In these days of Planned Parenthood butchery, Donald Trump clownery, Cecil the Lion deceasery, and the City of Ferguson’s repeat inflammability, I’ve decided to once again risk what little relevance I may have by adding to my list of articles addressing issues that are “off topic” from everyone’s concerns. Strap in.
In modern times Carl Sagan popularized the phrase "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence", which is actually credited to "the skeptic's skeptic" Marcello Truzzi's less TV-ready “An extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof.” I won’t go into detail here as to why he thought the phrase valid, except to say I sympathize with his search for something to hold the madness at bay given that (quoting from Wikipedia here, sorry) he was an “investigator of various protosciences and pseudosciences…” so you can just imagine the fever swamps he had to dive into on a regular basis.
My problem with his phrase, and more precisely of Sagan’s use of it, is that despite its quasi-valid (or at least very understandable) origin, it has since been used as a cudgel for reinforcing “scientific” dogma. I’m looking at you, Carl!
Full Disclosure: I occasionally pursue black-market scientific hypotheses as a hobby, so I have a dog in this hunt. I also am generally unwelcome in those circles since due to my tendency to require claims to be backed up by evidence, I don’t believe in Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, grey aliens in Washington DC, or really any of the host of “normal” paranormal interests. I am also not a "cryptozoologist" although I'm still and always will be amused the Platypus actually exists.
Further Full Disclosure: I’m mainly writing so I can drop a link to this post into relevant Twitter arguments where length restrictions render such explanations impossible.
On its face the phrase "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" is an unscientific corruption of the very proper and basic scientific tenant “claims require evidence”. There’s nothing wrong with “claims require evidence”. But let’s examine those two “extraordinary” modifiers, shall we? Because they’re an imposition of bias and an exercise in goal-post moving.
1) Extraordinary claims – “Extraordinary” by whose judgment? In my experience of observing people using the phrase it is typically synonymous with “unfamiliar”. Well, in scientific research and discovery you come across the unfamiliar all the time – or at least you’re supposed to and should, or you’re likely spinning your wheels on a solid subject around which there is little dispute. When you run across something NEW, it is going to be “extraordinary” at least to some people. Saying there is a category called “extraordinary claims” that is somehow separate from mere “claims” injects bias and unfairly or unjustly weights the scales of what would and should otherwise be the “normal” (stop laughing!) process of scientific evaluation. Yes, that last phrase could be considered an inside joke amongst people who actually do such work, but I’m talking about principles here.
2) Extraordinary evidence – “Extraordinary” here means the goal-posts have been moved and that the routine standard of validity (again, stop laughing!) does not apply for what amounts to “a claim we don’t like”. Again, its origins are understandable enough – I mean if the claim is a “miracle” then the evidence has to be pretty miraculous, right? The problem really becomes apparent when you move out of the realm of pseudoskepticism, and find the phrase being used in everything from politics to gas prices to hard-core astrophysics (that last being my own personal gored ox). As long as we’re talking about claims for which physical evidence CAN be produced, then our evaluation criteria should remain standard and the burdens for such proof should be inflexible.
The claim that a production model car can go over 260 mph should only be proven by recording that type of car going 260 mph, and of course this has been done. Likewise, the only acceptable proof of the existence of a Yeti would be am actual Yeti – a specimen of which we’re currently lacking. And sorry, I just have to throw this in here, but would it kill the scientific community to NOT ASSUME that rock-solid theories and principles of electromagnetic forces – ones we observe and use every day – suddenly and for no readily explainable reasons work differently or cease to work at all when the location in question is “out there” in space? I shouldn’t pick on Carl since he can’t defend himself, just understand this is pretty much the reason I’m not a fan.
For all of us who DON’T in our daily lives work to refute “animal psychics”, who don’t have to prove “there’s no ley lines here”, and who are never menaced by Wendigos on harsh winter nights, can we all please agree to just drop the phrase "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence"?
Because honestly, faithfully adhering to “claims require evidence” should be rigorous enough.
See also: Global Warming fraud. Don't get me started!