Slurs and Falsifiability

Essays on the Color Line and the One-Drop Rule
by Frank W Sweet
April 9, 2010

“A

bsence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Those words were spoken by a lawyer friend, who disputed my reluctant conclusion that claims by congressmen André Carson of Indiana, Emanuel Cleaver II of Missouri and John Lewis of Georgia of being verbally assaulted with ethnic slurs in front of the Capitol on March 20, 2010 are factually inaccurate.

My friend’s words show how differently scientists and lawyers think. To me as a scientist, absence of falsifying evidence, despite dilligent search, is the most effective way of revealing the world around us. To my friend, as an attorney, Lewis’s heroism during the 1955-65 civil rights struggle suggests that he can neither err nor lie.

To a lawyer, the authority and probity of the claimant is all-important. To a scientist, the claimant’s reputation means nothing. To a scientist, falsifiability is supreme. Only claims vulnerable to potential disproof are even worth considering. To a lawyer, that a claim might be disprovable is a weakness.

In science, falsifiability is the only way to distinguish a hypothesis from an expression of faith. Hypotheses are worth investigating. Expressions of faith are best ignored. How do you tell them apart? The rule is simple. A hypothesis takes the form, “I claim [whatever], but if [falsifying evidence] were ever uncovered, I would admit that my claim was false.” Every hypothesis comes with those two parts: the claim ([whatever]), and how it could be disproved ([falsifying evidence]).

Here are some examples. For each, try to decide whether it is a hypothesis or an expression of faith.

1. Hypothesis or expression of faith? — I claim that [our species evolved in Africa and first migrated out of Africa about 75 millennia ago], but if [any bone, tool, or artifact belonging to our species pre-dating 75 millennia ago outside of Africa] were ever uncovered, I would admit that my claim was false.

Hypothesis. It has the two-part structure: a claim plus a possible way of disproving the claim.

2. Hypothesis or expression of faith? — I claim that [our species evolved outside of Africa before 100 millennia ago]. Absence of evidence does not disprove this. A 100-millennia-old bone might turn up in China tomorrow.

Expression of faith. The claim is clear, but there is no way to disprove it. One could search forever and not turn up a 100-millennia-old bone outside of Africa.

3. Hypothesis or expression of faith? — I claim that [bigfoot exists]. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Bigfoot might be captured next week.

Expression of faith. Again, a clear claim, but no way to disprove it. One might search forever and not find bigfoot.

4. Hypothesis or expression of faith? — I claim that [the Catholic Eucharist does not transubstantiate into the Body of Christ], but if [any objective test were devised to measure transubstantiation], I would admit that my claim was false.

Hypothesis. It has the two-part structure: a claim plus a possible way of disproving the claim. Do not be fooled by the religious content.

5. Hypothesis or expression of faith? — I claim that [transubstantiation happens], and there is no way to disprove this because it is a spiritual, not physical, change.

Expression of faith. It lacks the falsifiability clause. This is the reverse of example 4, of course. It shows that whether a hypothesis is popular is irrelevant. That example 5 adheres to Catholic dogma while example 4 may be distasteful to Catholics has no bearing on whether a statement is a hypothesis or an expression of faith.

With the examples in mind, it is clear that the statement, “Lewis’s claim is factually inaccurate and no slurs were spoken, but if any recording of name-calling were to surface, I would admit that I am wrong,” is a legitimate scientific hypothesis. On the other hand, the statement, “Lewis accurately claims to have been subjected to slurs, and no evidence could possibly disprove his claim,” is an expression of faith. The former, although distasteful, is worth investigating. The latter is best ignored.

The plausibility of a hypothesis depends on how diligently people have tried to falsify it. Paleoanthropologists have spent thousands of man-hours searching for any trace of our species outside of Africa before 75 millennia ago.* Fame awaits anyone who succeeds. As the decades pass, and all attempts to falsify the hypothesis continue to fail, it becomes more and more accepted as fact.

Similarly, the congressmen in question were surrounded by professional reporters with audio recorders and videocams, as well as by hundreds of amateurs with recording cell phones. Thousands of man-hours have been spent searching for any recording of slurs. A fortune awaits anyone who succeeds. (For the past few weeks, a $100,000 reward has been offered to anyone who can find such a recording.) As the weeks pass, and all attempts to falsify the hypothesis continue to fail, it is becoming more and more inescapable as fact. The claims by congressmen André Carson of Indiana, Emanuel Cleaver II of Missouri and John Lewis of Georgia of being verbally assaulted with ethnic slurs in front of the Capitol on March 20, 2010 are increasingly revealed as untrue.

For more examples of scientific thinking, see Introduction to Science As Process. For more on scientific epistemology, visit The Karl Popper Web.

* This does not count the brief occupation and subsequent abandonment of the Jebel Qafzeh region 93 millennia ago.

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Frank W. Sweet is the author of Legal History of the Color Line (ISBN 9780939479238), an analysis of the nearly 300 appealed cases that determined Americans’ “racial” identity over the centuries. It is the most thorough study of the legal history of this topic yet published. He was accepted to Ph.D. candidacy in history with a minor in molecular anthropology at the University of Florida in 2003 and has completed all but his dissertation defense. He earned an M.A. in History from American Military University in 2001. He is also the author of several state park historical booklets and published historical essays. He was a member of the editorial board of the magazine Interracial Voice, and is a regular lecturer and panelist at historical and genealogical conferences. To send email, click here.


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