Duck Quacks Don’t Echo is a brilliant TV show. It’s a light hearted affair hosted by comedian Lee Mack but manages to include highly informative educational content. The idea of the show is that guests come along with their chosen “facts” that are then are tested to see if they can be proven.Sometimes though I have a few quibbles with the experiments and what they actually prove. For example, in a recent episode, the stated fact was that pirates wore eye patches so that they could see better in the dark. When they went below deck they would swap the eye patch from left eye to right to they could quickly adjust to the darkness.
So, how would you prove this claim to be a fact? Let me tell you what they did not he show. They got lots of different people to go from sunlight into a dark room and timed how long it took for them to walk through the dark room. Some used eye patches and swapped them over, some did not. The result was conclusive, those with eye patches did far better. At the end of the experiment, the fact was declared proven.
Do you see the problem? They hadn’t proven the fact that pirates wore eye patches for this purpose. They had proven that eye patches helped you see in the dark. Now of course from that they could make reasonable inferences that this would be why pirates would use them but that is different to saying that you’ve proved the fact. The producers of the show had made a category error. They had been doing tests to prove a scientific theory when in fact they were dealing with a historical claim. Of course, it might be true that pirates had worn eye patches for this reason but it may be that they just thought it made them look scarier or a lot of them may have lost eyes. On the otherhand, the experiment could have failed and the fact might still have been true. The pirates might have been wrongly assuming the patches would help. The evidence you would need for a historical event would include eye witness reports and/or archaeological evidence. So in this case, I’d expect there to be things like letters or written instructions between pirates or reports from people who had observed their practices.
I was reminded of this reading an article in the Metro “humans only invented marriage because we all had herpes.” Now, I’m sure that the original scientists would distance themselves from the way it’s been reported but do you notice the same mistake being made again. Someone does some modelling to see how a disease would behave under certain conditions and then a conclusion is reached that this explains the motives and decisions of people from the distant past.
The article explains that scientists had modelled how populations would breed and grow and how a disease like herpes would be transmitted through multiple sexual relationships. Monogamous relationships were shown to better protect against disease spread. At this point, you don’t really have a problem with the claim. In fact, the experiment seems to have just demonstrated what we already knew. This after all, is the basis for your average sex education lesson! But that’s old news, so the more sensational announcement that the experiment has explained why we have marriage is needed.
But this no more explains marriage than the habit of preachers using football illustrations explains the existence of football. Imagine if I told you that most preacher use at least one sports illustration per week so from this we can see that a few hundred years back, people got together and said “sermons are boring, let’s vent a sport where 22 men kick a ball about so the vicar’s got something more interesting to talk about.”
Now, I think that in this case, the people promoting the experiment are starting with some pre-suppositions. They are presupposing that there is no creator God who has revealed his purposes to us. They are also running with the presupposition that we are subject to materialistic determinism that things like emotions, love, loyalty, faithfulness, goodness don’t really exist. So their model fits with their pre-suppositions and gives an explanation that they find credible. Fair enough but it’s not evidence for what did happen in the past!