The Goebbels of the English language

We cannot state conclusively that anything is true.

Illustration by Melinda Gebbie.
Illustration by Melinda Gebbie.

I’m not entirely sure what my fellow contributors will have to say upon the subject but I expect they’ll generally see evidence as quite a good thing and will make compelling arguments to that effect, backed up by documented facts, deductions, and, well, evidence. Except that evidence would say that, wouldn’t it? It isn’t going to testify against itself.

I submit that if in the preceding paragraph the reader replace the term “evidence” with, say, the term “News International”, then the sleazy duplicity of this butter-wouldn’t-melt-in- its-mouth logical, scientific and forensic concept will become immediately apparent. Although it might be incautious to suggest that “evidence” and “evil” are synonymous based solely on their first three letters, I say that we go for it. Let’s subject this oily and persuasive abstract noun to the same brutal scrutiny that it is all too ready to inflict on others and see how it likes it.

When we try to build a solid case against our purely notional defendant, though, we start to get an idea of exactly what we’re up against. For one thing we discover that, suspiciously, we’re suddenly without a single shred of data to support our claims. Forthcoming witnesses are nowhere to be found and even the police appear reluctant to become involved. We learn that evidence, being pretty much made of evidence, has got an alibi for absolutely everything, with all the confirmatory theatre ticket-stubs and time-logged credit card exchanges carefully in place. In this, at least, evidence bears a strong resemblance to the imperviously powerful and homicidal drug cartels of Mexico.

Despite evidence appearing to be protected by the prince of darkness from on high, we can still pursue our investigation and construct a profile of our subject. Evidence, it turns out, is a relatively young latecomer to the scene that muscled its way into our vocabulary 700 years ago, ruthlessly ousting older and more venerated competition such as rumour, superstition and some bloke down ye tavern and malicious gossip, in the lexicological equivalent of an axe-wielding turf war.

Now, quite clearly, the mere fact that evidence shares the same medieval pedigree as the Black Death and the Spanish Inquisition doesn’t mean that it is equally abhorrent, but it’s worth observing that airborne carbon particulates are often indicative of a fire, hence smoke alarms.

A glance at evidence’s backstory reveals a seemingly impeccable and spotless record sheet, with glowing testimonials to the subject’s many acts of great social benevolence: tremendous contributions to the methodology of science and medicine that have allowed humanity to crawl up from a swamp of ignorance and early death; providing the foundations for a legal process that goes further than establishing if witches float or not; and blah blah blah. It hardly need be said that representing oneself as a public benefactor is a timeworn strategy for camouflaging acts of dire monstrosity, as employed by Alphonse Capone, the Kray twins and disc jockeys in the 1970s. As yet, no information has emerged connecting evidence with any of the previously mentioned malefactors but there are of course fresh revelations every day. Is it a mere coincidence that the most commonly used adjectives or adjectival nouns describing evidence are “cold”, “hard”, or, more worryingly, “DNA”?

If we are hoping to make something stick with this notoriously slippery and Teflon-coated piece of terminology, we obviously need to dig a little deeper. A good place to start might be with a description of the suspect, something that a sketch artist could work from. Evidence, according to a reputable source, is “that which tends to prove or disprove something; grounds for belief; proof”. The sharp-eyed juror may note a considerable leap between the first two cautious, unassuming clauses of that definition and the confident, declamatory third example. How does “that which tends to prove or disprove” or which gives “grounds for belief” equate so suddenly with “proof”? While a creationist might justifiably regard the book of Genesis as documentary evidence supporting their profoundly stupid version of the universe’s origin, as something which in their opinion tends to prove or to at least give grounds for their belief, that surely doesn’t mean that a several-millennia- old Just So Story is a proof of anything.

Alternatively, back in 1881, the physicists Albert Michelson and Edward Morley ably demonstrated that the hitherto convincing evidence for the existence of the ether was not actually a proof of that existence. All of this implies that evidence has quite a history of passing itself off as proof. The two are frequently mistaken for each other and I would suggest that it is under this deliberate smokescreen of ambiguity that evidence is free to carry on with its insidious racket.

Most accounts of a debate where evidence is in attendance generally depict the aforementioned entity as an intimidating presence, useful when it comes to shutting people up and not afraid to use its hefty physicality as a deterrent. On examination, though, it would appear that evidence is not so much the physical material of which it is comprised, as it is the entirely abstract and subjective processes involved in the selection and classification of material phenomena as evidence. A lead pipe, in and of itself, is after all just a lead pipe and needs considerable human interpretation to connect it with Professor Plum and the conservatory. It is in this dependence on the unreliable perceptions and concealed agendas of an individual that we finally identify the weak spot of this domineering thug.

