Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Tyranny of Evidence

In the wake of Prop 8 being overturned a lot of footage flooded the airwaves and internet featuring word battles between the proponents and the opponents of gay marriage.  One piece featuring Tony Perkins and David Boies however managed to transcend the issue:

In case you didn't feel like watching the video, the bit I'm referring to was the following statement by David Boies:

"It's easy to sit around and debate and throw around opinions -- appeal to people's fear and prejudice, cite studies that either don't exist or don't say what you say they do. In a court of law you've got to come in and you've got to support those opinions. You've got to stand up under oath and cross-examination. And what we saw at trial is that it's very easy for the people who want to deprive gay and lesbian citizens the right to vote, to make all sorts of statements in campaign literature or in debates where they can't be cross-examined.

But when they come into court and they have to support those opinions and they have to defend those opinions under oath and cross-examination, those opinions just melt away. And that's what happened here. There simply wasn't any evidence. There weren't any of those studies. There weren't any empirical studies. That's just made up. That's junk science.

... A witness stand is a lonely place to lie. And when you come into court, you can't do that. And that's what we proved."
 What he said here is true for so much more than just the issue of gay marriage.  Creationists, Conspiracy theorists, Holocaust deniers, Climate Change "skeptics", Anti-Vaxers - they all claim that the facts and evidence support their position.  On their websites, literature and in debates they confidently proclaim that the truth is on their side.  Yet every time they actually land in court and they are forced to tell the "truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth" it all seems to collapse like a house of cards.  For a fantastic example, see the Kitzmiller v Dover Area School District.  The Intelligent Design community finally got their day in court and they fell apart spectacularly.

Everyone is entitled to their own opinions but not to their own facts.  Sure, it's easy enough to claim to have facts but the funny thing about facts is that they can be tested and verified.  That is why proponents of many "alternative" viewpoints prefer to spend their time yapping about how "the mainstream" is suppressing the truth instead of actually backing their claims with facts.  That is why (I think) the Discovery Institute prefers to spend their funds on literature, lectures and debates instead of any lab work.  The lab, like the court is a place where evidence trumps all.  And when the evidence is not on your side you tend to stay as far away from it as possible.

Life under the tyranny of evidence is not always a kind and cozy affair but I would take it over the alternative any day!


GumbyTheCat said...

I don't know if you've ever seen the PBS NOVA special Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial, about the Kitzmiller v. Dover Board of Education ID Trial, but if you haven't I wholeheartedly recommend it. Here's a link to the entire 2 hour special:

This documentary illustrates perfectly the points you make in your post.

Eugene said...

Thanks Gumby, I've been meaning to check that out for a while now!

I have to say, the line about people who "cite studies that either don't exist or don't say what you say they do" is extremely applicable to creationism debates! Lately though I find that it is even more true for Climate Change deniers - they often site papers that in fact say the opposite of what they claim