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Extraordinary Claims Require Only Evidence, Not Extraordinary Evidence - by John Prytz

There is a phrase, often attributed to the late, and great, Carl Sagan, though I’ve seen others cited as the originator, that “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. In fact, if I’ve read that mantra in one science book, I’ve read it in dozens (and then some). Talk about a meme that has infiltrated the scientific community! I mean scientists especially invoke that phrase when applied to, what in their collective judgements are extraordinary claims that they can’t come to rational terms with. I can understand the intent behind the phrase, but not the logic.

 

Sometimes you hear a song once too often and it loses its appeal. Sometimes it never had any appeal in the first place. In this case, it’s somewhere in-between. I didn’t object to the phrase at first, but after the 1000th time, and especially upon more sober reflection, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a nonsense phrase.

 

I gather an original purpose was to separate the scientists making scientific claims, backed by independent verification and peer review, from the non-scientists making pseudo-scientific (i.e. – extraordinary) claims. This was all with the view on the grounds scientists don’t have the time and inclination to investigate every pseudo-scientific claim, so if they are to take the great unwashed seriously, a truckload of evidence had better be presented to them – far more than would be required initially from one of their peers. While that makes a bit of sense, it perpetuates an us vs. them dichotomy and makes scientists more elite than they really are, and/or makes the great unwashed even more unwashed than they really are. Anyway, this you’d better dump on me an extraordinary amount of evidence in my lap before I take you seriously (and even then I’ll probably take you with a grain of salt because I doubt I’ll have the right time of day for you because my mind is made up so don’t confuse me with facts or evidence) has become enshrined in the ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’ mantra.  

 

Now at the onset, let me state that claims require evidence. That is not in dispute. That philosophy is an absolutely central concept part and parcel of our modern civilization. The entire foundation of our legal system answers to that principle. The scientific community, peer review, has adopted that principle. Even in everyday personal life, we insist on the viability of that principle. I mean if you claim you have a red dress, some doubting Thomas is perfectly within his rights to make you prove it – provide the evidence. And so you go to your closet, bring out the red dress, and so prove your claim. Now if you claim to have 1000 red dresses, which may seem like an extraordinary claim, but the nature of the evidence is exactly the same. You go to your closet, drag out 1000 red dresses, and dispatch Mr. Doubting Thomas quick-smart.

 

Oh, there is one great exception to the ‘claims require evidence’ principle – religion. When it comes to religious claims, however outrageous and illogical then may seem, you don’t have to provide any evidence, extraordinary or otherwise. It’s all about blind faith – faith is the be-all-and-end-all when it comes to believing in – to be honest – unsubstantiated claims.

 

Now the problem is that the work ‘extraordinary’ is in the mind of the beholder. What’s extraordinary to one individual isn’t even remotely extraordinary to another. It’s an emotive, personally judgmental word.

 

If I claim there’s a blue sedan parked in my driveway, that’s an ordinary claim.

 

If I claim there’s a ‘flying saucer’ parked in my driveway, you’d say that’s an extraordinary claim. However, both claims, ordinary or extraordinary, require the exact same amount of evidence. 

 

In the no-nonsense legal world, there’s no need for extraordinary evidence. You don’t require twice or thrice the number of witnesses to convict in the case of murder vis-à-vis shoplifting, even though murder is a far rarer and more extraordinary crime than shoplifting.

 

You go to the bank. Whether you withdraw an ordinary $1 or an extraordinary $10,000, you will be required to produce evidence that you are who you say you are – your signature, and perhaps photographic identification. But, in either case, it’s the same evidence.

 

Okay, we have to come to terms with the fact that lots of extraordinary claims have in fact come to pass, with rather ordinary evidence. Let’s list just a few once-upon-a-time scientific impossibilities (extraordinary claims) that have proved (via ordinary evidence) to be anything but.

 

It used to be quite obvious that the Sun went around the Earth – any other extraordinary claim of another configuration was considered impossible.

 

Once upon a time, our Universe could not be anything but static – neither expanding nor contracting. Einstein however knew the Universe should be contracting because of the attractive force of gravity. To counter that, and keep the static Universe he and the science of the times believed in, he invented his ‘cosmological constant’, a repulsive force to exactly counter gravity’s pull. That was his extraordinary claim. He later called that his greatest blunder. However, that ‘cosmological constant’ has recently resurfaced in the form of ‘dark energy’, so Einstein might have been right after all!

