The Burden of Proof

bonjour skeptics,

As a skeptic, it is important to understand the workings of science, and how and why science is a good way of investigating the nature of our universe. One of the most important parts of the process of science is the burden of proof. I am going to try to explain when the burden of proof applies to certain claims, and why it is that certain way. The burden of proof is, in science, the idea of which side of an argument needs to find evidence to prove its claim. In most circumstances, it falls on the side of the affirmative, the one trying to prove something does exist. I am going to use 3 different scientific hypotheses to demonstrate different stages of a scientific hypothesis, and how it applies to the burden of proof.

The first hypothesis I will investigate is where most scientific claims fall. It is the claim of most theists, the claim of god. Because god is unproven, and god is not a generally accepted scientific theory, the burden of proof is on the affirmative. Its the same way with all unproven claims (some will disagree there is no burden of proof on the atheists, but that’s another post). Until there is any proof for the subject, no proof is needed against the subject, and this brings me to my next claim.

Once a claim garners enough evidence and proof to become accepted by the scientific community, then the burden of proof is reversed. The scientific theories of special relativity are a good example of that. When relativity was first hypothesized, it already had good mathematical evidence to suggest it, as it was not much different from Newtonian gravity under low energy systems. However, proof was needed to separate relativity from Newtonian gravity. This first chance to prove relativity came during the first Venus transit after relativity’s hypothesizing. We all know the story, and that became the first evidence of relativity as scientific theory. Nowadays, relativity has enormous proof behind it, so the burden is on the other side now. These days, instead of scientists saying “this will be a good chance to try to provide evidence for relativity”, they now say “this experiment will be a good chance to try to disprove or revise relativity”. The burden has switched, and now the burden of proof is on the negative.

The third type of debate requires proof from both sides, but is much rarer than the other two examples. While the first two examples deal with situations where the debate is “does this exist, or does it not exist?”, the third example deals with the rarer question of “is it this way or this way?”, and the question of anthropogenic global warming is a good example. While I am on the side of most of the scientific community, the idea that global warming is mostly man-made, this question still ensues, and was more relevant a few years ago, before more evidence came to bear. This question deals with two options, Is the global warming we see caused by humans, or is it caused by natural fluctuations and other natural causes? In this case, unlike the other two, both ideas are affirmative. In the first, it was god or no god, or relativity or no relativity, now it is natural or man-made, which are both affirmative possibilities. The burden of proof was on both sides, as both sides where making claims as to how the earth was warming. Therefore, they both needed to prove their claims.

The burden of proof is a sometimes confusing and blurry concept, but is very simple at its roots. Most of the time, it falls under only one side of the argument, mostly affirmative, but occasionally is required by both sides. In the transition between the first two examples, it is important to note that both sides need to put forward evidence, and it is best to make a judgement by looking at both sides, and not by picking a side and simply saying that the other side needs more evidence, like in the case of anthropogenic global warming.

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120 Years of the Electron

Hello there skeptics,

This month, June (its June on Australia already, so I’m celebrating), is marking a very special occasion. It was 120 years ago that Hendrik Lorentz published his paper, which is now known as the birth of the electron. The electron is one of the most pivotal ideas in physics, and is crucial to our understanding of electromagnetism, but it was only an idea for most of the 19th century.

For a long time, electrons were thought about in relation to electricity and magnetism, ad was theorized by quite a lot of physicists, but there was no maths for it, until 1864. It was that year that James Maxwell put forward his theory of electrical and magnetic fields. To some people’s surprise, the equations many physicists learn today as ‘Maxwell’s equations’ are not what Maxwell wrote about in 1864. Maxwell’s equations where messy and complicated. Maxwell did not know that what he was writing could have become the biggest set of equations in physics history, he was only  thinking about making his fundamental equations fit with the phenomena observed. He just put the equations on paper as best as he could. The equations today known as Maxwell’s are only a readers digest of the many symbols, scribbles and sprawls which can be found in his exposition.

It took Lorentz, in 1892, to tidy it all up, purify the jumble of equations and symbols in Maxwell’s work, and make physics poetry for the next century. Lorentz had to sort the signals and beauties of Maxwell’s work from the mess. The signal: four equations which describe how electrical and magnetic fields respond to electric charges, and one equation that specifies that force the fields exert on charge. The noise: Pages upon pages of scrawling, jottings, symbols and messiness left behind by Maxwell.

Now that some (relatively) simple equations where around, physicists started to wonder if these equations could be used to rebuild how we think matter works, starting ground up from the electron, and pave the way for particle physics. Lorentz and others set out to test it, and sure enough, they could use this equation to explain phenomenons of the universe one after the other; conduction of heat, conduction of electricity, reflection of light, refraction of light, and many more electron related things.

In 1897, Joseph Thompson provided experimental proof that electrons really do exist, considered now the birth of the electron, after its conception in 1892.

This work set up the next century of physics and beyond, with a lot of the quantum mechanics, special relativity and general relativity work relying upon these equations. One must not forget the role that Maxwell played, but it was Lorentz who paved the way for particle and astro physics for they next 120 years and beyond. Even today, we still use these equations in our physics, and in almost every physics domain, you trace back its roots to Lorentz and his electron, because electrons rule our world.

Science is the Only Way to Test Reality

Hello there skeptics,

Today I am going to be blogging about the wonderfulness of science, and how it is not some abstract way of looking at the universe (as the post-modernists will have you believe), it is actually a fundamental part of the universe, and is THE way to test reality.

Something my mother has told me for a long time since I came out of the closet about being a skeptic and an atheist, is “Science is not the only way of knowing things, there are plenty of other ways.” I’ve never asked her what these other ways might be, but should could be talking about either of two lists of ‘ways of finding out things’ :-
1. The ignorant list – she could be talking about things like logic, philosophy etc., in which she is just being ignorant and does not know that both logic and philosophy stem from science.
2. The post-modernist list – She really means what she says, and thinks the other ways of knowing are things like belief, spiritualism, mysticism etc., in which she is also being ignorant, because these things are either testable by science or not real.

I will start with a distinction, the fact that science is able to test anything is not just some blatant statement, its true. Anything which is real (reality), is testable by science. Now you may say, “Supernatural things are not testable by science”, this is a common misconception, supernatural things like ghosts and spirits are testable by science, but once they are testable by science they are not supernatural. A common misunderstanding is that there are things that science can test, there are supernatural things which cannot be tested, but are real, and there are things which don’t exist. This is wrong. Things are either real, (have some sort of measurable effect on the universe) or they are not real. Ghosts, for example, they could be real, and in which case, they are testable by science, or they could not be real, in which they are not testable by science. If something can be measured, (demon possessions, spirit hauntings, homeopathy, acupuncture etc.) then it is part of the real world and can be tested by science. There is no possibility of something having an effect on the universe around us (curing a patients cancer, making a possessed person’s head spin 360°, create the universe etc.), and not be testable by science.

That is because science is just measuring the world around us, in the purest and simplest form, and this is amazing to me, because it is the only discipline where you know that the same thing will be found over and over again. Think of the greatest three scientists of the last two centuries, Darwin, Tesla, Einstein. If these people were never to have existed, then somebody else would have made their discoveries instead. Somebody else, probably Wallace, would have published the theory of evolution, somebody else would have invented the Tesla coil (albeit with a different name) and AC electricity, and somebody else would have theorized special and general relativity. This is true because the outcomes of science are based on reality.

Science by definition, is the measuring and describing of the world around us, and it is the one and only way to find out things about the reality of the world we live in. I will eave you with a quote from