Conflation April 9, 2020

Conflation is where two separate ideas are mashed up together to serve the perpetrator’s purpose. I often meet conflation in my interaction with believers. Lacking evidence for their god, some believers are driven to try to discredit their ‘enemy’: science. They think that a good way of doing this is by casting doubt on the veracity of scientific evidence and so they conflate observation with conclusion to make a hybrid version of ‘evidence’ that ‘has to be interpreted’. Blurring the boundary between observing and concluding is a deliberate misrepresentation of what evidence is, in the cause of making it seem subjective and, therefore, dubious.

They are right in the sense that, if evidence did require interpretation, it would cease to be reliable because it would be mixed up with opinion. Of course, scientists know this, which is why there is a rigid protocol for writing up experiments unlike, for example, the style of writing that is considered to be acceptable for testimony. Anyone who did year 7 science classes should know that an experiment report should have sub-headings: Apparatus, Method, Observations (called Results if it is in the form of numerical data) and Conclusions. This format applies to all scientific investigations at whatever level. 

That procedure, and other rules about how to write up, is followed for a number of reasons. Particularly, to enable other scientists to repeat the experiment as part of peer review, but I’d like to focus on the following two separate subheadings: 

Observations (Results) is where you put the evidence, and 

Conclusions is where you don’t put the evidence, but you discuss it and attempt to draw some meaning out of it. 

The discovery of radiation gives us an excellent example. In 1896, Henri Becquerel was investigating fluorescence and phosphorescence, processes in which substances absorb sunlight and emit it again later as a characteristic glow. In the course of his investigations, Henri stored some photographic plates wrapped in their opaque black paper, and some uranium salts in a desk drawer. Days later, expecting to find the plates only lightly fogged, he developed them and found sharp images of the salts. This was a surprise. Nevertheless, the evidence was clear: the uranium salts had left an image on a photographic plate that was wrapped in light excluding paper and in a dark drawer. It was a mystery without context. 

There then followed some serious head scratching, “What does this evidence mean?” One possible explanation was magic, and another was that uranium salts emitted some invisible rays that could expose photographic plates through their light proof wrapping, inside a drawer, in the dark. Many investigations by a number of scientists later, in which much evidence was gathered and many conclusions were drawn, the Theory of Atomic Radiation was produced.

The point is, the interpretation took place after the evidence had been discovered. Becquerel hadn’t been looking for it. Why would he have been? There was no framework of understanding that it fitted into at the time. That’s important: there was no existing hypothesis that his observation could have confirmed or denied, no vacant slot in our comprehension. No context. Context is not required for evidence. Evidence must be bald, hard, cold facts: repeatable, shareable observations.

Not only that, but the interpretation wasn’t necessary! Becquerel could have thrown the plates away as useless because they had been exposed, and gone to have his lunch. That would not have affected the veracity of the evidence, but an opportunity would have been lost because it would not have been used to draw a conclusion. Fortunately, the evidence did its job by setting him thinking what conclusion it might be possible to draw from it. Evidence is one thing, interpreting it is something else.

Conflation between evidence and conclusion is a deliberate attempt to misinform the scientifically ignorant by discrediting evidence. 

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