Absence of evidence

Who we are as a Nation is supported by the evidence of our history. That history is both good and bad, but it cannot be denied. But now it seems President Trump is seeking to force the hand of history in the absence of any evidence that he has earned the right to do so.

The English mathematician and philosopher William Kingdon Clifford observed “The danger to society is not merely that it should believe wrong things, but that it should lose the habit of testing things and inquiring into them.” In his 1877 essay The Ethics of Belief, Clifford asserted that it is immoral to believe things for which one lacks evidence. Clifford illustrated his point by a parable in which a ship owner was conflicted about launching one of his ships that wasn’t ship shape. The ship owner put his doubts aside by choosing to believe that everything would be fine and launched the vessel full of passengers. Clifford describes the ship owner as succeeding in “overcoming these melancholy reflections with a light heart…and he got his insurance money when she went down in mid-ocean and told no tales.” Clifford argued that the ship owner was responsible for the deaths of those on board, even though he sincerely chose to believe that the ship was sea worthy. Clifford also further observed that even if by chance, the ship successfully reached its destination, the morality of the choice to believe in the soundness of the ship in spite of his knowledge to the contrary remained immoral regardless of the outcome. 

The Ship of State finds itself in much the same place as that of the ship in Clifford’s parable. In the wake of the Presidential election, President Trump continues his refusal to acknowledge the results. And by doing so is perpetuating groundless conspiracy theories and has yet to produce any evidence of wide spread fraud or voting irregularities. The multiple attempts by those representing him in lawsuits have been dismissed by the courts, and to date the only evidence presented by the President to back up his claims equals the same number of calories in Coke Zero, but with a far worse aftertaste. It seems the President will end his term in the same way he started it, with bombastic rhetoric contesting basic math. Whether it is inauguration crowd sizes or now legally counted votes, this President has issues when he finds himself on the wrong side of numbers. And while I’ve often been frustrated by math myself, I have never allowed my frustration to lead me to total denial. 

As a nation we should be very concerned about assertions without evidence, especially when they apply to the sanctity of our Republic. Further, claims made by the President Trump who has demonstrated a complicated relationship to the truth, should be evaluated in light of this complicated history. Of course, there are pieces of antidotal evidences that may be found on obscure internet outlets that are being magnified by those in the Trump fan club, but do these experiences actually reveal themselves to be credible? Thankfully there are accepted standards of evidence that should be applied to any contested fact, and certainly they must be applied when the stakes for the future of the Nation are this high. The following questions prove helpful in evaluating any evidence that might emerge to support the President’s allegations. 

First of all, is the evidence sufficient? In all matters that are contested there may be good evidence on either side of an issue, so advocates must provide evidence that is more convincing than the opposing evidence. In the case of the election, more votes were cast in this election than ever before in our history. The votes that were cast in person or by mail as sanctioned by the various states were legal votes that had to be counted. As election boards were prohibited to count mail in ballots before election day, it follows that counting all of the in person votes on election day, which skewed in record numbers for Trump would be a daunting task, a challenge that was met by election boards across the country. Then as was anticipated, there were an equally number of record votes legally cast by mail, which skewed in favor of President Elect Biden, coming on the heels of months of Mr. Trump discouraging his voters from voting by mail. So now, without evidence the President asserts that the mail in votes are the only votes that must be considered fraudulent? This stretches the bounds of credulity. In this instance, not only does the President and his defenders have insufficient evidence, they have no evidence at all. 

Next, is the evidence clear, reliable, and verifiable? There are purported videos floating around on social media that reportedly show examples of ballots being changed, manipulated, or otherwise tampered with, but the videos themselves are without identifiable markers that would make the evidence clear, reliable, or verifiable. And one, two, or three videos, pictures, or antidotal stories are not convincing enough to warrant the dismissal of literally millions of votes for the Biden-Harris ticket. Without a means to ascertain the source of evidence, it is impossible to know whether or not the evidence is trustworthy. 

On election night, many pundits were quick to dismiss pre-election polling in light of election day turnout with taking into account the legal mail in ballots that had yet to be counted, in addition the major news outlets were reluctant to call certain states because of the outstanding votes yet to be counted. News and polling outlets have a vested interest in maintaining their credibility as a trusted source of information, and despite the current dismissal of media by many, on election night and the week following the news outlets were consistent in their reporting of the results. And this should be seen as an indication of the validity of the results, given that news outlets with such different audiences as CNN and Fox News saw basically the same information coming from their news divisions, no matter how their respective pundits may attempt to spin the results, the results were consistent across the board. When information is shared that isn’t being reported by any major news outlet, this should be an indication of the information being unreliable. 

Finally, is the evidence consistent with other know evidence? Because the President laid the groundwork before the election to call into question the validity of mail in ballots, many of his followers were primed to suspect fraudulent activity before any of the results had been revealed. This is known as an “intuitive acceptance of evidence,” and its counterpart “counterintuitive rejection of evidence” a phenomenon where people are quick to agree with certain information because they have been conditioned to accept information without critical thought or reject information for the same reasons. These kinds of “Psycho-facts” are related to intuitive and counterintuitive evidence, defined by economist Robert Samuelson as “beliefs that, though not supported by hard evidence, are taken as real because their constant repetition changes the way we experience life.” If the evidence presented isn’t consistent with what is known to be demonstrably true, it may be that it is contrived or that supporters have been convinced over time and intentional repetition that it is true. 

America is straddling a chasm between generations, cultures, and competing ideologies. We have stopped listening to each other. Henri J. M. Nouwen observes in A Spirituality of Living: The Henri Nouwen Spirituality Series; “The word listen in Latin is audire. If we listen with full attention in which we are totally geared to listen, it’s called ob-audire, and that’s where the word obedience comes from. And if we are closed, and to the degree that we are closed, we are surdus. That is the Latin word for deaf. The more “deaf” we get, the more (ab surdus) absurdist” We have arrived at political and cultural absurdity because somewhere we stopped evaluating information.

We would all do well to listen as William Kingdon Clifford famously concludes: “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” This includes us. This includes now. 

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