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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11 responses to “Was Carl Sagan Not Rational?

  1. Mike Hallowell

    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 …” (and so on, ad nauseam).

    A pity you fail to mention the several very complimentary things I said about Sagan alongside my singular criticism which would have given a much more balanced picture of what I think of the man. Strange that you should apparently be so affronted at me taking issue with someone of Sagan’s stature, considering your own rebuke in the past about using “names” to prove a point.

    No matter.

    “That, actually, is absolutely correct, but he is missing a very important fact: crime is real…”

    Thank you for proving my point with such clarity and by example. The whole point of my column was to demonstrate how the term “extraordinary” is subjective. Your “crime is real” point implies that paranormal activity is not, or at least not proven and is anti-scientific – which we all know is the stance you take. You couldn’t make your own point, then, without affirming mine – that what is extraordinary to one may be perfectly believable to another and vice-versa. You have no problem accepting crime as “real” – no problem there, obviously – but can’t give the same status to the paranormal. So I’m not missing a very important fact, you’re agreeing with mine.

    “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.”

    But why? Why won’t “evidence” simply suffice? You see, here’s where you really haven’t thought this through properly: If you insist that you won’t accept something simply on the basis of “ordinary evidence”, but only on the basis of “extraordinary evidence”, then you are rejecting the ordinary evidence as insufficient, which means that it really isn’t evidence at all because it proves nothing to you. So, by demanding “extraordinary evidence” you are simultaneously rejecting perfectly good evidence which just doesn’t meet your own extraordinary standards. Cherry picking at its best – or perhaps its worst.

    “It seems to me that claiming abduction by aliens is an extraordinary claim that really does need extraordinary evidence.”

    Absolutely: “It seems to me…” – a perfect example of how skeptics decide when to roll out the Sagan Standard – when they, with perfect subjectivity, decide that something just “seems” hard to believe. When something just “seems” extraordinary to them, they’ll demand a higher standard of evidence.

    “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.”

    I have no problem with people “raising the bar” in anything they do, providing they do so consistently and not just when it suits them. You want to see the bar raised simply when YOU find something “extraordinary” – a definition for which you have no means of measurement other than that it conflicts with scientific convention – something which you openly admit is fallible and open to be challenged:

    “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,”
    Which begs the question as to why you get so upset when those who believe in the paranormal challenge conventional science, then. Your only rationale could be that the criticisms or challenges are themselves based on flawed science – but that would be absurd, for that in itself is simply a challenge to orthodox thinking, which you say you have no problem with. Your argument is completely circular.

    “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 it’s equally easy to see why “pro paranormal people” have little faith in extreme skeptics when they demand the right to raise and lower the bar of evidential standards not on the basis of science or measurable criteria, but purely on the basis of what “seems to [them]” extraordinary.

    “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.”

    So tell me; how do you measure whether something is “extraordinary” or not? And then, how do you go on to determine the degree of “extraordinariness” a claim possesses? And, once having established that something is extraordinary to a certain degree, how do you then determine just how far the evidential bar should be raised as a consequence? Is the degree of extraordinary evidence required variable depending on how extraordinary a claim is, and who makes these determinations? Is there a court which rules on such matters, and pronounces, “We think this claim rates 7 out of 10 on the Extraordinary Scale, and therefore requires a Level 9 standard of evidence to support it”? Or, as you state in your own words, does it all just boil down to “what seems” extraordinary to you as an individual? If it’s the latter, it’s not very scientific, is it?

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    • Mike,

      My post was quite clear and accurate. Your response suggests that you did not understand it, and you have failed to refute it. This blog is about logical thinking, so your convoluted rhetoric is singularly unimpressive. Your claim that I “agree with you” is illogical and wrong. Your comment is nothing more than an extended straw man argument. (I’ll do a new post on that subject later.)

      The fact that I did not mention anything complimentary you had to say about Carl Sagan is irrelevant – that wasn’t what the post was about. You, however, have ignored one of the most important points I made, namely that people are being routinely killed in the most awful way as a result of dangerous superstitions that have no basis in reality, and not a single piece of empirical evidence to support them (that’s what makes the claims extraordinary). As you imply, to people like them witchcraft is just a mundane reality. We might as well replace science with pitchforks and flaming torches – which is what could happen if you and your fellow anti science proponents ever get into a position of influence. Yeah, bugger the Enlightenment, let’s have the Endarkenment.

      But maybe I’m wrong. If you really think that an extraordinary claim like witchcraft should be given any kind of acceptance or respect just because it is real to some people, justify your claim. Justify the deaths of innocent people who are killed on the basis of “ordinary evidence” for what you think are “ordinary claims.”

