Nothing upon another’s word

Nullius in Verba
~ The Royal Society

Nothing upon another's word

Yet another tattoo.

Count it as either 13 or 14, it’s my 2nd in New Orleans. Generally with the tattoos I get each year, they are meant to sum up something about the previous year leading up to the inking, but because I’ve already gotten 1 tattoo here in the city, I decided to get a phrase that was less about marking a moment in time and more just part of my personal philosophy.

“Nothing Upon Another’s Word” (in the original latin) is the motto of the Royal Society of London, one of the oldest (if not the oldest) organizations dedicated to science. It has existed since 1660. There are religions that are younger than that.

This motto is the essential heart of science, and the hallmark of a skeptical mind (note: skeptical, not cynical). Every atheist has the spirit of this phrase running through their veins, even if they’ve never read it. Of course, you don’t have to be an atheist to respect this basic tenet of the scientific pursuit (there are, after all, scientists who are religious), but to live it in your day to day life is to refute the very notions of ‘blind faith’ and ‘authority.’

There are those who will claim ‘science’ is just another ‘faith,’ revealing that they don’t understand either word. The phrase “Nothing upon another’s word” is what sets science apart from religion. Being an atheist or admiring science doesn’t mean one lacks the ability to believe, it only means that we don’t believe based on someone’s word or assurances. If a scientist makes a claim, s/he has to provide evidence to support that claim. Once that has been done, a portion of faith (used in the sense of “good faith” not “blind faith”) is allotted to that person, so long as each additional claim is supported with additional evidence.

Science builds on what has been established. The Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection didn’t just appear in Darwin’s head, he built it on observations and well-established facts. These observations and facts were so well established that Darwin wasn’t even the only person to come up with the theory. He was just the first to get it published and widely disseminated.

Religion doesn’t work that way. It makes a huge claim (an omnipotent God, a Holy Prophet who speaks for Him, Heaven and Hell) and works backwards, demanding that the believers accept the most outlandish claims first (with no evidence) and then everything else they say is pretty easy to swallow in comparison.

When religious people attack science by claiming that the Big Bang Theory or String Theory are just matters of faith, they’re displaying the very mindset that makes them susceptible to religious faith. They are used to thinking about the big and working small, whereas science takes the small and builds up to the big. Those religious people who dismiss scientific theories don’t understand that such theories are built on smaller observations and well-documented facts, because their personal “theories” (God) have no such foundations.

When I say I believe in the Big Bang Theory or the Theory of Natural Selection, I’m not saying I have faith in someone else’s word. I’m saying that there has been enough research, study and established facts to make each theory believable. The theory could be proven wrong, but if that’s the case the base facts won’t change any. On the other hand, if God is disproved (obviously this will never happen), every religion will suddenly be meaningless (I mean, more so).

When someone proclaims faith in a particular religion’s God, their belief is built upon accepting the unproven claims of another. When I state that the only thing I believe in is science, I’m plainly saying, “Nothing upon another’s word.”

Nothing upon another's word Context

Fundamental Misunderstandings

“The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”

~ Neil deGrasse Tyson

One of the reasons that people come to disagree with the truth is that their understanding of the fundamental argument is so skewed. This could be because someone has deliberately misrepresented the opposing view, but just as often it can be because in an attempt to simplify a topic for easier consumption the original idea gets distorted by the very people trying to explain it.

Take the Big Bang Theory (not the show, dummy), for instance. The whole theory is very complex and encompasses many fields of study and many theories, but the name makes the whole thing sound pretty simplistic and childish. There’s a reason for that. The guy who coined the term was actually mocking the theory. Whereas the theory is well-supported and is the most widely-accepted theory for the origin of the universe, it’s almost impossible to say the name and not roll your eyes a little bit.

Other major scientific principles suffer from similar public relation problems, and it’s often these sorts of simple misunderstandings that lead people down the initial road to doubt.

Let’s look at 3 such fundamental misunderstandings and see if we can’t set them right.*

1. The Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection

I’m not under any grand delusion thinking that any post I write is going to change the minds of people who believe in Intelligent Design. For people who have already sided with that position, there are pages upon pages of well-written responses and rebuttals (that will likely never make a dent). No, I merely hope to reach the few people who generally have never given it much thought but might be susceptible to false information if the facts aren’t explained to them beforehand (like a kid who goes to a Young Republicans meeting for the economic conservatism, but ends up sucked into protesting gay marriage).

What is the fundamental misunderstanding about Darwin’s big theory? Well, it’s all in that famous picture above. From the time any of us hear about evolution, we are shown this (or a similar) picture. It concisely illustrates the notion that humans come from a long line of ancestors who were of a different species. The problem with this picture can be seen every time an evolution denier says something like, “If we evolved from monkeys, how come there are still monkeys.”

