Objective Direct and Indirect Evidence, and Subjective Inferences

Continuing the discussion from What does the BGV theorem say?:

That’s quite likely the case. Maybe I’ll move this to a new topic and see if there might be another approach to hopefully help everyone to be on the same page. :slight_smile:

So what if we used objective evidence to refer to evidence that is accessible empirically and that direct types would be those that confirm something as a scientific fact and the indirect type would refer to those that are evidences that infer a subjective inference, something that isn’t accessible empirically?

@Jim, I am getting quite busy, so I don’t know if I can respond as quickly anymore. Would you mind giving examples from the sciences (ideally for me, from physics, as that is the field that is most familiar to me) of what you call objective evidence, direct evidence, indirect evidence, etc?

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OK. But since you’re busy, I’ll attend to other things myself and get to this later. :slight_smile:

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Didn’t we already have this same thread at least twice already?

Do you have an answer yet for why you infer the supernatural as opposed to currently unknown natural causes?

(Continuing the discussion from https://discourse.peacefulscience.org/t/what-does-the-bgv-theorem-say/6178/75.)

I think this would be a good opportunity to resurrect this thread about direct vs. indirect evidence in the sciences. We’ve covered this before in What is the Meaning of Directly Observable?, but @Jim brings up some comments and questions which I think are commonly asked by laymen:

If by “unaided observation” you mean observation “by the naked eye” or observation similar to the things we find in everyday life, I would say that that among scientists, it’s probably more common to distrust such unaided observations, because selection bias and noise is rampant. In fact, it’s common among in my field of precision measurement to add an unknown blind to the measurement that is only revealed after all data analysis is completed, so as to ensure that during the analysis process, people do not know whether they have a null or non-null result.

I would in fact say that particle physics, which relies more on automated detectors and preset analysis algorithms to process the data, gives more precise results than many other fields like experimental biology or paleontology which (in my limited perception) seems to involve more of the scientist’s active judgment. Although there’s greater distance (i.e. more instrumentation and logical inferences) between observer and observed in physics, the instrumentation is also more understood and consistent.


So since I’m not really concerned with that particular aspect, I’m not sure if what you covered in directly observable is directly related or not. (No pun intended. Kinda :slight_smile: ) And you are right, what I did mean by unaided observation is “by the naked eye.” However, there is another distinction which I brought up which I’m not sure you were aware of from what you posted.

The main distinction I’m brining up is between subjective and objective. So objectively confirmed unaided observations would be things that no one would dispute, like the apparent features of a cat, or a dog, say. I’m not so much concerned with measurement, but with features of reality, like, we don’t observe things popping into and out of existence. Does that make sense?

I’ll repost here my comment on different distinctions I’m concerned with.

So you’ve brought up several different categories of observation:

  1. Unaided vs. aided by instrumentation
  2. Direct vs. indirect
  3. Subjective vs. objective

These distinctions are themselves different from each other, yet when you use terms such as “objectively confirmed unaided observations” I think you are mixing different categories, making it unclear what exactly you’re after. I would request that you don’t mix these terms up in the future. For the sake of discussion, I’ll focus on 3) for now, as you requested.

I notice that you have not really defined what a “subjective” observation is. For me, all observations which count as science, regardless of their status with regards to 1) or 2) (i.e. direct or indirect), are objective. Subjective would only apply to phenomena which only the observer has access to, such as private religious visions or a “sense of wonder” upon seeing a waterfall, or feeling that a certain sequence of events has a certain meaning given to it by God. Do you agree with me?

That may be, but seems to me they’re all related to each other in ways that it would be hard to keep them apart from each other and still have a coherent approach to what I’m aiming for. Maybe you have an alternative approach that would work?

Yes. That’s fine. But considering the type of things I’m trying to address I don’t know how it would be relevant other than providing an opposite definition to objective observation just for additional clarity.

Even though you say you agree, I don’t think we do. To take another quote of yours from that thread:

(Emphasis mine)

The way you’re using subjective here is not what I had in mind. For example, the existence of supersymmetric particles such as the stop squark remains an experimentally unconfirmed theoretical hypothesis right now. However, we normally wouldn’t use the word “subjective” to describe this. The theory is very objective: if the stop squark existed with such and such a mass and other parameters, we would see it have a certain effect on the experiments we’re doing.