      You should ask yourself what your own reaction to all that would be if you found yourself in the same position as the poor souls who are being burned to death because some witch doctor deemed you to be a jinx on the people around you.

      Just prove that witchcraft (or any other paranormal claim) is real, then it will become ordinary rather than extraordinary. Challenge science by all means, but you have to provide scientific evidence to support your assertions. [Edit to correct typo]: Start with P = < 0.05 and work upward – just like scientists have to. (And show your working out.)

      You can't challenge science on your own terms.

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  2. Mike Hallowell

    “My post was quite clear and accurate.”

    If you say so.

    “Your response suggests that you did not understand it, and you have failed to refute it.”

    I love your idiosyncratic habit of saying something completely baseless in the hope that people will just believe it.

    “This blog is about logical thinking, so your convoluted rhetoric is singularly unimpressive.”

    As above.

    “Your claim that I “agree with you” is illogical and wrong. Your comment is nothing more than an extended straw man argument. (I’ll do a new post on that subject later.)”

    You’re the straw man expert. You use the phrase more than anyone else I know when you’re stuck.

    “The fact that I did not mention anything complimentary you had to say about Carl Sagan is irrelevant…”

    Try unbalanced.

    “You, however, have ignored one of the most important points I made, namely that people are being routinely killed in the most awful way as a result of dangerous superstitions that have no basis in reality, and not a single piece of empirical evidence to support them (that’s what makes the claims extraordinary).”

    What you provided was simply an example, and one which you seem to employ with extraordinary regularity when responding to me. You could have chosen one of thousands of examples – but no, you had to resort to the old witchcraft and burning issue. Again, let me state – not that it should be necessary – that I have never supported these deplorable practices and never will. They are hideous, evil and should be stopped. Not sure this will stop you mentioning this again when you respond to me, and thereby providing a faux link between me and the subject at hand, but hope springs eternal in the human breast, etc.

    “As you imply, to people like them witchcraft is just a mundane reality. We might as well replace science with pitchforks and flaming torches – which is what could happen if you and your fellow anti science proponents ever get into a position of influence.”

    But that wasn’t the point at issue. The point was that what people see as “extraordinary” is subjective. Your comment clearly implies that someone who sees something as mundane will inherently begin to practice it. This is a silly non-sequitur made for nothing other than mischievous baiting.

    For those of us who do not possess your ability to hyper-jump from one point to another at random, can you explain exactly what it is about me that leads you to think I’d encourage people to replace science with pitchforks and flaming torches? What do you see me employing the pitchforks and torches for? I’m intrigued, and very much want to hear you explain this statement with more than your usual poverty-stricken level of clarity.

    “Yeah, bugger the Enlightenment, let’s have the Endarkenment.”

    What brings about “endarkenment” are bullies who intimidate and abuse heterodox thinkers. We’ll never have enlightenment as long as there are those who harangue enlightenment-seekers.

    On the point of being bullied, I note you’ve complained about being intimidated yourself by those who do not seem to appreciate your right of free speech. Sad to hear, but I’d just like to make it clear that when I complain about what you say about me, it’s never anything to do with your opinions, but your occasional habit of making completely false allegations about me and then refusing to support them with any evidence when challenged. I still have a list of those outstanding ones if you’d like me to resurrect them at any time. As you repeatedly demand evidence from others who make claims you find hard to believe, I’m sure you’d be more than willing to reciprocate and provide evidence to support your own claims about me. You’ve often shied away from this in the past, but maybe you’ve grown up a bit.

    “But maybe I’m wrong. If you really think that an extraordinary claim like witchcraft should be given any kind of acceptance or respect just because it is real to some people, justify your claim.”

    First of all, I do not give witchcraft any respect whatsoever. If you knew anything about the Islamic view of this practice you wouldn’t even have made such a statement. I do NOT suggest that things should be given respect, or treated as “real”, just because many people believe in them. This is what you are suggesting I’m saying, without any basis, so please justify YOUR claim.

    “Justify the deaths of innocent people who are killed on the basis of “ordinary evidence” for what you think are “ordinary claims.”

    What on earth would make you think that I would countenance or justify such wickedness just because others do? Are you seriously suggesting that I have ever supported witch-burning, torching those who are allegedly possessed, the killing of innocents…? I have NEVER supported such behaviour, and if this is what you are suggesting then either prove it or acknowledge in your response that I do not.

