Originally posted on the Cambridge Skeptics Blog – June 28th 2019. Once more I had to use a different picture than I did on the original post, this time one of my own book shelf.
Yes I know, that is something of a clickbaity title. I will also admit that I fully expect you to either disagree with me entirely on this, or think it so obviously true that it is not worth the time to mention. That said this is something that has been on my mind lately and a point that I think a lot of people actually overlook for the most part. So, with all those disclaimers out of the way, lets get on with it shall we.
Firstly I really should explain what I mean when is say that books are not evidence. Books are, of course, evidence of some things. For example a book is very much evidence of the fact that someone wrote a book. They are also evidence that someone had, and recorded, their thoughts, ideas, opinions, feelings, memories, experiences, interpretations and beliefs about the topics covered in the book, though even some of these areas are questionable as we shall see. Furthermore, books can contain evidence of certain topics, such as mathematics and philosophy, directly on their pages. To give a somewhat unrealistic example, I could produce a book that contained hundreds of pictures of triangles and it could be used as direct evidence for the idea that the internal angles of a triangle always add up to 180 degrees*. But, I’m here to argue that, other than these and a few other specific areas, this is pretty much all books should be considered evidence for**. Let’s go through this step by step.
Imagine I gave you a book entitled “My Life” by Dave Smith. The book is an autobiographical account of a week in the life of the author, Dave Smith. Specifically it is an autobiographical account of the events that took place in Dave Smith’s life just last week, so arguably all the details were still fresh in his mind at the point Dave wrote the book. As I outlined in The Grid of Reasonableness in my last post, this would constitute a first hand account of every day claims, and as such it would be entirely reasonable for us to believe the claims outlined in its pages. But we are not talking about reasonableness today, we are talking about evidence. Does the book constitute evidence for the claims it makes?
Let’s say we turn to a page towards the end of the book. Here Dave writes about how, just yesterday, he went to the small shop in town and bought a half loaf of bread and two pints of semi skimmed milk. Again, there is nothing about this claim that would make it unreasonable for us to believe, and yet this account of the event recorded by Dave in his book does not, in anyway what so ever, constitute evidence that it actually happened.
Ask yourself this, what if Dave is lying? What if Dave hates bread and would never buy it? What if he is deathly allergic to milk of any kind? What if there isn’t even a small shop in his town? Heck, what if he doesn’t even live in a town at all, but a house in the middle of nowhere? Is there anything within the pages of the book itself than can confirm the situation one way or another? The answer is simply no***.
At the very best the book could only be considered evidence that Dave “claimed” to have done these things. It does not provide evidence that he actually did do those things. For that we would need things external to the book itself, such as the loaf of bread and two pints of milk themselves, a dated receipt from the shop documenting the purchase of the aforementioned goods, maybe CCTV camera footage of Dave in the shop, buying the milk and bread. All of these things would constitute evidence for the claim made in the book, but all of them are external to the book itself.
So how about, instead of Dave’s autobiography, we instead look at a science textbook. Surely these books contain evidence? Well again, with a few specific caveats, the answer is no. Science textbooks will without a doubt contain descriptions of the evidence, maybe even pictures of said evidence. They will definitely include references to scientific papers that describe, and in many cases show, the evidence for the claims they are making. But the textbooks themselves are not the evidence, they are the source of the claims and once more we have to look externally to the book to find the evidence itself.
For example let’s say we carry out a common experiment that many people have done over the years. We are going to build ourselves a volcano. We open up our science book and follow the instruction for combining soap, water, vinegar and baking soda in a bottle to produce a volcanic style eruption. Now the science book told us what to do, it described what would happen, and it even explained why it would happen. But was the science book itself evidence for what happens when you combine vinegar and baking soda? Again, the answer is no. It is the source of the claim about what happens, it is not the evidence for what happens.
Ok, so books are not evidence for the topics they are about, fine, but is that the only thing they are not evidence for? Much like our friend Dave Smith, Julius Caesar also wrote a book about some of his experiences, entitled The Gallic Wars. Again, like with Dave’s book, it is entirely reasonable for us to believe that the events described within the book actually took place, even if the claims made in the book do not themselves constitute evidence of the events described in the book. However, in many cases The Gallic Wars is used not as evidence for the claims the book itself contains, but rather as evidence that Julius Caesar actually existed. So how does it hold up in this regard? Well, as part of a cumulative case for his existence along side other evidence it does seem to fit with other things we know about Caesar, but it is still circumstantial at best. On its own it is next to useless. You see, the authorship of a book is, when all is said and done, just another claim the book is making. Like everything else it too requires external evidence.
Let me give you a more modern example in the books of one Robert Galbraith? Here we have an author who is still producing books today, and yet those books can’t even be used as evidence of his existence…because he doesn’t exist. Robert Galbraith is a pen name used by JK Rowling, Robert himself is as fictional as the stories found on the pages of his books. So what we have are three books, written by three different authors, authors that definitely did exist, but whose identity is not evidenced by the books themselves. Caesar died over two thousand years ago so you can’t check with him, Robert is not real, and Dave…well what do you actually know about him anyway?
So what is the take home message here? Am I saying that we should never trust books? Well no, that is not what I am saying at all. What I am saying is that we should view them for what they are and attribute our belief accordingly. An autobiography is basically a first hand account of events. Depending on the nature of those events it may or may not be reasonable for us to believe that they happened, but the book is not the evidence that they happened. A biography or historical record of a person or events is generally a second, or even third hand account, and again should be treated as such. It may point to many first hand accounts for the claims, or reference evidence directly, but once more the book is the source of the claims, not the evidence for them. And as for textbooks, though these tend to include descriptions and references to the evidence for the claims they make, as well as arguments and reasoning in support of their conclusions, they are still generally just lists of claims, not the evidence for them. In short, books are sources of claims, not the evidence for those claims.
And why does this startling revelation, which you no doubt already well understood, matter? Well, I am sure it will not take you long to think of examples of people you know who live their lives based upon the claims made in some book or another, and who, when asked for evidence to support those claims, will point to the book itself and say “there, that is my evidence”. 80+% of the worlds population believes claims that are only supported by the words of certain books, and many believe that this is good enough evidence to justify them doing everything from enacting laws to taking the lives of those who disagree with them. Maybe next time someone argues that the evidence in support of a claim can be found in a certain book we should simply point out that books are not the evidence, they are the claims that require evidence, and then ask them what else they’ve got.
Anyway, as always if you disagree with me, or have something else to add please do so in the comment section. I struggled to put this idea into words, so if you can think of a better way to explain the point I would love to hear it.
* Though, as my friend Wesley correctly pointed out, this would only be the case if we all agreed to start from the point of view that circles contain 360 degrees. If we were working from a mathematical framework in which circles are divided into 320 degrees then my book of triangles could be used to support the idea that the internal angles of all triangles add up to 160 degrees. With this in mind maybe the best we could hope to do with the triangle book is show that the internal angles of a triangle always add up to half the number of degrees found in a circle using the same mathematical framework. It should also show that it is surprisingly hard to come up with examples of things books can be direct evidence for.
** At this point I am not talking about books that contain photos of things, for which they would at least be evidence that there was something to take a picture of. I am also not talking about self referential things. So a book that contained two completely different sentences and a claim stating that the two sentences were different would be considered evidence for that claim. It would also be a very odd book.
*** If you disagree with this remember that fiction exists and that there are books out there that take place on entirely different worlds. They are, though we do not tend to view them this way, essentially books of entertaining lies about things that do not correspond to anything that is happening in reality. Just because it contains mundane claims rather than extraordinary ones Dave’s book could be no different.