It's been a while since "null hypothesis" passed through my brain. Probably a college statistics class was the last time those words were thought about.
So I felt like I was saying hello to an old acquaintance when I came across references to the null hypothesis in the final chapter of Michael Shermer's latest book, The Believing Brain.
Science begins with something called a null hypothesis, Although statisticians mean something very specific about this (having to do with comparing different sets of data), I am using this term null hypothesis in its more general sense: the hypothesis under investigation is not true, or null, until proven otherwise.
A null hypothesis states that X does not cause Y. If you think X does cause Y then the burden of proof is on you to provide convincing experimental data to reject the null hypothesis.
OK. That sounds pretty dry. But when we substitute some words for X and Y, things get a lot juicier.
Like, "a null hypothesis states that God does not cause the world." Or, "a null hypothesis states that soul does not cause consciousness."
Ah, now we've got an experiment! Science comes alive and bumps into spirituality. We get to talk some trash to religious believers. Show me your best stuff, hot shot. What you got?
Nothing, it turns out.
I've been asking those sorts of questions on this blog for almost seven years. When claims about God, soul, spirit, afterlife, or the supernatural are made, I say "Where's the demonstrable evidence?"
Which is the same as saying, refute the null hypothesis. Such is the way of science. Yet often I get the response, "No, Brian, you need to prove that God doesn't exist." This tells me the person is ignorant of how the scientific method works.
The null hypothesis also means that the burden of proof is on the person asserting a positive claim, not on the skeptics to disprove it... The principle of positive evidence states that you must have positive evidence in favor of your theory and not just negative evidence against rival theories.
The principle of positive evidence applies to all claims. Skeptics are like people from Missouri, the Show-Me state. Show me positive evidence for your claim... Show me an ET or take me to the mother ship. Show me the Intelligent Designer. Show me God. Show me and I will believe.
So far, I don't believe. Shermer has some good advice.
It's okay to say: "I don't know," "I'm not sure," and "Let's wait and see."... We must keep an open mind, but not so open that our brains fall out.