“That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” (Christopher Hitchens). Do you agree?
Often casual statements are made without indisputable evidence, from parents claiming our colds are caused by wet hair, to eating an apple a day believing it will keep the doctor away. The above examples are relatively trivial, and in those cases hard evidence is arguably not a necessity. However, believing in assertions at face value can be detrimental when dealing with issues like introducing new theories in science and education. It becomes apparent that the concept of evidence has been adapted differently to different areas of knowledge; arguments or statements made regarding visual arts won’t provide the same type of evidence as scientific ones. Still, when subjects are mixed, and statements about science made based on faith, some judgment is needed to determine what type of evidence is required to validate the statement. There are also cases in which decisions about the future must be made with uncertainty about their outcomes; nevertheless, a primary obligation of every area of knowledge is to provide evidence to substantiate ideas and to avoid falling into the trap of an ‘evidential relativism,’ where every argument is of equal value.
‘Evidence’ is defined as: information indicating whether something is true or valid. This vague description lets various types of information be considered evidence depending on context. When analyzing areas of knowledge such as the natural sciences and arts, one finds that what constitutes evidence differs greatly in each subject, as do the ways of knowing informing it. The natural sciences rely on empirical evidence; reasoning is usually involved, as conclusions are made inductively after viewing long-standing patterns. Using sense perception to gather proof helps keep scientific theories objective, but can be misleading if mistakes are made- maybe a scientist’s vision is not strong enough to perceive a crucial detail in a microscope, leading to a conclusion that has a lot of evidence, but that isn’t true. Personal desires too can influence the senses: a researcher may only see what coincides with their hypothesis, ignoring other evidence or preventing trials from being published, as in the Tamiflu scandal. Quantity of evidence doesn’t automatically equate to validity. Despite any amount of good quality evidence, scientific conclusions are not 100% certain; there can always be a break in the inductively deduced pattern that proves a theory wrong. As sense perception can only be applied to our 5 senses, some theories can’t yet be investigated for lack of our ability to extend our sensory knowledge beyond the ones we have (human eyes can only perceive a small range of wavelengths, for instance,) though they may hold some truth, and therefore can be neither proven nor disproven. This is a major argument for the existence of a god- an assertion that does not have scientific proof, but that many say can’t be rejected because humans don’t have the means to delve into matters of faith.
As it’s often said to be irrational, faith may be thought of as exempt from providing strong evidence for statements relating to it. In fact, faith itself could be used as evidence for the ‘truth’ of a belief. Yet even the very act of blind faith is a process underpinned by ways of knowing like emotion, language, and intuition (a shortcut of reason.) Particularly prevalent are the strong emotions that accompany it, like awe, which could actually be considered evidence of a person’s faith. Intuition’s role may be a bit contradictory though; this issue can be regarded in light of the ongoing creationism debate. Creationism claims that the world was created by a god of some kind; while some attempt to prove this scientifically, most justify their belief in it by saying that it’s true (for them) solely because they have faith in their religion. Creationism is at odds with the theory of evolution and most scientists dismiss it for having no proof. What primarily catalyzes this dismissal is not the theory’s existence, but that it’s put forth as a scientific theory; if creationist assertions are to be taken seriously within science, they should follow the protocol of the subject area and either produce scientific, not faith based, evidence, or not disguise creationism as science. The latter seems to be the archbishop of Canterbury’s view concerning creationism in education: “I think creationism is … a kind of category mistake, as if the Bible were a theory like other theories.”
On one hand the theory may be valid within the confines of faith, and shouldn’t need any more evidence to be true in that realm. But the faith may be a product of an intuition that creationism must be true, which in turn suggests that some amount of reason was used when coming to the decision. So should it be required for creationists to furnish evidence that justifies their intuition, since their assertion is no longer based only on blind faith, or does intuition carry a different meaning in relation to faith, leaning more towards spontaneous impulse than reason? One mustn’t forget that scientific decisions are also sometimes made without evidence of the usual quality- the precautionary principle for instance, advises countries to take action against climate change, although there is no definite proof that human activity is causing it (only a strong correlation.)
The arts also largely rely on sense perception to experience art, and this is a stepping stone to forming evidence justifying opinions about a work. Emotion is an important component in differentiating good and bad art; often works that elicit the intended emotions are valued above those that have equal aesthetic value, but don’t arouse any feelings in the viewer. However, do the emotions felt by the viewer need to be supported by evidence as well, in order to know that they are truly feeling what they say they do when looking at an artwork? It’s one thing for me to verbally claim to feel sadness and anger while seeing Goya’s Shootings of May Third; is this just a superficial assertion- based on an assumption that this is what I ought to feel, or are the emotions truly manifesting? In a sense it’s not only the viewer’s assertion of their opinion of the work that needs evidence, but also their evidence (emotion) that needs to be shown as valid. Emotions might not be able to stand as strong evidence because an artwork may create slightly different emotions in each viewer. The difference in personal interpretation in part perhaps contributes to art being seen as completely subjective, though ideally it shouldn’t be. For this reason, another type of proof used when making assertions about the quality of art is the consensus of authority figures – when experts agree that a work is effective, it’s more likely that their declaration will be taken seriously. Here, the proof that their claim is valid is the fact that they are experts in the field, and they have the training to discern good art from bad. However, one needs to know what sort of evidence the authority figures themselves used to decide if a work is good- maybe a common aesthetic criterion, or maybe different ways of knowing (making their methods more subjective.) Utilizing only one criterion to see if a work has followed the principles of design (while making distinguishing good art from bad slightly more objective,) also limits the scope of creativity and what art can be. Moreover, the aesthetic tastes of art authorities are culturally dependent- this calls for multiple criteria and definitions in the world of good art, some of which may contradict each other. Also, when dealing with general consensus of viewers of art rather than of professional critics, one must consider how valuable the input of the viewers is compared to that of the critics: generally it’s from the audience that art aims to elicit a positive response, and in this sense, an assertion determining the quality of a work that’s supported by agreement of the audience may be more valuable than the critics’ consensus.
While evidence can be easily demanded of someone, it’s important to look beyond the surface and consider its context, examining the ways of knowing seemingly making the piece of evidence valid. As outlined above, each subject presents its own challenges regarding this, and there’s the danger of overanalyzing evidence until all its value is exhausted and no way of knowing is airtight enough. With these limitations in mind, perhaps establishing some baseline ‘axioms’ defining evidence in various subjects would be ultimately beneficial in distinguishing fact from myth.