The only possible remaining room for subjectivity in theoretical physics is an individual theorist’s opinion of which unconfirmed theoretical hypothesis is likely to be true; there are theorists who have a strong conviction that all types of squarks must exist; while others are less optimistic. However, none of these subjective opinions wield a large influence in determining what we know about particle physics; everyone is in agreement that we don’t yet have experimental evidence of their existence.


People will dispute everything, including the aparrent features of a cat or dog. Do you mean to claim everything is subjective?

You would need some sort of other evidence to tie the two together, and also have some sort of predictive power and potential to falsify your hypothesis.

For example, scientists at the LHC did not directly detect the Higgs boson. Instead, they detected the predicted decay products of the Higgs boson within an expected energy range. Not only that, two separate experiments using different equipment reported the same results. In this case, we have a prediction which could be proven false and experiments that tested it.

What ultimately matters is the strength of the reasoning connecting the measurement to your hypothesis.

It comes down to what I call “independence”. To what extent does the observation depend on your assessment? If you weigh something on a balance the measurement really doesn’t depend on your judgement. It is what it is. Anyone can come along and get the same results. If you claim that a certain tree is beautiful that claim is entirely dependent on you, and different people could have different results. Objective evidence is evidence that is independent of you, and should be able to be measured consistently by others.

The theory is very objective: if… I think the word “if” suggests that it is subjective, at least until such a time as it would actually be confirmed.

Wikepedia: In the most basic sense, a scientific fact is an objective and verifiable observation, in contrast with a hypothesis or theory, which is intended to explain or interpret facts .

That’s more or less the track I’m on. I think I would add logically (deductively) confirmed to the definition as well. So subjective, in this sense, would be in regards to the hypothesis which isn’t an objective and verifiable observation, nor logically confirmed, but rather a subjective idea, inference, interpretation, or explanation based on limited evidence. If I understand correctly it moves to a theory when it’s more firmly supported by evidence, and then, if conclusively confirmed it would be considered a scientific fact. Is that right?

Yes, that’s just human nature. And no, I’m not claiming everything is subjective. I’m more generally concerned with finding a way to make sense of the scientific endeavor for the interested layperson. I think coming up with understandable distinctions is a good place to start.

Good points. I see also there is some ambiguity in my explanation as well. Direct types of objective evidence wouldn’t confirm something as scientific fact, being objectively confirmed they would just by themselves be scientific facts.

So in the case of the Higgs boson, the detection of the objectively confirmed decay products, having been directly detected by two separate experiments, would be the direct type of evidence being used as indirect evidence to infer the Higgs boson. And I assume the objective evidence, both physical and mathematical in nature, was able to deductively confirm its existence even though the HB itself hasn’t been detected. Correct?

Yes. That’s more or less what I’m saying. I would add that ideas, which are what hypothesis and theories are in essence, are also initially subjective, dependent to a lesser or greater degree on opinion, until they can either be objectively (independently) shown to be true or false.


Theories help us determine which facts are evidence. Facts by themselves aren’t evidence of anything.

I would agree that theories and hypotheses are ideas, but not all ideas are theories/hypotheses.

I wouldn’t describe theories and hypotheses as being objective or subjective. I would describe them as being testable or untestable, or perhaps scientific and non-scientific. It is the evidence that is being used to test a theory that is objective or subjective. For example, “that biological feature looks designed” is very subjective.

Scientists judge theories based on how well they can explain or predict what we see in nature. For example, Newton’s theories on gravity gained a lot of credence when he was able to use that theory to accurately predict the orbit of comets. Theories that make risky predictions are “better” than those that don’t.

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So, just to be clear, you’re basically saying that any conditional statements in a theory makes the theory subjective? That just doesn’t make sense. Think about it for a moment. Can you see why that is clearly wrong in any reasonable definition of “subjective”?

I don’t think there’s a unanimous, standard definition for what a “fact” is in science. Normally we would only refer to experimental data as facts. So even Newton’s law of gravitation we wouldn’t call a fact; rather it’s a verified theory.

Even the detection of the decay products are mediated through devices such as calorimeters, for which we still need a theory to interpret what we’re seeing (in fact, this is why calibration of detectors is very important in particle physics). So, my point is that the direct vs. indirect distinction is not very clear-cut.

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Maybe we’re defining subjective a bit differently. I would define it as anything internal to a person, i.e., mental. So things like thoughts, consciousness, claims, judgments, inferences, hypothesis, theories, ideas, formulas, etc., are subjective in nature.

Objective would be anything that is external to a person, i.e., physical. So things that are externally available to the senses that can be observed or detected in some way would be objective in nature.