We did not evolve from monkeys. Not from apes or orangutans, either. As flashy as that picture is, it gives the false impression that evolution is moving us forward, evolving species with a purpose, an end game. That simply isn’t true. We humans share a common ancestor with apes and orangutans, but that doesn’t mean we evolved from them. The reason there are ‘still monkeys’ is because they, as a species, were well adapted to their environment and survived, just as we did. In fact, the only reason the species we know as ‘humans’ still exists is because at various points in our ancestral history, one species was better adapted to survive than another species.

The better way to illustrate the path of evolution is through a tree illustration. Simple trees can look just like branches or family trees, but the more complex (and accurate) ones are often illustrated in this manner:

As I’ve already said, I know that this explanation will be meaningless to someone who has already dismissed the theory, but for those who are studying it and still trying to figure out where they fall in the debate, it’s important to avoid beginning with such a fundamental misunderstanding.

2. Climate Change

If you’re like me (I’m sorry), then you’re probably irked every time someone says during a massive blizzard, “So much for Global Warming!” Granted, I realize when people post that on Facebook or wherever, half the time they’re being sarcastic or just trolling. But it still bothers me because I know half the time people are serious, and the sentence alone probably gets some people thinking, “Hm, yeah, this doesn’t feel warmer.”

While Global Warming is, indeed, an accurate descriptor (unlike the evolution image above that misrepresents the theory), I prefer the term ‘Climate Change’ because as far as short, eye-catching nomenclature goes, it both accurately describes the phenomenon and doesn’t allow as much room for people too lazy to research the topic to get confused (or sidetracked). Yes, our environment is getting warmer, but no that doesn’t mean every day is going to be hotter.

Day to day temperatures are, of course, affected by the overall climate, but that’s just one of many factors that change as our atmosphere heats up. While Hurricane Sandy can’t definitively be blamed on Climate Change, the increasing severity and frequency of these storms can be. At this point, Climate Change is a fact (like evolution). Humans causing Climate Change is the theory (like the Theory of Natural Selection). As the years progress, we’re seeing an increasing number of Climate Change skeptics change their tune from, “Climate Change isn’t real” to “Climate Change is real, but we have nothing to do with it.”

As we see more and more destructive storms and debilitating droughts, though, the question of whether or not we cause Climate Change becomes academic. It doesn’t matter because if we can do something to counteract these changes no matter what the cause, we should.

3. Statistics

I’m talking about this one because, thanks to Nate Silver and his FiveThirtyEight blog, statistics are all the rage. Who would have thunk math could be so sexy?

As we saw in this election, anybody with a firm enough handle on statistics can look like a friggin’ psychic. Most of us who followed Silver’s blog throughout the election and read his explanations understood the facts that supported his predictions and weren’t at all surprised by the results (unlike some commentators who were apparently blindsided). Before the election, there were a whole lot of reasons being bandied about why Silver’s Forecast was wrong, things like bias and flawed polls. In the echo chamber of the Conservative media where like-minded individuals only heard from each other, it was impossible to align Silver’s predictions with the view they had.

But statistics are a very misunderstood field even when politics aren’t involved. Statistics are the reason I rarely gamble (and why I never play the lotto). Given time, the house always wins. This has to be the case, or casinos would be closing left and right, not giving out free drinks to their patrons.

If you look at the popular literature on statistics, you’ll see a lot of books focused on what is known in the field as “outliers,” those unexpected occurrences where an event happens outside the norm predicted by the stats. These events are called ‘outliers’ for a reason, because they cannot be counted on. But in true American, “I go it alone” fashion, the idea of the outlier has become intoxicating. “Sure,” we think, “most people fall inside the statistical curve, but I’m going to be the Outlier.” (The Outlier would make for a very interesting Superhero.)

Reality hits hard, though.

Contrary to how they are commonly portrayed, statistics don’t make predictions. Statistics, either in the way Nate Silver uses them, or casinos, or baseball general managers, merely determine the odds of a particular event. Statistically speaking, Obama was favored to win. If he had lost, Silver’s methods wouldn’t have been proven wrong, though that would certainly have been the headline (and math education would have taken a major hit). But Obama’s win doesn’t ‘prove’ Silver was right, either, because the math already did that.

Can statistics be wrong? Sure. If the facts are wrong or incomplete. Or if the math itself is done incorrectly. But when the input is correct and the analysis is done properly, the output will be accurate, no matter what. If something is predicted to happen with 75% assurance, but it doesn’t happen, that doesn’t mean the math was wrong. It means that the 25% chance panned out.

Because of that less-than-sexy reality, statistics can be quite frustrating. We want these statisticians to predict the future, but all they can really do is give the odds. This is why accusations of Silver being biased were so unfounded. As a statistician, Silver’s reputation rests on his accuracy, not on his political bent. He didn’t use magic or any crazy tricks to make predictions, he just used math.

And that’s damn sexy.

*This is by no means an attempt to give a thorough overview of these topics. Hopefully, if you’re interested, you’ll seek out reputable sources for further information.