Monthly Archives: May 2013

Was Carl Sagan Not Rational?

The problem with the Sagan Standard is the reasoning behind it; that extraordinary evidence should be produced to support extraordinary claims.

With all respect to Carl Sagan, this is not a very rational approach, for the term “extraordinary” is a highly subjective one.

If a person claims to have witnessed something truly extraordinary, should they really be required to produce “extraordinary” evidence before we take their claims seriously? I don’t think so. – Mike Hallowell, author of “WRAITHSCAPE: the UK’s stupidest spookiest newspaper column.”

carl-sagan So that’s Carl Sagan put in his place (Yes, THE Carl Sagan, BA, BSc, MSc, PhD; author of more than 600 scientific papers; author, co-author or editor of more than twenty books including best-sellers The Demon Haunted World, Cosmos (which also became an acclaimed TV documentary series), the novel Contact (made into a film); writer and presenter of the prestigious Royal Institution Christmas Lectures; winner of numerous awards, including the highest award of the National Academy of Sciences – The Public Welfare Medal, the NASA Public Service Medal, and many others; plus there are awards named in his honour: the Carl Sagan Memorial Award, the Carl Sagan Medal for Excellence in Public Communication in Planetary Science, and the Carl Sagan Award for Public Understanding of Science; and the list goes on and on.

The above quote, by the way, is from last week’s Wraithscape column in the Shields Gazette.

Anyway, do extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence or not? For Mike Hallowell, “extraordinary” is just a subjective term. He poses a scenario where if he were accused of a crime, then a solid alibi that he was elsewhere at the  time can be used to prove his innocence. And he adds that he shouldn’t have to provide extraordinary evidence, but “…just enough to establish that I could not have committed the crime.”

That, actually, is absolutely correct, but he is missing a very important fact: crime is real; some people commit crimes; sometimes people are falsely accused of crimes; sometimes innocent people are convicted of crimes they have not committed. No sane person could deny any of that; crime and everything associated with it are established facts, and there is nothing extraordinary about any of it.

So what is extraordinary? The word can be defined in different ways depending on context, but in the way that Carl Sagan meant it, he was talking about claims that contradict what science knows about the world and the universe. Science is not a closed book, of course, and new things are being found out all the time; but if someone wants to make a claim that contradicts science then they are making an extraordinary claim that really does require extraordinary evidence.

Try Mike Hallowell’s scenario again, but this time imagine that his alibi is that he could not have committed the crime because he had been abducted by aliens and was being anally probed aboard the aliens’ mother ship when the crime was committed.

Now keep in mind the fact that Mike is a proponent of alien visitation, and has even featured people who claim to be abductees in his weekly column. See here, for example, where he actually says, “Whether their captors are alien or not, something truly extraordinary is happening to them.” (Emphasis added) He regularly quotes former astronauts and military personnel who claim to have had contact with aliens and their space ships, and overall he is convinced of the reality of UFOs as extraterrestrial interplanetary vehicles. For him, anecdotal accounts and personal testimony are sufficient.

But whichever way you look at it, claiming abduction by aliens would be the most extraordinary claim anyone could make in their defence against a criminal charge. In the real world, a person’s alibi would have to be tested: in other words, witnesses for an alibi would have to appear in court and confirm that alibi. Better still, maybe CCTV footage could be brought in to show the defendant somewhere else at the time of the crime. And there are other ways that an alibi can be tested. How could the claim of alien abduction be tested?

It seems to me that claiming abduction by aliens is an extraordinary claim that really does need extraordinary evidence. And in Mike’s example, that extraordinary evidence could be provided if the aliens were to park their shuttle craft in the court’s car park and the aliens themselves gave evidence in court (presumably through their universal translator gadget thingy).

In the case of an accusation of criminality, if a person had several witnesses that he was shopping in the local supermarket at the time of a crime, then that is entirely plausible because supermarkets are real. If the witnesses said they saw the defendant being beamed aboard a UFO, that is not plausible because there is no confirmable evidence whatsoever that UFOs, i.e., alien space ships, exist. It would need a lot more evidence than that – indeed, it would need extraordinary evidence.

I think it’s worth looking at the word “extraordinary.” Extraordinary means “outside of the ordinary,” in the same way that extraterrestrial means “outside of the Earth.” In that sense, or context, “extraordinary” is not a subjective term at all. Mike Hallowell’s argument, in his article, is: “What is extraordinary to one person, then, maybe quite mundane to another.” In other words, if you happen to believe in something, then for you it is ordinary, and therefore real. Nothing is extraordinary if you believe in it.

Does that argument work? For some people in certain parts of Africa, for instance, witchcraft is a mundane reality. So mundane and real, for them, that some unfortunate people find themselves being burned alive because of an allegation of sorcery. It’s so ordinary, in fact, that extraordinary evidence to prove such an allegation is simply not necessary. The poor bastards are just thrown on a bonfire to satisfy others’ superstitious beliefs (and sometimes just to settle old scores).