I’m not sure how evidence can be subjective. It may be about something subjective, like someones motive. But the evidence itself used to uncover the motive would need to be objective.

You could say that information is in a sense subjective. But I would imagine it could only be used as evidence if the information was regarding something external, and therefore verifiable in an objective sense.

So to use your example features of design in nature would be externally available information which would allow for objective verification, i.e., it can be examined by anyone. However, I think to go from has features of design, to is designed, would be considered an inference based on the evidence.

I’m not sure you’re following my train of thought. Hopefully what I said above may give you a better idea of what I’m getting at overall.

This definition is not very helpful, since both experimental and theoretical physics contain both internal elements (inferences, hypotheses, formulas) and external elements (experimental data). They are thus both “subjective” and “objective”. In addition, even experimental data is very theory-laden, in the ways that I’ve already explained to you.

Yes. So in my way of making distinctions generally theoretical is subjective in nature, and experimental is objective in nature. That’s not to say that theoretical cannot move into being objective. As long as it can be objectively shown to be so, e.g., through a deductive inference, then it would be objectively confirmed.

In the case of theory-laden experimental data, if the theories have been objectively confirmed, then the data would be objective in nature. If the data was laden with objectively unconfirmed theories, then it would have to be considered as more subjective in nature than the latter situation. The degree of subjectivity would be dependent on how many unconfirmed theories are used in establishing the data.

Now mind you, this is not so much for scientists to use in making judgments for Bayesian inferences. It’s more for a layperson to generally have a way to make distinctions to be able to recognize what’s going on in order to help bring things down to earth, so to speak. Edit: One of my aims is to have a way to generally establish degrees of certainty.

OK. @T_aquaticus and @dga471, I’ve thought about it some more. First of all I think it’s necessary to point out that, as far as I can tell, evidence always has to be objective in some way, otherwise I don’t see how it would be evidence.

Now, let’s say you’re in a room with someone and they tell you there’s a brown dog in the next room. From the barking sound you hear coming from the room you detect a possible presence of a dog. But other than what you’ve been told, if there is a dog in there you don’t know if it’s brown or not. So to be sure of both, you open the door, and sure enough there is a brown dog in the room. Now that would be a case of direct evidence.

In regards to what’s being claimed, it can be objectively confirmed by direct observation. The barking sound would be evidence, but it would only be indirect since all it tells you is that “something” in the room is making a barking noise. So it would be direct evidence for saying there is a barking sound coming from the room. But it would only be indirect evidence to infer that a dog is actually in the room.

Now let’s say that the person instead says that there was a brown dog in the room. Now obviously you cannot expect to walk in the room and directly observe the dog itself since, by implication, the dog is no longer in the room. But what you can do is look for indirect evidence of things you would possibly expect to find if a brown dog had been in the room.

So you might walk into the room and smell an odor that suggest not only that a dog was in the room, but that it was recently in the room. You might also discover brown hair, scratch marks on the walls or door, or whatever else might accompany the presence of a dog. That would be a case of indirect evidence.

Whatever the claim is in regards to cannot be objectively confirmed itself, but can only be subjectively inferred through indirect evidence. The more indirect evidence, the stronger the inference. Nonetheless, it can never be objectively confirmed by direct observation since it is in regards to something inaccessible to direct observation, like an event in the past.

Now I’m still not sure about direct and indirect access, but I think I’m starting to lean more towards observation as direct access, and detection as indirect access. I’m still not sure whether or not an objective-subjective distinction is possible. But if so, I would say that direct generally would be objective, and indirect generally would be subjective, with maybe a mixture of both elements, depending on the circumstances.

And since we know from human experience that observations can be distorted, I would say, between unaided and aided direct access, unaided human observation within its limits is the easiest to objectively confirm as accurate. The degree of technology aided observation being objectively confirmed would depend on things like the technology, location, etc., and would possibly have different degrees of subjective and objective elements to it.

And within detection it would be somewhat similar regarding confirming its accuracy in that the degree of subjectivity and objectivity would depend on things like the technology behind it, how theory laden the technology, any use of unconfirmed theories (if that’s ever the case?) etc. But it seems to me detection would generally have more elements that are subjective than objective as compared to observation. And I would imagine detection is always more limited than observation.

And right from the get go you go horribly wrong. Personal evidence is subjective (it is idiosyncratic to us), but it is the evidence by which we infer almost everything of consequence.