It Ain’t Proof Until The Fat Lady Sings

The February Sky and Telescope had an interesting commentary by Editor-In-Chief Richard Tresch Fienborg. It concerned logical and factual assertions of the form “more proof uncovered.” Examples:

NASA: “direct proof” of dark matter

NY Times: “strongest proof yet” of water flow on Mars

We are so deadened to political and media misuse of the concept of “proof” that it is a shame we often don’t pick up on it when the conceptual abuse occurs in the scientific community. You don’t see this coming from the scientists actually making the scientific discoveries. You see it from the political and press flacks trying to leverage the event for maximum spin.

The NASA statement at least makes some sense: it implies observational proof, as opposed to armchaired hypothesis and “theory”.

Fienborg correctly quarrels with those who would demote “theory” to the status of an unproven and somewhat arbitrary hunch or guess – as religious literalists would have us do with the “theory” of evolution, global warming and so forth: there’s no proof; it’s just your opinion, which is no better than my opinion. As Fienborg points out, a theory is invalidated when contradicted by even one set of facts or principles.

So, why make a big deal out of the misuse of “proof”? Are we just bickering about semantics?

A “fact”, asks Fienborg: is it the assertion of the trusted authority figures, or something that can be verified independently by multiple observers? The answer you get determines whether it’s “my preacher told me that it’s so” or “I can demonstrate this myself with my backyard telescope.”

Most of us can see almost intuitively how the differences in the two approaches can determine which way the world heads from here.

As a kid in college, I read Hannah Arendt’s classic “Totalitarianism” which, among many notable accomplishments, dissected in frightening detail the semantics and propaganda used to mobilize Hitler’s Germany. It was tough sledding, but I never forgot those lessons.

This just reminds us all that if the concepts are popularly demolished upon which we rely so heavily to do good science, and indeed to live in freedom, then it scarcely matters how good a grasp we ourselves have of those ideas. Bereft of a common language to communicate them, we are just as effectively censored into silence as if the old propaganda polizei held the button to the microphone.

If it’s “proof”, “stronger proof” invalidates the whole concept. Yes, NASA requires a much more complex checklist of conditions that must be satisfied, than I required to tune my ’84 Bronco (back in the days when you could tune your own engine). Proof still doesn’t come in degrees of certitude, or household vs. industrial strengths. It’s either proven or it ain’t.

You only get to hear the fat lady sing once, if at all. You can fool some people some of the time, but you can’t fool the fat lady.

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