The Road Less Traveled author M. Scott Peck, MD wrote something about the “pain of not knowing”. I don’t remember much of it other than that an information vacuum makes us uncomfortable – in pain, even – and we tend to fill the gaps with conjectures and presumptions. While perhaps most people recognize these “fillers” as mere speculation, I suppose some treat them as incontestable truth. It’s easy to fall into this comfort of “knowing”, and I think most if not all of us had at one time or another been guilty of this self-delusion.
While most misconceptions are often harmless or merely annoying such as wrongly assuming a person’s position or civil status, some tend to be fatal like wrongly convicting a man to death based on “proof” beyond reasonable doubt.
I remember the article Is Psychology A Science by Paul Lutus because it clearly distinguishes the legal from the scientific connotations of proof and evidence. Let me cite the following excerpt:
The legal definition of evidence is (as one example) a set of observations that appear to associate a particular person with a particular event. Typically, legal proceedings begin with an investigation meant to collect evidence, followed by a trial that establishes whether that evidence meets a criterion – “beyond a reasonable doubt” in criminal proceedings, and “according to the preponderance of evidence” in civil proceedings (in the US). This, by the way, is why O. J. Simpson was found innocent in criminal court, but found guilty in a subsequent civil proceeding – using the same evidence, he wasn’t guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt,” but he was guilty “according to the preponderance of evidence.”
In an embarrassing and tragic number of cases, innocent people have been placed on death row (and sometimes executed) based on evidence that, notwithstanding the innocence of the convict, met the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard, when evaluated by a jury of 12 upstanding citizens, people whom we shall charitably assume paid no mind to the color of the defendant’s skin. Relatively recently, new ways of gathering evidence – like DNA testing – have proven the innocence of a fortunate few death-row inmates, and others who might have gone unpunished have been arrested.
The point here is that legal evidence is not remotely scientific evidence. Contrary to popular belief, science doesn’t use sloppy evidentiary standards like “beyond a reasonable doubt,” and scientific theories never become facts. This is why the oft-heard expression “proven scientific fact” is never appropriate – it only reflects the scientific ignorance of the speaker. Scientific theories are always theories, they never become the final and only explanation for a given phenomenon.
Ah, theories. Always theories. Never become facts. How uncomfortable that must be to most people. And how painful it must be to quite a few.
Of course, assumptions are necessary for us to operate at all. And if we keep on saying “I don’t know”, no conversation will last more than a minute. And so we say “I don’t know exactly, but I suppose…”
Nevertheless, the freethinker should be vigilant against our tendency to delude ourselves into thinking that our assumptions are always correct. (I remember a line from Silence of the Lambs about how the word assume means putting an ass in front of u and me.)
And when it comes to our beliefs, how we arrived at a certain belief is just as important – probably more important – than the belief itself.
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This article was originally published at innerminds.wordpress.com