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Evidence – The Ultimate Buzz Word

May 8, 2018

Many an argument in person or over the internet, if it doesn’t resort to the more standard ad hominem fallacies of personal attacks, will rely for its authority on an appeal to “evidence”. But people rarely understand what they mean by this term, and they rarely question their sources of evidence. Yet still they feel that pointing to a piece of “evidence” somehow immediately adds a lot of credence to their point of view.

The fact is, it really does not of itself add any credence. It is not a guarantee. It could be no more than a piece of paper you created yourself and slapped the title on it “evidence”. Thus, it may be worth no more than the piece of paper it is written on, or even worth much less. Because it is seldom the case that by this evidence people are referring to independent, objective facts about reality. It’s no easy feat to refer to objective facts about reality. We manage to some degree in some of the more exact sciences through years of training and discipline in method appropriate for the subject matter to do this. But for the most part, 99% of the time during each of our days, we are engaged in seeing what we want to see. We are looking for things to fit in with our narrative. And this means, quite clearly the evidence we bring forward is going to be biased. Not the authoritative evidence of a precise experiment that proves the correctness of general relativity over Newtonian mechanics of absolute space.

Evidence has authority when it is independent of ourselves. The more independent, the more authority, if correct, it can have with us. Because then clearly we have no bias or influence over, or personal interest in this evidence. Conversely, the less independent the evidence is, the less authority it has as an argument. To give a clear example, obviously if a bunch of people who share the same cognitive bias or narrative expectation see the same piece of evidence it doesn’t count for very much in a reasonable discussion. Lets say a group of feminists see a pay gap and argue this is “evidence” of oppression of women. Naturally it has much less authority, because their narrative is to look for oppression of women, and so they all find it together. Not independently, but dependently based on sharing the same outlook on the world. This evidence is also weak for another reason. It’s one thing to present a piece of evidence, such as a statistic, its a whole other thing to infer a load of consequences from this bit of evidence. As Jordan Peterson exposed in that debate on channel 4, women may be choosing jobs that pay less, women may be naturally less competitive on the whole, etc.. There are many other ways to look at it. The only way in which it seems it must be oppression of women is under very dubious ideological assumptions that there are no differences between men and women, there is no nature, only nurture, and that therefore equality of outcome is the only fair and desirable result in society.

We get then into a much more complicated debate about theoretical presumptions, metaphysical assumptions and narrative commitments and many other things such as this. Where this notion of evidence as simple, objective and neutral has been lost. Yet they carry on as if they can use evidence in the same sense it has when it has success 1% of the time in our reasonings about pure physical science when we are able to discipline ourselves against our own cognitive biases. Such clearly is just a fanciful delusion, and misuse of terminology, and is why evidence has become largely a buzz word these days. A popular way to claim argumentative authority with little content or force to it, other than the force with which it is asserted.

What has been forgotten in this account of “evidence”, is that evidence has been imagined to have a life of its own. People refer to an online article as if its a piece of neutral evidence, when probably, the chances are it’s written by someone with the same preferences and cognitive biases as themselves. All evidence is assured independent existence, they fallaciously infer, just because some scientists managed to use it successfully on a few occasions to prove some important scientific facts. Evidence also has often become like an appeal to experts, another form of fallacious reasoning.

What needs to be remembered is that when we are arguing our case we give reasons for our point of view, and evidence is just one kind of reason. To be a good reason you will have to show how the evidence is independent of your own cognitive biases and narrative expectations among many other things you will need to show. Thus evidence is a very small part of giving a reason for your position. When “evidence” is all people can bring to the table in an argument you have a very poor reasoner on your hands. Because even if the evidence is totally legitimate, its still a long way from telling us what we can infer from this evidence.

The art of reasoning requires difficult judgments and a stringent honesty that deferring to evidence simply does not capture. If you want to reason well, don’t resort to this buzz word very often, use it very rarely in cases where evidence is independently verified from many different angles, so that there is minimal chance of confirmation bias of a group of peoples prejudices and cognitive and narrative biases. Such confirmation biases are only evidence of your poor reasoning skills, nothing else.

This simple minded trust of “evidence” has been one of the problems in recent times with the mainstream media and with mainstream internet outlets such as google and facebook. People will take the opinions of the mainstream as evidence of fact, when they are only evidence of a dominant narrative. Not as catchy as saying fake news, but this is what it is all about. It is a clash of narratives, not primarily a clash of facts. So if you think simply tweeting your preferred news outlets articles as evidence is going to convince many people, think again. They will much more likely only see it as evidence of your preferred narrative. To get to the facts at the bottom of it all, requires much more searching and much more depth of reasoning. We have a lot of work to do to resurrect the lost art of reasoning. We can make a start by realising that evidence in the context of argumentation, much more often means my cognitive bias that I want to impress upon you, than it means my piece of neutral factual stuff about the world that I humbly request you to see for yourself.

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