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Absence of Evidence and Evidence of Absence: Evidential Transitivity in Connection with Fossils, Fishing, Fine-Tuning, and Firing Squads

Elliott Sober
Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition
Vol. 143, No. 1, Models, Methods, and Evidence: Topics in the Philosophy of Science. Proceedings of the 38th Oberlin Colloquium in Philosophy (Mar., 2009), pp. 63-90
Published by: Springer
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/27734389
Page Count: 28
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Absence of Evidence and Evidence of Absence: Evidential Transitivity in Connection with Fossils, Fishing, Fine-Tuning, and Firing Squads
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Abstract

"Absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence" is a slogan that is popular among scientists and nonscientists alike. This article assesses its truth by using a probabilistic tool, the Law of Likelihood. Qualitative questions ("Is E evidence about H?") and quantitative questions ("How much evidence does E provide about H?") are both considered. The article discusses the example of fossil intermediates. If finding a fossil that is phenotypically intermediate between two extant species provides evidence that those species have a common ancestor, does failing to find such a fossil constitute evidence that there was no common ancestor? Or should the failure merely be chalked up to the imperfection of the fossil record? The transitivity of the evidence relation in simple causal chains provides a broader context, which leads to discussion of the fine-tuning argument, the anthropic principle, and observation selection effects.

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