    “You should ask yourself what your own reaction to all that would be if you found yourself in the same position as the poor souls who are being burned to death because some witch doctor deemed you to be a jinx on the people around you.”

    I would feel exactly the same as any other victim of such evil behaviour. Why are you pointing such remarks at me? The only thing I have ever suggested is that possession is a real phenomenon and that the help of a skilled exorcist may be of assistance in such cases. I have NEVER supported the evil nonsense you speak of, and I’d appreciate it if you stopped spouting off about it whilst mischievously throwing my name into the mix for no valid reason whatsoever.

    “Just prove that witchcraft (or any other paranormal claim) is real, then it will become ordinary rather than extraordinary. Challenge science by all means, but you have to provide scientific evidence to support your assertions.”

    I’m sorry to hit you with a reality check, but I don’t have to do anything just because you say so, any more than you have to provide scientific evidence to support your assertions just because I say so.

    You can’t challenge science on your own terms.

    Actually, I can. And you can. Anyone can. You might not like it, but you really should drop your habit of pronouncing what I and others like me can or cannot do. You simply can’t enforce it, so you’ll just have to go back to stamping your feet.

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  3. Mike,
    your comment deserves a full answer, so I have decided to answer point by point. My responses are in square brackets:

    “My post was quite clear and accurate.”

    If you say so.

    “Your response suggests that you did not understand it, and you have failed to refute it.”

    I love your idiosyncratic habit of saying something completely baseless in the hope that people will just believe it.

    [That’s your department. You make paranormal claims that you do not back up with testable evidence open to general scrutiny. Your claims are the ones that are baseless.]

    “This blog is about logical thinking, so your convoluted rhetoric is singularly unimpressive.”

    As above.

    “Your claim that I “agree with you” is illogical and wrong. Your comment is nothing more than an extended straw man argument. (I’ll do a new post on that subject later.)”

    You’re the straw man expert. You use the phrase more than anyone else I know when you’re stuck.

    [I don’t use the phrase when I’m stuck; I use it when it is appropriate. If you didn’t use so many straw man arguments, I wouldn’t have to point them out.]

    “The fact that I did not mention anything complimentary you had to say about Carl Sagan is irrelevant…”

    Try unbalanced.

    [It’s still irrelevant.]

    “You, however, have ignored one of the most important points I made, namely that people are being routinely killed in the most awful way as a result of dangerous superstitions that have no basis in reality, and not a single piece of empirical evidence to support them (that’s what makes the claims extraordinary).”

    What you provided was simply an example, and one which you seem to employ with extraordinary regularity when responding to me.

    [Extraordinary? That must be your subjective opinion. Or are you stating that as a fact – in which case you must agree that some claims are objectively extraordinary. You can’t have it both ways.]

    You could have chosen one of thousands of examples – but no, you had to resort to the old witchcraft and burning issue. Again, let me state – not that it should be necessary – that I have never supported these deplorable practices and never will. They are hideous, evil and should be stopped.

    [Are you campaigning against them? I am.]

    Not sure this will stop you mentioning this again when you respond to me, and thereby providing a faux link between me and the subject at hand, but hope springs eternal in the human breast, etc.

    [I did not suggest that you supported these “deplorable practices” (reworking what I said in terms of what you wrongly think I meant is another straw man argument on your part). My comment referred to the fact that you ignored it, not that you supported it.]

    “As you imply, to people like them witchcraft is just a mundane reality. We might as well replace science with pitchforks and flaming torches – which is what could happen if you and your fellow anti science proponents ever get into a position of influence.”

    But that wasn’t the point at issue. The point was that what people see as “extraordinary” is subjective. Your comment clearly implies that someone who sees something as mundane will inherently begin to practice it. This is a silly non-sequitur made for nothing other than mischievous baiting.

    [Another straw man argument. I did not imply that someone who sees something as mundane will “inherently” begin to practise it. You’re being subjective with your interpretation of my words.]

    For those of us who do not possess your ability to hyper-jump from one point to another at random, can you explain exactly what it is about me that leads you to think I’d encourage people to replace science with pitchforks and flaming torches? What do you see me employing the pitchforks and torches for? I’m intrigued, and very much want to hear you explain this statement with more than your usual poverty-stricken level of clarity.