 

Those extraordinary Black Holes, while existing on paper in relativity theory, could not actually exist in reality - in practice they were quite the impossible object. There’s massive evidence now that they do indeed exist.

 

No one in their right Biblical mind would believe that it was extraordinarily possible that mankind had any actual evolutionary relationship with ‘lower’ life forms. Evolutionary biologists can give you lots of ordinary evidence to the contrary.

 

That matter actually consisted of rather extraordinary indivisible bits called atoms - the atomic theory was nonsense. The atomic theory was an extraordinary claim. Particle physicists can give you ordinary evidence to the contrary.

 

That ‘island universes’ were actually independent conglomerations of stars and not nebulous entities part and parcel of our own Milky Way Galaxy was deemed extraordinarily impossible by experts. Ordinary observational evidence eventually proved otherwise.  

 

Catastrophism in geology was considered an extraordinary no-no for much of the time since it began as a legit part of earth science. All geology (especially landforms) could be explained as a gradual softly-softly, slowly-slowly, process. Violent events need not apply to explain things. Tell that to the dinosaurs! Of course we know better today. Ordinary evidence shows that Catastrophism has taken its place and role playing in the geologic scheme of things.

 

Speaking of geology, the idea of continental drift was once considered extraordinarily preposterous pie-in-the-sky stuff. How dare a meteorologist (Alfred Wegener in 1912) tell geologists what should have been bleeding obvious! Geologists of course countered that there was no physical mechanism that could push continents around. Well, there was as it turned out, only we may no longer call it continental drift but rather plate tectonics. The ordinary evidence is in; geologists accept it.

 

Once upon a time, the concept of nuclear energy was extraordinary pie in the sky – a subject no scientist would take seriously. Does anyone dispute the evidence for it today?

 

Prior to the initial test, there were ‘experts in explosives’ who said that the A-bomb would never work. That it would would have been an extraordinary claim to the contrary. The evidence that it did work is evident now.  

 

Powered flight was once considered extraordinarily impossible – balloons were the only feasible means of air travel. Today, the verdict is in.

 

Rocket travel was utter extraordinary bilge as there was nothing in space for the rocket’s exhaust to push against. Yet the moon landings became so ordinary that the public quickly got bored with them.

 

It was impossible for the human body to travel faster than the speed of a (fill in the blank) without suffering fatal physiological consequences. Any person suggesting the contrary would have been forced to provide extraordinary proof.  Of course quite ordinary proof proved most satisfactory to counter the claim.

 

The sound barrier would never be broken; to suggest otherwise was an extraordinary claim. Again, its now quite ordinary to break the sound barrier; no extraordinary evidence was required, just the sound of a sonic boom.    

 

It was considered impossible for stones to fall from the sky – witnesses to the contrary be damned. Today, we incorrectly call them ‘shooting stars’; more correctly meteors, and when then hit the ground, meteorites. Picking up a meteorite is ordinary; although claiming it fell from the sky was once upon a time an extraordinary claim.  

 

The RMS Titanic was ‘unsinkable’. To suggest otherwise would have been extraordinary. The very ordinary evidence now rests at the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean.

 

The city of Troy was ordinary mythology, pure and simple. There was no such place in reality. To suggest the contrary was an extraordinary claim. Today, nobody doubts the ordinary evidence backing up the city’s reality.  

 

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” is often the mantra when it comes to the UFO extraterrestrial hypothesis (ETH).

 

 Many ideas or fads, be they in the sciences or the arts, don’t last long – theories come and theories go and actual fashions and fashion in music change yearly. What’s ‘in’ and what’s ‘out’ is often pretty fickle. A lot of what was popular in 1947 (the birth year of the modern UFO era) has fallen by the wayside now - but, interestingly enough, not the UFO ETH. The UFO ETH is as popular as ever, maybe even more so now than in 1947, not that popularity equates of necessity to something factual. If a billion people believe a stupid idea – like an invisible friend who art in heaven – it’s still a stupid idea. However, over six decades on, despite all the professional and amateur sceptics and the universal naysayer, the government denials, scientists professing ‘no evidence’, the ‘giggle’ factor and the ‘silly season’ publicity, the UFO ETH is alive and well thank you very much. Something must be driving this. Perhaps, at least as far as many of the great unwashed are concerned, there is some signal in the noise – some sort of evidence (albeit not physical enough to be acceptable to many professional scientists) that’s swaying the general public.

