Thursday, November 09, 2006

No evidence

The other day, I was talking to Mr. Scientist about some experiments. “But what about Dr. Quack’s idea that geese are subconsciously attracted to willow trees?” he asked.

“There’s no evidence for that.”

I’ve noticed that sometimes, the rest of the world hears this phrase and thinks “There’s no evidence for it, so there’s no evidence against it. So who knows what the answer is?”

But here in the ivory tower, we usually mean “There’s no evidence for that.” When scientists say this about others’ work, theories, or papers, it’s an insult. [Although every so often, all we mean to say is: You haven’t done the experiment yet. That’s all speculation.] It’s a way to dismiss data as sloppy, insignificant, artefactual, irrelevant, or faked. It’s “I don’t believe it." Even in the most charitable cases, it means: I think your interpretation is weak. It usually also means: I have a better idea.

It’s a pity that it is heard as a lukewarm dismissal. It is a polite phrase to disguise the most profound mistrust.

And clearly I've been here too long: I've taken to using it as a stock phrase outside of lab, on the lines of "You can't prove it! I'm innocent, I tell you, innocent!" Why is the car unlocked, dear? No evidence. Did you eat the last brownie? No evidence!

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous3:42 PM

    I guess he doesn't care if you finish the marzipan, but do you have pets? You can always blame them as well...:)


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