    [Another straw man argument. I said “We” (collective, i.e., society), not “You” (in particular) would encourage anyone to replace science with actual pitchforks and flaming torches; what I said was metaphorical, not literal. It is true, however, that you write articles that contradict what science knows, and you have not backed them up with empirical evidence that science now accepts or even takes seriously. It is also true that you reject science as a method of finding out the truth about the universe if it contradicts your personal beliefs. (You say on your own website that since you are now a Muslim, you must reject any evidence that does not conform with your Islamic faith. I understand that, though; most religions have the same policy.) It doesn’t need literal pitchforks and burning torches to take us back to the dark ages, it just needs a concerted effort by motivated believers – for example the creationist movement if they are ever successful – to undo centuries of empirical research.]

    “Yeah, bugger the Enlightenment, let’s have the Endarkenment.”

    What brings about “endarkenment” are bullies who intimidate and abuse heterodox thinkers. We’ll never have enlightenment as long as there are those who harangue enlightenment-seekers.

    [“Heterodox thinkers” are usually wrong, and are often referred to as cranks – especially when they try to contradict established science. The real Enlightenment seekers were regularly harangued and even put to death by the early church. But people who promote superstition are not seeking enlightenment, they are trying to undo THE Enlightenment, whether they realise it or not. They are not being bullied, however, they are being challenged – to prove their claims.]

    On the point of being bullied, I note you’ve complained about being intimidated yourself by those who do not seem to appreciate your right of free speech. Sad to hear, but I’d just like to make it clear that when I complain about what you say about me, it’s never anything to do with your opinions, but your occasional habit of making completely false allegations about me and then refusing to support them with any evidence when challenged.

    [I met your challenge on Brian’s blog – with the relevant links. I won’t bother linking to that, seeing as how you forced him to remove some of my comments with the threat of legal action. That is the sort of actual bullying that led to the new defamation law, by the way. You will notice, of course, that you are free to comment here; my own way of countering arguments I disagree with is with better arguments, not threats. In any case, I have never accused you of any wrongdoing, just of being wrong (in my opinion).]

    I still have a list of those outstanding ones if you’d like me to resurrect them at any time. As you repeatedly demand evidence from others who make claims you find hard to believe, I’m sure you’d be more than willing to reciprocate and provide evidence to support your own claims about me. You’ve often shied away from this in the past, but maybe you’ve grown up a bit.

    [Any claims I have made about you and the unsubstantiated claims you make are soundly reasoned and honest opinion. Your answers, however, tend to be sophistry at its most blatant: you won’t get it quite right until you understand the logic that underpins it. Stick with this blog.]

    “But maybe I’m wrong. If you really think that an extraordinary claim like witchcraft should be given any kind of acceptance or respect just because it is real to some people, justify your claim.”

    First of all, I do not give witchcraft any respect whatsoever.

    [Maybe the people whose religion is Witchcraft don’t respect your religion, either.]

    If you knew anything about the Islamic view of this practice you wouldn’t even have made such a statement. I do NOT suggest that things should be given respect, or treated as “real”, just because many people believe in them.

    [Yes, you do. Click on this link:

    http://www.shieldsgazette.com/opinion/columnists/wraithscape/was-south-shields-visited-by-a-ufo-1-5350482

    and read your own words: after you tell your readers that there are many and varied people who support the idea of UFOs, you say, “Just why would people who had everything to lose and very little to gain make such claims if they weren’t true? And we aren’t talking about one or two here – we’re talking about hundreds.”

    Here’s another one:

    http://forteanzoology.blogspot.co.uk/2011/02/mike-hallowell-geordie-rockfrog-story.html

    in which you say such things as “Are all the witnesses lying? A ridiculous suggestion. Are they all mistaken? That’s hard to imagine,” and, “…on one hand the events as described seem impossible, whilst on the other the sheer volume of witness testimony makes them hard to deny.”]

    This is what you are suggesting I’m saying, without any basis, so please justify YOUR claim.

    [Just did it. Any paranormal claim has to be either true or false. You said in your article, “What is extraordinary to one person, then, may be quite mundane to another.” The clear implication is that those claims have some kind of validity or are due some sort of respect. Whether a claim is true or not is independent of whether someone regards it as extraordinary or mundane. You promote the paranormal and supernatural whilst claiming unambiguously and unequivocally that it is real, without any good evidence, and you consistently refuse to release the evidence you say you do have. One exception was the so-called “bottle balancing” video regarding the alleged poltergeist you wrote a book about in 2006, but you had it removed from the internet when it came in for heavy criticism. It was risible, though, so I don’t blame you. It’s probably better for you if you don’t release any more “evidence” if the quality of it is as convincing as that piece of comedy.]

    “Justify the deaths of innocent people who are killed on the basis of “ordinary evidence” for what you think are “ordinary claims.”

