All entries for Tuesday 24 February 2009

February 24, 2009

Proof against Evidence

The last few days have been very busy. Started my Java programming project on Saturday, finished it before the deadline on Sunday. Have had other work to do and still have to send quite a few email to people who are probably wondering why I still haven't written back. So right now, I really shouldn't be writing a new entry for my blog. But I've had several ideas for a blog entry this week, and I just felt I HAD to write something. Oddly enough, what I'm about to write isn't one of the aforementioned ideas, but something that popped up tonight.

I had heard that there was this Grill-A-Christian thing in Knighcote (my residence hall), where you could ask a panel of christians any questions you had about their faith. I wasn't intending to go, not because I didn't want to (discussions like that are usually quite interesting) but because I just felt I had better things to do tonight, like sending those emails and tidying my room; but in the end I was lured by the Christian Union's free pizza. I never eat pizza during term-time, except when it's someone's birthday, or when it's free.

Anyway, it was very entertaining, and at the same time interesting and thought-provoking. I asked a lot of questions, trying to be inquisitive and raising challenging problems without sounding too accusing. The issues covered during the session isn't what I want to write about, though; this entry concerns two words that were used interchangably in relation to a particular question: namely "proof" and "evidence".

Before we go any further, let me point out that this is not a topic about religion or God: it's about the improper use of language. If I see a controversial comment bringing up this subject, I might well delete it, lest it will cause a flame war in a completely inappropriate place. If I fel I can get away with it, I might write an entry on faith, and my faith in particular.

When discussing God's existence, several talkers on the christian panel made use of the words "proof" and "evidence" as if the two were synonyms, and in fact meant the same thing. This is NOT the case: proof is stronger, a lot stronger, than evidence. If you have evidence that X is true, you have facts that make X more probable than previously believed, whereas if you have proof that X is true, the truth of X is then established beyond doubt. Briefly, given evidence, the truth or falsehood of X is still uncertain; given proof, it is certain. Strictly speaking, proof is only possible in Mathematics or other systems that employ formal logic to a given set of axioms (like theoretic economics), so a more relaxed version of the word is usually used in normal speech: Proof when when something is shown to be true beyond reasonable doubt. In other words, if X is proved to be true, only a complete moron* would blieve it to be false. You can have evidence for and against something in the same time, but you cannot have proof "for and against it" simultanously. There is either proof or disproof. Or neither.

To take a concrete example: If Shaggy's girl hears the screams getting louder, then later sees the marks on Shaggy's shoulder, she has strong evidence that he is banging the girl next door. Nevertheless, there is still room for doubt, and Shaggy can still pretend it wasn't him. However, if she catches him on camera, then she has proof (as long as she is able to recognise him in the video), Shaggy's lame excuse breaks down, and we will be forced to admit his infidelity. I think I've made my point. Please use the right words when you speak.

*In the case of physics, it's a little more delicate. Some things, such as light being a wave, had been "proved", until some genius found an anomaly and came up with a more suitable explanation



Now that we're here, I'd also like to address another vocabulary issue that crops up in debates about religion. Who hasn't heard creationists accuse the Theory of Evolution of being "just a theory". Again, I don't want to enter a discussion about Intelligent Design, I simply want to point out the meaning of the word "theory".

The word "theory" has two meanings, a scientific meaning and a normal-speech-meaning. The problem is that some people use the latter, when in fact it is clear from the context it should be the former. The common way of understanding "theory" is as a synonym for "hypothesis" or "conjecture", i.e. something unproven. It is a speculation that has come to life but that has not yet been verified by anything practical. There is nothing wrong with this definition: it is indeed what "theory" means in normal speech. But when dealing with the Scientific Method, "theory" has at least one other meaning: A collection of explanations that has been studied in detail, compared with actual data and approved by the general (scientific) community as being true, thus elevating the rank of the "Theory". A good example is the Theory of Gravity, or the more fancy-sounding Theory of Thermodynamics. In the context of the "Theory of Evolution", the word "theory" has this same meaning. It has nothing to do with the unproven connjecture of the alternative meaning. But ID proponent just never seem to realise, do they.

I'm on a roll now, I'll just mention something I read on a bag of The Stamp Collection crisps, today in Tesco's. It went something along the lines: "Terence Stamp spent years trying to find a recipe for gluten free crisps. And, being a master in the kitchen, we knew he would succeed." I'll give 5 pounds to the first person to spot and clearly state the grammatical error in the second sentence.

Oh and I just remembered this. Printed on a tuna sandwich I bought:

"Happyness"?

Oh for the love of Mike, please check for typos before you print something on a million sandwiches!


Phew, that felt good. I'm done ranting. Already two rants on my blogs, and they're BOTH about language. I have the feeling I'll be comlaining a lot about stuff like this. To be honest, I've got more in mind, but I thought it would be a bit of an overload. I'll try and make the next entry more positive, promise.


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