien species than the sightings identified as a satellite – seems odd, but a moment’s thought will reveal the logic. Not being able to find one’s car keys does not support the idea that they grew legs and walked away. Possibility does not actually derive from being unable to demonstrate impossibility – things can be impossible even when we cannot prove it, while possibility requires something to support the proposed concept. Even better, move any such discussion towards the use of probability instead, to force the introduction of supporting factors. It sets a bar for reasonable discussion that does not rely on gaps.

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