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Curt Schilling and "Proof"

Curt Schilling's anti-evolution diatribe provides an opportunity to reflect on our own discourse about baseball.

"Don't worry, R-Dawk. I got this one."
"Don't worry, R-Dawk. I got this one."
Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

As you probably have seen by now, Curt Schilling decided to wade into the public conversation about evolution. He took a hard stance against the theory and caused a big stir. To no one's surprise his arbitrarily abbreviated missives on Twitter contributed no new considerations and even misrepresented the theological side of the debate. We don't expect our athletes to be academics. Nevertheless, we might hope that they would be as circumspect about telling an academic her business as they think academics should be about showing, for example, a pitcher how to throw a splitter.

Of course, evolution has never been a merely academic theory. It is cosmological. Its basic principles challenge tenets that many people use to make meaning within a universe that otherwise seems indifferent, rapid, and implacable. As a result, many find it difficult to defer judgment on evolution to those who study it, even though they do so on matters of quantum theory (whose principles were once seen as cosmologically ominous). No one demands that the evidence for quantum theory be publicly viewable, which is good because quantum particles are not viewable in anything like the literal sense of that word. Quantum theory gets the deference that evolution doesn't because evolution is seen as a threat to what some hold dear and sacred.

I'm not interested here to rehash the public debate. A baseball blog, much like twitter, is no place to try to answer questions of science and theology. Instead, I'm interested by the implicit theory of knowledge that the public debate over evolution often invokes. That theory pervades public discourse. It even shapes the conversations we have here. So, I thought we might take Schilling's wanton diatribe as an opportunity to reflect on our own argumentative practices.

Anti-evolutionists demand proof so that they might be convinced to change their minds. But proof is the highest imaginable standard of justification. It's not just consistency, or coherence, or more likely than not, or even a preponderance of the evidence. Indeed, it is usually interpreted to be greater than "beyond a reasonable doubt" because proof requires certainty, which is to say beyond doubt period. Proof is what mathematics permits. If you grant me some intuitive axioms about how equations and parallel and intersecting lines work, I can show you how they rule out every possibility except the propositions of Euclidean geometry. We are certain that if only one line through a given point is parallel to another given line, then triangles have exactly 180 degrees. The proof for this proposition hews as close to a pure deduction as anything could.

Despite Descartes' best efforts, mathematics does not model well how we know things about the world. Our senses do not admit of the certainty of mathematical proof, and no scientific principles are as intuitive as mathematical axioms. Even if scientific principles seem intuitive to you, they were originally hard won by a process of induction and continue to get tested against new observations. In fact, scientific principles have not been stable over the history of modern science, which has seen at least 2 revolutions. If we take proof to be the standard for justification, we would not count as knowing most of what we take ourselves to know. That conclusion might sound perfectly reasonable. After all, we undoubtedly overestimate how much we really know. But the argument for the conclusion goes well beyond what it is reasonable to be epistemically humble about. It would rule out, for instance, that I know that my shoes are in the closet a few minutes after I put them there. That path leads quickly to external world skepticism and, if you are really zealous, solipsism.

I know, I know. This is hardly news. But even if we don't reflectively endorse proof as the standard for justification, we sometimes unreflectively slip it into our arguments. The structure of much of the anti-evolutionist arguments runs something like this. The theory of evolution has not ruled out other possible explanations. Here is another possible explanation that is consistent with everything I take to be certain (which is very little). Therefore, I am just as justified in believing the other possible explanation as I am in believing the theory of evolution. That conclusion only holds where the standard for justification is certainty and justification is a binary property rather than a scale. Moreover, it seems epistemologically hypocritical. The theory of evolution has to be proved. The other pet theory need only be consistent with a handful of fixed points no one would controvert. And it is this style of argument--the epistemic double standard--that can be especially frustrating: not only in the public debate over evolution but in lots of other disagreements, particularly for our purposes here baseball. It is like the not-funny inverse of the old Rodney Dangerfield joke in Caddyshack: "Oh, this is the worst hat I ever saw. Looks good on me though."

