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Thursday, May 14, 2015

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence

I probably should save this post for the weekend, when we deal with non-political subjects -- but if I wait another couple of days, I may forget. So...what the hell.

Many of you have heard scientific-minded blokes invoke Carl Sagan's famous dictum: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Am I the only person to notice that this axiom is utterly non-scientific?

Problem 1: Since we have no universally agreed-upon definition of the extraordinary, we must admit that extraordinariness is a purely subjective criterion. In essence, Sagan is admonishing you to render judgment arbitrarily and capriciously.

Problem 2: Why, exactly, would extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence? All we have is Carl Sagan's say-so. I admired Sagan, but I never saw any reason to grant him the final word on all matters touching on philosophy.

Why knows? Maybe we can get through life just fine if we regard ordinarily-persuasive evidence as good enough for an extraordinary claim. Conversely, maybe ordinary claims deserve extraordinary evidence. Take my ex, for example. She was the controlling type. If I told her that I left the house to buy some groceries, she would presume that I was lying unless she saw the store's surveillance footage. Although most people would say that she was being a total pain in the neck, one could argue that her attitude was based on sound epistemological reasoning.

At any rate, we need something more than one man's word.
I think it is incompletely stated. How about "Extraordinary claims refuting the conventional wisdom require detailed evidence to overwhelm the historical bias".


Agree with Shirt. The more outlandish the claim, the more evidence you need to counter conventional wisdom/knowledge. Seems intuitive to me.

There is no metric to measure terms like "outlandish" or "conventional." Therefore, you are applying subjective assessments to a supposedly scientific endeavor.

And there is nothing measurable or provable about your intuition, Peggysue. So once again, you are being anti-scientific. You are asking me to accept your individual intuition as an absolute truth.

See? I can keep this sort of thing up all day. It's fun!
Epistemology is a fascinating discipline and a real rabbit hole. Most of us live in a world of social epistemology where we simply conform to the conventional wisdom of our group and smugly demand impossible proofs to any challenges to our "common sense". Sense, of course, is not rational. It can be distorted through an array of forces--most importantly, confirmation bias.

Dr. Sagan's aphorism is indeed puzzling coming from someone normally so profoundly rational. Perhaps it was a stoned expression of exasperation with persistent stupidity.

What is this? A circular word argument??? No, you cannot measure my intuitive sense, anymore than you can measure or prove my love for my family, my children.

If you strip Sagan's statement down, we get: claims require evidence. The word 'extraordinary'-- which seems to bug you--speaks to the degree of proportion between the said claim and evidence required to support/prove that claim.

I picked up a You Tube discussion here:

Frankly, I didn't realize there were that many Sagan doubters/refuters out there. Do I think Sagan's statement undermines his life, his work? Not even close!

In fact, I don't understand what the damn argument is about.

Peggysue, I was being a bit whimsical here.

Read the comment by Anonymous above. He seems to have been on the same wavelength.
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