An Evidence-Based Approach

As we try to navigate a confusing world, some approaches to life seem to be more useful than others.  One approach is to adopt a cultural narrative as a starting point and then interpret life events through your cultural lens.  A better approach is to use evidence to determine the correctness of the cultural narrative.

Before I elaborate, let’s take a brief detour to discuss something important.  Let’s talk about the difference between evidence and proof.  Evidence is simply a fact—something that is reasonably incontrovertible.  There are no reasonable arguments against it.

Proof, on the other hand, is much different.  Proof is, in essence, the final solution to the problem.  Something is considered to be proven when all the evidence points to its correctness, and there is no credible, contradicting evidence.  Humans have a tendency to conflate evidence with proof.  This is because we are interpreting the evidence in accordance with our pre-established worldview.  This approach to life is not very useful.

As an example, let’s use the question of whether the earth is flat or round.  A reasonably incontrovertible fact is that the sun rises every morning.  That could be the first piece of evidence in our investigation.  But that evidence could be interpreted in two fundamental ways:  it could be explained by the sun rotating around the earth, or it could be explained by the earth rotating on its axis.

For someone to claim that the earth is flat because the sun appears to travel around the earth would not be an honest approach to life.  Likewise, for someone to claim that the earth is round solely because the earth appears to rotate on its axis, would also not be honest.  An honest approach would be to view the sun’s relative motion in relation to the earth as one piece of evidence, which by itself, is inconclusive.  More corroborating evidence is required before we can form a solid conclusion.  We can develop theories all day long that could explain the relative motion, but to be dogmatic about a theory is disingenuous, because you would be claiming that something is incontrovertibly true when you don’t know for sure that you are correct. 

To validate a theory—to prove that something is true—separate pieces of independently verifiable evidence must align, and evidence to the contrary must be honestly addressed.

I’m going to borrow a technique from J. Warner Wallace, the brilliant, cold-case homicide detective, and use the illustration of a murder scene.  A person is found murdered, and a suspect has been identified.  This suspect has a reasonable motive and reasonably had the means to accomplish the murder.  The suspect owned a gun that was found at the crime scene and identified as the murder weapon.  The suspect’s DNA was also found at the crime scene.  The facts in the case are pieces of evidence, but proof has not been established.  An investigator might take the few facts we’ve listed and conclude that that there is no doubt that the suspect is our killer.  But if he is honestly seeking the truth, the investigator should be willing to change his theory if he encounters evidence that contradicts it.

Now let’s suppose that our suspect has an alibi.  At the time of the murder, our suspect was three states away giving a talk to hundreds of people.  This is another fact, another piece of evidence, that contradicts the investigator’s theory.  Were the investigator to dogmatically hold to his claim that the suspect is undoubtedly guilty, he would not be taking an honest approach to his investigation.  The investigator is required to deal with all the evidence, and ultimately, construct a narrative that is coherent with all of the evidence.  

This means that our pet theories, as interesting and as compelling as they are, should not be held dogmatically if there is evidence to the contrary.

While we’re at it, let’s clear up another misconception about evidence.  Something should only be considered evidence if it is an established fact.  Someone’s testimony should not be considered evidence (factual) unless it is independently verifiable.  Just because someone makes a claim with lots of emotion or passion does not mean that their claim is factual or that it should be considered valid without independent corroboration.  Back to the issue at hand.

When it comes to the Christian religion, there is an almost universal reverence for the Truth.  So far, so good.  The problem is that Christians are often fond of substituting their personal dogmas for the truth.  A dogma is an unshakeable belief that one holds, regardless of any evidence to the contrary.  I would contend that this is a less useful approach to life.  And lest you think I am just picking on Christians, many people from other religions do the same thing.  Even the secularists don’t get off scot free.  Much of what is called “science” is simply unsubstantiated dogma.  Oftentimes, we repeat cultural narratives that fit with our worldview, and we don’t bother to examine the evidence.  Any evidence that contradicts our narrative we simply explain away by a theory rather than deal with it honestly.

This is a backward approach to worldview development.  Yet, too often, religious leaders demand blind adherence to a particular narrative on the basis of “faith.”  The hook is that if you don’t pledge assent to The Narrative, then you don’t have enough faith.  Ipso facto, God will be angry with you.  (Social activists do the same thing, only they substitute a subjective ethic for God.)  Contrast this with Peter’s statement in his second letter about not following cleverly concocted fables.  God has never required blind faith, but has always provided an evidentiary basis for belief.

Through a Glass DarklyWhen we go down this road of contrasting evidence and proof, we encounter a dilemma:  can anything be truly known?  This is a timeless question, and it is one with which we must contend.

For me, the answer is a dissatisfying “yes and no.”  You see, we all crave certainty.  Yet certainty is one of the most elusive things you could chase.  Perhaps it is our craving of certainty that drives us to keep searching and growing and learning.  Some lose hope and give up and end up embracing nihilism, but this doesn’t have to be our logical conclusion.

Life is a journey of discovery.  There is an ultimate truth or reality that we should be seeking.  As we learn, our understanding should be more in line with the truth, even if we will never be able to fully apprehend it in this life.

Here’s where it comes down to for me.  There’s a ton of evidence out there.  Much of it seems contradictory.  We should endeavor to take an honest approach to life and base our worldview on evidence rather than on theory.  But perhaps more importantly, while we’re sorting through all of the evidence and constructing a narrative that explains it all, we should not let our beliefs become so dogmatic that we mistreat others who hold contradictory beliefs.

You see, we frequently let unprovable things like our theory or concept of God (think The Trinity) become so important to us that we isolate ourselves from others who hold different theories and instead, congregate only with those whose thinking is aligned with ours.  This may be religion’s biggest failing:  it creates unnecessary, artificial barriers between people.  Our confidence in our beliefs should not be a reason to isolate ourselves from others who evaluate evidence differently than we do.

On a personal level, we should be using evidence to shape our worldview rather than the other way around.  On a societal level, we should not allow our beliefs to turn into divisive dogmas that breed animosity between us and those that hold contradictory opinions.

One thought on “An Evidence-Based Approach

  1. Pingback: Misinformation About Misinformation | The Wild Frontier

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