The double standard arises in a number of ways in today's baseball discourse. Most prominently, anti-saberists use the double standard argument to degrade metrics like WAR and UZR. WAR has flaws; therefore, the system is bunk and I'll stick to my own holistic judgments, thank you. Sure, WAR has flaws. But I've yet to see evidence that the flaws are so systemic that the information it provides can be reasonably ignored.

We also see it when authors and commenters attempt to project what will happen: how good a prospect will be, whether a star player will regress, whether a pitcher will recover from TJ surgery, etc. How good will Cody Asche become? Well, we could look at aging curves and try to develop reasonable comps in order to determine a likely outcome alongside watching him play (especially in person). Or we could just watch him play on TV and draw our own conclusions. While neither method will get us anywhere near certainty, one of these methods produces more evidence for its conclusion than the other. It is not reasonable to disagree starkly with a projection based on the first method solely based on evidence from the second method. You might adjust that projection upwards or downwards based on your own first-hand knowledge; that would be a reasonable response. But it wouldn't be reasonable to disregard the information gathered by the first method and come to a radically different conclusion about Asche's future. (Of course, in the case of Asche, the information set is still very limited.)

When the epistemic double standard shapes a discourse, it quickly becomes frustrating to participate. Typically, an objector deploys the double standard by offering a sound criticism and then blowing what follows from that criticism out of proportion. What follows can be either of two possibilities. First, the original author becomes entrenched, ignores the valuable criticism, and possibly even volleys the double standard back. That conversation will go nowhere. Arguments will be repeated until those on either side decide to let it rest. And it will be difficult for the original author not to feel treated unfairly precisely because she will sense that the double standard has been applied. It is, if not impossible, then at least infeasible to be persuasive to an audience that holds you to a higher standard of justification than they hold themselves. The standard for you is all too difficult to attain and the standard for them is all too easy

The second possibility is better. There the original author points out the double standard and tries to reply to the criticism in its own right. This conversation can allow reasons on both sides of the disagreement to mature and precisify, as long as obstinacy does not prevent either side from recognizing the other's reasons and responding to them. That can be a productive discourse even when no resolution is reached. I have spent most of my adult life trying to participate in such discourses, and I love it when I see it happen here.

I cannot leave this topic behind without considering an objection from the crowd that employs the double standard argument. Someone from that crowd (myself in my weaker moments even) might object that those who use certain kinds of evidence take themselves to attain a higher standard of justification by using that evidence. The double standard argument simply shows that they do not in fact attain their own standard. It is an internal critique. To this, I would reply it is only an internal critique if the critiquer accurately represents the standard of justification in the critique. Critiquers never do. Moreover, even when such an internal critique is successful, it does not show that other possible conclusions are just as justified (or moreso) than the one criticized. It could still turn out that the critiquer's own standard of justification favors the original conclusion. Criticism never produces positive results. The negative must anticipate the positive.

I should also clarify that many of the conversations we have here admit of reasonable disagreement, where both sides can adduce evidence and reasons that are more or less equal. Because of that, I (and perhaps you too?) am sometimes seduced by the allure of making counter-arguments for the sheer fun of being a skeptic. After all, if the evidence on both sides is more or less equal shouldn't you withhold judgment? And isn't skepticism discombobulating in a fun way? To the first question, well, maybe. You might also make a conclusion but consider yourself not to know your conclusion. You might even think that because you are more familiar with your arguments and evidence, you do indeed know your own conclusion despite the disagreement. To the second question, I'm probably the only one here that thinks so. Maybe Chesterton too.

A final thought. I find Schilling's performance last night ironic. Since the bloody sock game, he's been dogged for years with conspiracy theories claiming that he faked the blood with ketchup. This, despite video of the surgery performed on him pre-game. He's spent plenty of time denying the conspiracy theories. And those conspiracy theories have the same argumentative structure as the arguments he deployed last night. I know I shouldn't expect people to be epistemically consistent. But I want it.

(Also, I'm glad Schilling is well enough to go on an anti-evolution diatribe on twitter. Cancer is the worst.)