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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Evidence in Science, Theology and More – the role of the unseen ‘Prior’


Professor Tom McLeish (Physics, Durham University)

The idea of this panel is to invite a radically interdisciplinary panel to discuss the effect of prior assumptions, or in mathematical (Bayesian) form the ‘prior probability’ on the admissibility and weight of evidence.

The deployment of ‘Evidence’ in history, law, science, theology, literary studies is nuanced by disciplinary methodologies, special narratives and contexts. However, all make and then urge reasoned deductions from incomplete evidence. Furthermore, all experience the phenomenon of disagreement in face of universally-shared evidence.

The proposed panel will explore similarities, comparisons and divergencies in this divergence of deduction. The initial framing hypothesis will be that, in all these fields, divergences of deduction are the result of different ‘prior probabilities’ brought, but not declared, to the conversation.

One possible direction to take this panel is to refer to and draw on the previous IAS annual themes. After Darwin, Being Human, Futures, for example, bring the evidence-based conversations around evolution, psychology and climate change to the fore.

The panel will also attempt a serious conversation between mathematics-based approaches and the humanities, at the heart of the IAS’ mission.