 

It is suggested, with good reason, that the whole issue of the UFO ETH must be judged on the basis of the evidence. And, it is claimed, that the evidence for visitation is so poor that very few scientists find it convincing. And that is true, at least the part that few scientists, publicly at least, find the UFO ETH somewhat lacking in solid evidence. Thus, the UFO ETH has garnered somewhat of an aura of being a ‘silly season’ subject, unworthy of scientific study. [To be honest, I’d often like to survey academics / scientists for their private opinions!]

 

UFOs vs. evidence for the ETH – there is no absolute smoking gun - yet. I’d be the first to acknowledge that. I’d suggest however that this is a case of where there’s smoke, there’s smoke. The fire has yet to be seen through the smoke. There however has got to be something suggestive about the nature of that smoke to drive lots of people, even some quite intelligent people, to accept the possibility of the UFO ETH. I mean the idea just didn’t pop out of the ether – out of thin air. Something very suggestive is driving it. 

 

I would ask the question whether by evidence one means a physical artefact that can be put under the microscope, or is human testimony, the sort that would convict someone of a crime and put them on death row enough evidence? I’m 99% convinced scientists would say the former, yet the evidence for the UFO ETH is 99% the latter (plus a few radar returns and films). Actually IMHO it’s ludicrous for UFO ETH sceptics to poo-poo and give the thumbs down to eyewitness testimony. After all, it’s accurate eyewitness testimony that enables the trained investigators to properly identify the vast majority of UFO reports, turning them into identified flying objects. So, when sceptics need eyewitness testimony to be accurate and turn UFO cases into something with ordinary and mundane causes – that’s fine. But when the tables are turned, sceptics turn turncoat as well so as to re-enforce their already-minds-made-up point of view. That is, eyewitness testimony that turns a UFO sighting into an unexplained bona fide UFO case, well then clearly the eyewitness testimony counts for nothing in terms of bona fide evidence.    

 

Now there are lots of current concepts in science that have absolutely no evidence to support them, yet are taken quite seriously by physical scientists. A partial list would include concepts like the Multiverse, the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum physics, string theory or its related M-Theory, the Higgs Boson, the possible existence of ten or eleven dimensions, the Ekpyrotic (two branes colliding origin of the) Universe theory, and, shock horror for those interested in SETI, the total lack of any under-the-microscope, hard core evidence whatsoever for any intelligent life forms other than intelligent terrestrial life forms. Yet it is acceptable for scientists to research these areas without being subject to having their sanity questioned. I fail to see why the UFO ETH is an exception to this.

 

Scientists need more than 20 fingers and toes to list all of the there-is-no-evidence-for- these-way-out-theories in science that ultimately had to wait years, decades, longer even for experimental confirmation. If scientists had put these in the too hard basket, or dismissed them with a ‘I just don’t believe it - it can’t be therefore it isn’t’ attitude, well we’d still all believe that the sun goes around the Earth, black holes would be confined to the pages of science fiction, and as for gravity bending light rays – forget it.

 

There are other ‘the nature of the evidence’ parallels with UFOs – physical phenomena that don’t stand still; you can’t poke and prod, put under the microscope, examine at your leisure and which are unpredictable in space and in time. Ball lightning comes to mind; ditto Transient Lunar Phenomena (TLP); and you can’t rewind the clock and prepare for (instruments at the ready) and witness the one-off Tunguska event. There seems to be a double standard for evidence here. UFOs have a ‘giggle factor’; ball lightning does not, yet both have theoretical underpinnings that make their existence plausible. In the case of UFOs, it’s the Fermi Paradox – if advanced extraterrestrial civilizations exist, they’ve had enough time to colonize the galaxy, so where is everybody?

 

So, in conclusion, that ultra overused phrase “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” is nonsense. Claims of course require evidence, but again the word ‘extraordinary’ is in the mind of the beholder. What’s extraordinary to one is routine, boring, commonplace and downright bloody obvious to another. And speaking of the common phrase, another one that can be applied to the UFO ETH is “absence of evidence is not the same thing as evidence of absence”.

 

Conclusion: If you make a claim, extraordinary or otherwise, you’ve got to be prepared to back it up with your evidence, your whole evidence, and nothing but your evidence.



Science librarian; retired.

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