Who needs evidence? What is evidence, anyway? What is it good for?
Let’s take it from the top.
What is Evidence?
We all know what evidence is. It’s that thing President Trump lacked when he claimed voter fraud cost him the popular vote. Or when he claimed China fabricated climate change.
Evidence, the noun, can be defined in the following ways:
- Something that furnishes proof (Merriam-Webster);
- Knowledge on which to base belief (Vocabulary.com); and
- The available body of facts or information indicating whether a belief or proposition is true or valid (Oxford Dictionaries)
As an aside, I find it rather unfortunate that I have to pay for use of the Oxford English Dictionary—a dictionary (and so much more) distinct from the Oxford Dictionaries. Fie on them for charging for such a treasure trove of English!
Who Needs Evidence?
Why is Evidence Important?
Before I begin: no. The previous section is not suspiciously terse. Everyone needs evidence whether they like it or not.
Human civilization depends on evidence for quite a number of things including philosophy, law, science, and technology. Without it, where would we be? Without evidence, we could expect defendants in a court of law to be convicted based on caprice or whimsy rather than by establishing guilt through facts, information, and argument. Many medical practices and treatments are wholly dependent on well-designed experiments and empirical data validating their efficacy; this field is known as evidence-based medicine. How apropos! The whole scientific enterprise is grounded in claims that can be verified or falsified through measurement, observation, experimentation, and the replicability of such experiments.
We adjudicate claims with evidence. Either the evidence supports a claim—assertion or declaration—or it does not.
Unfortunately, as with all things, evidence can be tainted. The pseudo-intellectual is good at manipulating information, facts, and evidence to their own needs. And this is why we need to approach all claims with skepticism. I don’t wish to encourage a flat out rebuke or negation of all claims, nor the denigration of the communicator. However, it behooves one not to swallow all assertions and declarations without careful reflection. A pseudo-intellectual is often skilled in casuistry and can make falsehoods sound true if one isn’t paying close attention.
Some dismiss evidence altogether before a proper evaluation can be done. Some dismiss evidence based on personal or anecdotal experiences.
For example, when debating the validity of the Mandela Effect, I always ask whether any evidence can be adduced in favor of the effect, especially the extravagant claim of the existence of time travelers and multiple universes. I am often met with things like, “well, everyone remembered seeing the Berenstein Bears, but now we can only find the Berenstain Bears,” a remark that conflates the anecdotal with the empirical. Even if proponents of the Mandela Effect could prove—to any reasonable degree of certainty—the existence of a clique who conspired to alter historical events, facile and important ones alike, proponents would still have all their work ahead of them to establish the existence of multiple universes and time travel, let alone a time-traveling clique that wished to sabotage our historical records.
Another debate—admittedly more contentious and peppered with more impassioned dialogue—is the association between childhood vaccination and autism. We can thank Andrew J. Wakefield, the now-disgraced former physician researcher, whose fraudulent 1998 publication gave major traction to the modern anti-vaccination movement. His fatuous paper has caused—and continues to cause—irreparable damage to public health, especially to the health of children worldwide. Let’s not forget that 10 of the 13 authors of that shit article have renounced its findings. We should also keep in mind Wakefield’s financial conflicts of interest which he failed to disclose at the time of publication. Nor should we forget that a British tribunal—charged with investigating unnecessary and unethical practices—found Wakefield had indeed abused the developmentally challenged children in his study; he has been forbidden to practice medicine in the United Kingdom.
This review article noted research from the United Kingdom which found “no sudden increase or ‘step up’ in the incidence of autism after the introduction of the [MMR] vaccine, nor did they find a difference in age in [the] diagnosis of autism between vaccinated and unvaccinated children.” According to the National Health Service, the United Kingdom started using the MMR vaccine in 1988. It is now 2017. Were there a link between the MMR vaccine and autism, I’m certain someone would have found it by now.
Another common objection to vaccinations has to do with thimerosal, a mercury-containing compound.
Oh, shit! Did I say mercury?
Yes. Say it again with me: mercury-containing compound.
Cue ominous music and an involuntary shudder.
Mercury isn’t the sexiest element on the periodic table and one should avoid exposure to mercury whenever possible; it’s toxic stuff. but it is naturally occurring—like arsenic and lead—and pharmacologically useful. Here’s what the CDC says about thimerosal:
“Thimerosal is added to vials of vaccine that contain more than one dose (multi-dose vials) to prevent growth of germs, like bacteria and fungi. Introduction of bacteria and fungi has the potential to occur when a syringe needle enters a vial as a vaccine is being prepared for administration. Contamination by germs in a vaccine could cause severe local reactions, serious illness or death. In some vaccines, preservatives, including thimerosal, are added during the manufacturing process to prevent germ growth… Thimerosal does not stay in the body a long time so it does not build up and reach harmful levels. When thimerosal enters the body, it breaks down to ethylmercury and thiosalicylate, which are readily eliminated.”
I can understand the initial skepticism people would have. It almost seems like a contradiction. In the backdrop of vehement protestations to thimerosal, “the Public Health Service agencies, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and vaccine manufacturers agreed that thimerosal should be reduced or eliminated in vaccines as a precautionary measure.” That was in July of 1999. With the exception of the flu vaccine, thimerosal was phased out in 2001. However, autism rates continue to rise.
Yet, despite all of this, opponents of vaccinations cite the mountebank, Wakefield, as their intellectual lodestar and cry ‘thimerosal!’ all the time, overlooking nearly two decades of research to the contrary: no causal link between vaccines and autism exists. (Even the pseudo-intellectual, Ben Carson, knows this to be true.)
In both cases, something resembling evidence has yet to be produced.
Alas, the Trump administration utilizes different metrics to adjudicate evidence (or alternative facts), if they even require evidence at all. And this will certainly be a menace to the future of public health, namely in the recrudescence of diseases we once considered vanquished. Trump gives credence to purveyors of quackery, epitomized by his meeting with Robert F. Kennedy Jr, a known vaccine conspiracy theorist. Kennedy wrote an article in 2005—four years after thimerosal was removed from vaccines—claiming that the government conspired to cover up the alleged damages done by thimerosal. Didn’t he and his followers want mercury out of vaccines? And didn’t everyone comply with their demands? Ugh, this is all so confusing.
Additionally, it remains a mystery why Trump has any support from scientists considering his views on science, his treatment of the environment, his promiscuous relationship with anti-vaccination types, and his comments on climate science.
The tendrils of the totalitarian are slowly tightening around America’s throat, tenderly garroting life, liberty, and the pursuit of unfettered knowledge from a complicit populace. We must resist this while we still can and challenge alternative facts with wholesome evidence and argument. Like Lord John Krebs entreated us, when someone makes a claim, we must ask ourselves who is making the claim and why are they making it.