Martin Young
Martin Young

Pistorius, and how evidence is in the eye of the believer

Here we go again. It’s the OJ Simpson trial all over. Oscar Pistorius, famous sportsman shoots his partner and faces trial for murder.

The “facts” of both cases at first glance suggest that crimes were committed, but the next few weeks as Pistorius goes to trial will see heavily contrasting stories of events.

Lawyers and experts for both prosecution and defence will be presenting evidence before the judge. The prosecution has a vested interest in seeing justice done. The defence has a vested interest in seeing their client found not guilty. Pistorius, the only person 100% certain of the truth, may not want to tell it all.

Will the evidence presented to court tell the truth without vested interest?

The OJ Simpson trial was a spectacular demonstration of the unpredictable value of evidence. There were blood, footprints, DNA, a glove, hair on clothing, and the actions of OJ Simpson himself to suggest that the prosecution had a “bullet-proof” case to find Simpson guilty of murder. But in a trial that took eight months and cost the US economy $40 billion in lost productivity, Simpson was found not guilty, leaving the world both in shock and overexposed to the Kardashians.

The Pistorius case will be little different in that the evidence itself is going to be put on trial. Experts will analyse every aspect of the facts presented and then offer deductions and opinions in an effort to convince the judge that the evidence presents a story that favours their own position.

So, for example, the position of the bullet holes in the bathroom door should determine the height from which Pistorius fired his gun, with the implication that this determines whether he was wearing his prostheses or not, and whether or not he lied in his explanation of events. But findings suggesting that he fired from a low height do not exclude the possibility that he was wearing his prostheses and fired from his hip, not the normal firing position. The evidence exists, but may not establish the truth about what happened.

And this is what is so interesting about evidence, what we humans make of what we see, hear and feel, and the deductions that we come to. Some more examples.

Illusionists and magicians use manipulation of “evidence” to convince observers that they have skills that break the laws of nature. In effect, what they are doing is presenting visual references without telling the underlying story in a way that misleads us into believing something magical has happened. The visual evidence tells but a fraction of the real story.

The pharmaceutical industry among others is similarly misleading. Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre, author of Bad Science — another book well worth reading that deals with manipulation of evidence — expands on the ways pharmaceutical industries use misleading scientific trials to present data to suit their own positions to get people to buy their drugs. The presentation of evidence is highly selective, telling only the side of the story that suits the company marketing the drug.

Homoeopaths who argue that water “could” carry the memory of a substance use a memory stick analogy. If an alien engineer or scientist who had never seen a USB memory stick before was given one for analysis, the report would probably state that this was a plastic and silicon object with electrical microcircuits. The data contained on the stick would be invisible and therefore missing from the report, with the analysts perhaps being completely oblivious to the fact that it was even there. It is similarly possible that many of the deductions we have made from our observations of the world tell only a fraction of the story with whole levels of information missing because we do not know that we should be looking for it.

A relatively new development in astronomy and physics is the realisation that 95% of our universe is invisible, that so called “dark matter and dark energy” have to account for the physical structures of the galaxies and space and that the universe is accelerating apart. Every effort to date to “discover” evidence of this dark matter or dark energy has failed, yet observation of the nature of the universe and deduction suggest that it has to be there.

Most sceptics are happy to embrace this suggestion, but will not use the same degree of observation, analysis and deduction, based on the similar evidence that the probabilities and coincidences in the universe resulting in intelligent life having generating itself to this degree by chance is too remote, to make the logical step that someone is behind it all, that God is a real and active entity. Their beliefs, and mine, determine how we each use the evidence to reach opposite conclusions.

Rupert Sheldrake is a maverick scientist who realises this all too well. His book The Science Delusion challenges the current scientific dogma based on evidence that he believes is either shaky or open to interpretation. His TED talk, although ending with a standing ovation was removed from the official TED channel for being too unscientific. Take a look for yourself and be your own judge. Some of his ideas may be a bit silly, but at least he asks the right questions and challenges the accepted norms. So did both Copernicus and Galileo.

So here’s my point. Evidence itself is not a 100% reliable indicator of “truth” or even “reality”. It may be the best that we’ve got and perfectly acceptable for most circumstances, but not enough to satisfy all situations or answer man’s greatest questions.

For Pistorius’s defence team and the prosecution, only one person really matters, the judge who will find him either guilty or not guilty. Both sides will try to present the evidence in a manner that convinces her either way beyond reasonable doubt.

Pistorius’s ultimate fate will be determined not by the evidence itself, but by what the judge believes.

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