Monday, August 17, 2009

Weighing evidence

There's been a bit of press coverage recently in the US about people who people deridedly call "Birthers". These are people who believe that President Obama was not actually born in the United States and thus not eligible to be President. This is a criticism that came up during his campaign and the Obama campaign countered by releasing a copy of his birth certificate showing that he was born in Hawaii. Other evidence has also been presented such as the birth announcement in a Hawaiian newspaper, confirmation of his birth by the Hawaiian Government etc. Birthers have fired back that the birth certificate was faked (offering all sorts of analysis is to how they can tell it is fake), government cover-ups and so forth. Never mind that once his candidacy became a possibility you could bet your boots that the Republicans poured over every detail of his life to try to dig up dirt on him. If he had not been born in the US you can bet they would have announced it. Hillary's team would have gone over everything as well. Yet the Birthers persist to this day.

Recently an anonymous source sent a birth certificate to one of the more vocal Birthers claiming it was Obama's birth certificate issued in Kenya. This was quickly hailed by some Birthers as the "smoking gun", but research by others managed to track down its origin -- an Australian birth certificate that a man had posted on a genealogy website, which was altered with Obama's name, Republic of Kenya, and whatever other relevant tidbits of information was needed to create the fake certificate.

This ultimately gets to the point of what I want to say. In this world there are many proponents of alternative views, speculations, and theories about things. Occasionally they are right (Mpemba effect, Watergate) but more often than not the evidence just does not add up and it moves into the realm of conspiracy theories or pseudoscience (JFK assassination, Moon landing hoax, 9/11 conspiracies, Bigfoot, alien abductions, cold fusion). One of the hallmarks of when it moves into the latter is . . .

proponents never subject evidence that supports their view to the same level of scrutiny as evidence which opposes it.

So when Obama's birth certificate is presented and confirmed as legitimate by the Hawaiian government Birthers immediately pour over every square centimetre of the scan, accusing fakery, doing detailed analysis of folds, accusing the Hawaiian government of being involved in the cover-up, and all sorts of stuff. But the moment a certificate which supports their view magically appears, provided by an "anonymous source", it is immediately accepted at face value.

If you see that a group appears to not subject supportive evidence to scrutiny it is a yellow flag that it is some kind of crankdom.

The "intelligent design" folks can follow this as well. Thousands upon thousands of peer-reviewed scientific papers exist whose contents support evolutionary theory and they are dismissed by creationists and ID supporters. But if one paper is published that may be construed as supporting their views it is immediately hailed as important and valuable evidence. Shelves of books about evolutionary theory are ignored but many creationists have no problem jumping on a single quote by an evolutionist which could be interpreted as supporting their view (and in fact the quote always turns out to be just an example of quote mining and is not what the speaker meant at all.)

It's sad, but it happens all the time. Best to keep an eye out for instances where people do not appear to be objective in analysing evidence, it could save you a lot of hassle in the long run.


Magnus said...

Interesting enough, one of the things I can recall from my theological education is "assume harmony when approaching a text. If problems persist while engaged in this approach then something is amiss, but assume harmony at all times." The point being, if you go hunting for something negative you will find it but usually at the cost of objectivity.

Anonymous said...

You have to give the Obama manipulators credit for having had the foresight in the early 60's to place birth announcements in the Hawaiian newspapers, anticipating that he might run for President some day.

Rergrding aliens using cold fusion to abduct Bigfoot to help fake the moon landing, well that's another story.

Glen McKay said...

Actually it is better to say, "if you go hunting for something hard enough you will find it but usually at the cost of objectivity". Negative or positive. This is the main weakness of Nostradamus believers and "Bible code" adherents.