Believing extraordinary claims without extraordinary evidence is dangerous – deadly, even.

Mike Hallowell also trots out the old chestnut about sceptics constantly “raising the bar” in terms of evidence they will accept for various claims. As he puts it: “However, if one makes a claim that the sceptics in their wisdom find absurd, they’ll raise the bar to new and giddy heights so that those making the claims are faced with a monumental task when it comes to satisfying those who choose not to believe.”

But “raising the bar” is how science works. People who make extraordinary claims are not being asked to provide levels of evidence any higher than science demands for itself. How far would a scientist get if he produced a hypothesis that he could not prove? (For the pedantic, I’ll be more specific: a scientist actually tries to prove the null hypothesis.) It might be hard for the believers to accept this simple fact, but scientists are more ruthless with their demands on each other than they are even with the woo brigade (who can’t prove their claims anyway, and no one really expects them to be able to). Science is a process that starts with research that might show promising results, but a successful experiment is not definitive, it is just the start of what can be a long and arduous task. As research progresses, the hurdles that have to be overcome become, as Mike puts it, “monumental.” Scientists have to do it, so too should the paranormal claimants.

Even when a scientific hypothesis reaches the highest pinnacle, that is, it attains the status of a theory, it is not immune from criticism. Even a scientific theory is held provisionally: despite the best evidence, it might turn out to be wrong (or more likely incomplete, in which case it might need to be modified). There are no sacred cows in science, but if an established theory does turn out to be wrong, that would be extraordinary in itself and would require commensurate evidence. If you can prove that E=MC2 is wrong, you are in for a Nobel Prize and worldwide adulation. But you’re not going to get it if you think, like Mike seems to think, that extraordinary evidence is not required to overturn one of the most extraordinary findings that ever came out of scientific research.

If the pro paranormal people continue to think that low level evidence is sufficient to prove high level claims, I don’t think they’ll ever understand why they are not taken seriously by mainstream science. And if they really think that requiring evidence commensurate with a claim is “not a very rational approach,” then that is just extraordinary, as well as being bad thinking.

Carl Sagan

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UFO near-miss: Not Really

MH900057495 I came across this report of an alleged UFO sighting on the BBC website at the beginning of the month. It was noticeable to me only because the BBC isn’t given to sensationalist reporting, so I tend to take things more seriously when a UFO claim is reported on a serious news site.

According to the local newspaper, the Daily Record,

An airliner carrying 180 passengers over Scotland came within just 300ft of colliding with a UFO, an official probe has revealed.

And of course, this was observed by airline pilots – the “trained observers” so beloved of UFO mystery mongers. The aircraft was thirteen miles from Glasgow Airport on its final approach for landing.

According to the pilots, a blue and yellow silvery object passed beneath the plane at high speed; nothing was detected on ground radar or the plane’s onboard instruments; fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, weather balloons and gliders were ruled out as the cause of the sighting.

This is all great news for the UFO believers, who will no doubt be adding this story to their ever-burgeoning list of alleged alien encounters. And this is where sceptics come in for a lot of flak from the believers. Although people like me can make some reasonable suggestions as to possible explanations for UFO sightings, we’re usually accused of just making stuff up for the sake of getting rid of awkward “evidence” that upsets our “materialist world view.” But I think that some rational speculation without claiming certainties is better than the UFO buffs’  irrationality that goes along the lines of, “We don’t know what it is, therefore it’s an alien spaceship from another galaxy.” (An ASFAG, if you like.)

 Picture credit: The Daily Record I suspect that this story is going to be held up by the believers as an example of a UFO encounter, but (mostly) without reference to the later follow up story in the same newspaper. At the time of the aeroplane coming close to its “UFO” a little boy in the same area lost his 6ft helium filled shark toy, which, when he lost his grip on it, floated up into the sky and away from him. This toy, like the blue and yellow silvery UFO was also blue and yellow and, er,  silvery. And he lost it in about the same place on the ground as the pilots had their encounter 35,000 feet overhead.

So much for “trained observers.” Pilots have no special immunity from misperception or various cognitive biases; they said of the “UFO”:

“Couldn’t tell what direction it was going but it went right underneath us.”

That gives the impression that the toy shark was itself travelling, but in fact it was the plane that was flying at speed. The object did not go under the aircraft, the aircraft went over the object. Yes, it might have appeared that the object was moving, but what is perceived is not always what is.

It might be hard for the UFO believers to have their (helium filled) balloon burst, but if they want to claim the reality of UFOs, they really have to supply stronger evidence than anecdotes. As Carl Sagan put it:

For years I’ve been stressing with regard to UFOs that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Something testable and confirmable would do.