In order for an item to be classed as evidence, the thing it evidences must be previously extrapolated or determined, presupposing the conditions under which it qualifies as evidence. As an example, you conceivably might be employed by a giant petrochemical concern and have for some time loathed Professor Plum for his outspoken views on global warming, or, I don’t know, because you think he looks Jewish. When you heard about the murder, you immediately let your prejudices as a climate change denying anti-Semite influence your judgement as to whom might be the culprit. The well-known phenomenon of confirmation bias led you to ignore such data as did not support your predetermined theory and instead carefully to select only those facts that did. You gathered evidence and then presented it as proof. For God’s sake, there must be a thousand ways that lead pipe could have ended up in that conservatory, you scientifically illiterate Nazi.

Evidence, that always plausible and superficially convincing psychopath, can only ever be a charting of our own perceptions and our intellectual processes, as in Niels Bohr’s Copenhagen interpretation – or at least in my interpretation of it. Evidence is thus the map, while proof by the same token is the territory and the two might not exactly or even remotely correspond, as in the recent mortifying case of Google Earth and that South Pacific island, which, it turned out, wasn’t really there.

The yawning and yet easily ignored gap between map and territory, evidence and proof, along with the confusion that apparently persists between the two, is indicated in the subtle disagreement that is polarising current scientific thought upon what constitutes reality. One side in the debate contends that if our theories on the nature of the universe – for instance, the existence of inferred quantum effects or particles that may be unobservable – are in accordance with the way that space-time seems to function, then we may as well afford these theoretical constructions their full status as reality. Those with opposing views, perhaps more wisely and more cautiously, point to the many “Michelson and Morley” instances where our most informed understanding of existence proves to be fallacious and instead suggest that even our most powerful theories can be only be part of an evolving and continually adapting apprehension of a hypothesised “ultimate reality”.

As the philosopher Karl Popper pointed out, we cannot state conclusively that anything is true, only that it has not thus far been falsified. Since even proof itself is seemingly fatally undermined by Popper’s hard-to-discount observation, might we not therefore conclude that evidence is a completely hopeless bastard?

Evidence is not proof and occasionally it isn’t even evidence. While it undoubtedly illuminates the human landscape, it obscures it in an equal measure. It has led to the incarceration of some thoroughly vile people and similarly has collaborated in the execution or internment of the blameless and the mentally impaired. In its contribution to the sciences, it has repeatedly allowed us to escape from the miasma of disinformation that somebody else’s view of evidence had visited upon us in the first place. Even in those instances where evidence is plentiful, are we entirely capable of judging what the evidence is of?

Approximately 18 months ago, it was announced that measuring the cosmic constant yielded different measurements depending upon which way the observer happened to be facing. This apparently nonsensical discovery would make sense in the context of “etheric flow”, a kind of current having a direction that’s conducted through the rarefied essential medium of our universe, except that back in 1881 we were assured by Michelson and Morley that the ether was entirely fictional, according to their evidence. Now, I’m not saying that these two respected physicists should be exhumed and pilloried, their gravestones rendered to unfathomable rubble by an angry, crowbar-swinging mob. That is, naturally, a matter for the individual reader to decide. My only aim is to present the facts, as they appear to me. If I can do that in around 2,000 words, so much the better.

Those who still prefer to picture evidence as some variety of loveable old villain in the manner of Mad Frankie Fraser, despite all the documented torture and brutality, should give some thought as to what a society entirely based on evidence might look like. An informative example is available in South America’s extraordinary Pirãha people, for whom every statement or remark must be accompanied by some sort of supporting evidence or proof. For instance, simply saying “John has gone up river” would not be sufficient by itself and would need qualifying with an explanation of how this conclusion was arrived at. Proof from observation, as in “John has gone upriver and I know because I personally saw him go” would be acceptable, as would proof from deduction, as in “John has gone upriver and I know this because his canoe’s no longer here”. This rigorous approach to conversation would appear to have significant advantages in that it does not permit the Pirãha any concept of a god or notions of an afterlife, surely good news for scientific atheists who may have recently become distressed by the idea that human beings might be “hardwired for religion” and possess a “god-shaped hole” in their psychology. With the world view of the Pirãha, practically unique in having no creation myth, this notion is reliably refuted.

Other things that the Pirãha do not have include a written language, possibly because the provenance of written statements is impossible to validate compared with first-hand verbal information from a trusted relative or colleague. This means that, along with being unencumbered by a deity or a religion, the Pirãha also have no scientific theory, no literature or art, nor any history extending further back than a few generations. On the other hand, if you’re still worrying about where John’s gone, the Pirãha are nothing if not dependable.

To summarise, evidence schmevidence. This Goebbels of the English language has for too long passed itself off as a thing of formidable weight and substance, bolstering its image with the use of terms like “solid”, “irrefutable” and “cast-iron”, when in fact it often only demonstrates the pattern-recognition pro - cesses of those presenting it. A jar of saddlebag-faced Saddam Hussein’s anti-wrinkle cream confirms the presence of weapons of mass destruction and so justifies the comprehensive devastation of Iraq. Evidence is sometimes murderously deceptive.

For all we know, it hasn’t even stopped beating its wife.

Alan Moore is the author of “Watchmen”, “V for Vendetta”, “From Hell” and many other titles