In the absence of evidence, seek evidence

During times when information is constantly called into question, deemed fake, deemed unreliable, not believed, debunked and discredited, the importance of seeking credible evidence to support our conclusions has never been more explicit.

Often, we look to support a position with evidence, yet we find none. Keep searching; whether the evidence you seek supports your position or not, it is out there somewhere. Even if it is not the result you are looking for, at least now you have the answer. Sometimes the truth hurts.

As one who really likes to get to the bottom of things, especially in the event of controversy or confusion, I have experience with being wrong. “That can’t be true,” I sometimes think audibly, and then proceed to do my research, only to discover, lo and behold, it is indeed true.

For example, there have been occasions when I am told that I have spent what seems like an exaggeratedly, impossibly long time engaged with online media. “You’ve been on that thing for at least 45 minutes,” seems like a pretty extreme accusation after breakfast on a weekend. I mean the crumbs of toast on my plate are practically still warm. Practically.

Except they’re not.

The crumbs of toast on my plate are cold, stale, mostly fossilized. Between the time I logged on and the current time, I find the evidence I was seeking. Mystery solved. I’ve been reading, chatting, watching and posting for well over an hour. On a beautiful Saturday morning. My wife and even my dog have given up on me. The truth hurts.

One of the many excuses I have for getting hung up for stupidly long times on social media is there are certain things people post online I simply cannot let go of and must set straight. “I think the post you just shared has been determined to be a hoax,” has been a big one lately. I can’t let those go. I’ll do a Google search, check a few sources, visit Snopes, and if it looks like a hoax to me, I can’t hold back. I have to share that the evidence points in that direction.

The thing is, I have made that mistake too. It’s embarrassing (Wait, that’s not real?? Gaah! Delete, delete!! Unshare! Sorry everybody!), but in the end I am glad to have been set straight. Hopefully my social media acquaintances feel the same way about that and are not too put out by my occasional interventions when I see they’ve posted something that looks fishy to me.

Then there are times when the evidence is harder to locate, or takes more time to secure. These are times when I propose it is best to be patient and not assume or accept an expected outcome as truth or even likely, and I’m not just referring to social media etiquette. We’ve all been guilty of jumping to conclusions before getting our story completely straight.

I tell my students, when they have trouble coming to a consensus on a tough problem, to think of it as a good mystery. I would rather they leave the problem unsolved than jump to a conclusion based on an assumption or an overheard answer from another table. Making brave mistakes in my classes (and in life) is encouraged, but presenting a conclusion that cannot be backed up with evidence is embarrassing and eats away at our confidence.

We get better at solving problems when we are more confident, which is one of the reasons my colleagues and I ask our students to present evidence for their solutions to problems. When they turn in an answer that does not include that evidence, I ask them to go back and seek out the evidence to support their conclusion. This sometimes meets with an eye-roll, but in the end the work is more thorough, and the student is more confident, even if the solution has been adjusted.

The very process of seeking evidence helps us to combat a fixed mindset. It’s ok to have passionate convictions! It’s also ok to be passionate about the investigation. Look for evidence, and if you don’t find it right away, keep looking.

James Tatum Gale

About James Tatum Gale

I have been a teacher in Maine schools for twelve years, and a writer and musician since childhood. I acquired a Master's degree in Teaching from USM, and a Certificate in Math Leadership from UMF. My undergraduate degree is in Philosophy with a concentration in Comparative Religion from the University of Maine (1994). I live with my wife, Erin, and my dog, Sally, in Bowdoinham.