May 28, 2007
Stephen J. Gould once commented that orthodoxy can color our interpretation of the facts, and many people subconsciously interpret evidence to prove their desired conclusion. Even the most honest of writers often do research to confirm their personal convictions or attack somebody else’s, and unfortunately it is rather easy to enter into and conduct research with an unhealthy confirmation bias. In the worst case, a writer will selectively interpret evidence without acknowledgment or cross-examination of any counter evidence. As opposed to rendering an objective decision based on the sum total of pertinent evidence, the victims of confirmation bias usually embark upon research with premeditated conclusions, and often they will go to great lengths to get them.
Once dubbed as Darwin’s apostle in Germany, a very prominent biologist and philosopher Ernst Haeckel (1843-1919) popularized an offshoot interpretation of homology that he called the recapitulation theory. Now Haeckel’s contributions to science are outstanding and it’s because of him we use words like ecology and phyla. Noting the physio-developmental similarities amongst organisms even of different species, Haeckel’s observations prompted him to gather evidence proving the theory of descent from a common ancestor. Haeckel was later charged of compiling fraudulent evidence in university court at Jena and there is legitimate evidence of bad science practice from an otherwise good scientist at best; outright dishonest culpability at worst. I’m not claiming to know, but it doesn’t take a genius to imagine the disastrous results.
While that may be an extreme example, the same thing happens every day in even the most mundane of observations. Premeditated arrangement, selective emphasis and selective de-emphasis of facts can prove almost any hypothesis. Polymer expert Walter Bradley reminds us, “…scientists aren’t more objective than anyone else. They all come to questions with their preconceived ideas.”
The errors of confirmation bias, assumption and presupposition inevitably make fact, scripture or science say things they may not necessarily say. When a researcher undertakes research with a premeditated ambition ‘to disprove evolution with geology’ or ‘to prove the validity of six-day creationism,’ they have departed from objectivity even before the onset of any research.
Unprofessional creationists often bend facts and call it science to prove their point. One popular young-Earth creationist argument is that geologic erosion records indicate a young earth. Natural elements, erosion and geologic change slowly grind the seven continents down at a steady rate. By creating a formula using the rate of erosion, the alleged ‘science’ was that by counting backwards, in roughly 15 million years the continents would have eroded down to sea level. It was thus argued that earth could not possibly be much more than 15 million years old on account of this interpretation, but as any good geologist will tell you, the constant shifting of plate tectonics pit large floating land masses against one another, often thrusting the Earth’s crust higher into the atmosphere. The unmentioned variable in this creationist ‘science’ is the possibility of erosion loss being offset by the gains from plate tectonics.
On the other hand, evolutionary reconstruction diagrams in modern exhibits may appear very visually convincing, but they often convey biased and partial interpretations of fossil data. In fact, seldom will a textbook even mention anomalous data that doesn’t fit the standardized scientific consensus. Niles Eldredge commented on one such example, the 1870 Thomas Huxley horse reconstruction noting that the exhibit “…has been presented as the literal truth in textbook after textbook. Now I think that that is lamentable, particularly when the people who propose those kinds of stories may themselves be aware of the speculative nature…”
In sound science, the explanation most supported by the evidence is the best explanation. What happens if that explanation is not the preferred explanation? Most troubling is that scientists will occasionally bend research to prove their preferred conclusion or avoid an unwelcome one. Consider the following unusually candid statement made by British physicist John Gribbin: “The biggest problem with the big bang theory of the origin of the universe is philosophical, perhaps even theological; what was there before the bang? This problem alone was sufficient to give a great initial impetus to the steady state theory, but with that theory now sadly in conflict with the observations the best way round this difficulty is provided by a model in which the universe expands from a singularity, collapses back again, and repeats the cycle indefinitely.” The subtext of Gribbin’s statement is very revealing, especially the bold words.
Contrary to what’s typical of those who canonize or demonize his ideas, Darwin’s writing often reflects that of an open-minded researcher. It is worthy of noting Charles was a contemporary of John Stuart Mill’s classical liberalism, and in Origin Darwin himself reminds us that “A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question.”
When I was just a wee lad and somebody denied me access to Popsicles in mid-summer, I would always invent another way to get what I preferred: cooling, refreshing Popsicles. Persistence is the darn’dest thing, so I would usually just wait until my mom checked the mail, quickly grab a few of those grape, orange or cherry jewels and slip into the laundry room to enjoy them in indulgent secrecy. Other times I would convince one of our degenerate thirty-something roommates to grab one for me. When they weren’t around and mom wasn’t about to check the mail, I would ostensibly act like I was getting a glass of ice water and conveniently slip a Popsicle or two into my pockets. Whatever the case, when it was a hot summer day and I wanted Popsicles, I never accepted ‘no’ for an answer.
This tendency generally sticks with people and carries into their professions, whether they are car salespeople, studio producers, preachers or practicing scientists, and it is to nothing but the detriment of science that religio-political agendists masquerading as researchers bastardize the truth to gain converts.