    What on earth would make you think that I would countenance or justify such wickedness just because others do? Are you seriously suggesting that I have ever supported witch-burning, torching those who are allegedly possessed, the killing of innocents…? I have NEVER supported such behaviour, and if this is what you are suggesting then either prove it or acknowledge in your response that I do not.

    [I did not suggest that you do support witch burning, and I don’t have any reason to think you do. I gave it as an example because although it is an extreme example of superstition, it comes about because witchcraft is regarded as a mundane reality in some parts of the world. I was asking you to justify your own principle, namely that extraordinary claims do not need extraordinary evidence – you accused Carl Sagan of being “not very rational” on that point – which is the principle this post was about. Science does not accept subjective claims, it deals with claims that can be objectively tested. All paranormal claims are extraordinary, and so far they have failed those tests.]

    “You should ask yourself what your own reaction to all that would be if you found yourself in the same position as the poor souls who are being burned to death because some witch doctor deemed you to be a jinx on the people around you.”

    I would feel exactly the same as any other victim of such evil behaviour. Why are you pointing such remarks at me? The only thing I have ever suggested is that possession is a real phenomenon and that the help of a skilled exorcist may be of assistance in such cases. I have NEVER supported the evil nonsense you speak of, and I’d appreciate it if you stopped spouting off about it whilst mischievously throwing my name into the mix for no valid reason whatsoever.

    [It’s good to know you actually agree that there is evil nonsense out there. But you think possession is real and that exorcism is the cure, with nothing but faith to support it. That really is an extraordinary claim that you cannot back up with anything more than the fact that you really, really believe it. You are willing to condemn witchcraft and the deaths it causes, but possession and exorcism and the deaths it causes (even though those deaths might not be an intended outcome) must be different, I suppose. How extraordinary.]

    “Just prove that witchcraft (or any other paranormal claim) is real, then it will become ordinary rather than extraordinary. Challenge science by all means, but you have to provide scientific evidence to support your assertions.”

    I’m sorry to hit you with a reality check, but I don’t have to do anything just because you say so, any more than you have to provide scientific evidence to support your assertions just because I say so.

    [No, you don’t have to do anything on my say so. And you don’t. You can carry on making anti scientific claims with nothing to support them and reap the criticism you get all over the internet. When I need to supply scientific evidence I do so – because I can; you can’t. You have said publicly that you are not a scientist and have never claimed to be. So please explain: why should anyone think you are correct in any of the paranormal claims you make that contradict basic scientific knowledge and the known laws of nature?]

    You can’t challenge science on your own terms.

    Actually, I can. And you can. Anyone can. You might not like it, but you really should drop your habit of pronouncing what I and others like me can or cannot do. You simply can’t enforce it, so you’ll just have to go back to stamping your feet.

    [You might think you can challenge science on your own terms, but you can’t. To make a challenge to science that is actually valid you would have to use scientific methodology – but that would be science’s terms, not your own terms. I’m not going to try to enforce anything, or stamp my feet. You could, however, ask yourself (as a non scientist, of course) why science does not accept your paranormal claims.]

    [I don’t doubt for a moment that you reject witch burning as evil nonsense, but to those people, witchcraft is real: they regard it as mundane, rather than extraordinary. Yes, I could have given a different example, but this is more appropriate because the danger of harm due to superstition is most starkly illustrated. If your assertion that “what is extraordinary to one person is mundane to another” does not imply that what someone regards as mudane is real, then it was a pointless statement.]

    [What is it about what I have ever said that makes any of my statements extraordinary (as you claim, above)? If your own claim that something I have said is extraordinary, as you say, then you are clearly not being objective by your own standards. Or will you admit that some claims really are extraordinary?]

    [The same principle applies to other paranormal claims. Some people make life-changing decisions based on what they are told by psychics, tarot readers, astrologers and a host of other self professed paranormal experts. And there is still not a single piece of empirical evidence to support them.]

    [Some claims, however, really are extraordinary – not just subjectively, but absolutely. In 1912 Alfred Wegener had good reasons to propose his hypothesis of “continental drift” – the extraordinary idea that the continents actually moved around the Earth’s surface. He found that the geology and fossils along the east coast of South America matched perfectly the corresponding geology and fossils along the west coast of Africa. It gave him the idea that at some time in the past those continents were connected – which is what he proposed – and which was rejected by the scientific community because he could not suggest a mechanism that would explain it.]

    [Heterodox? It was that, alright. It wasn’t until the 1960s that oceanographic surveys started to reveal the spreading sea floor between the continents, which led, eventually, to the discovery of plate tectonics (continental drift) – which is now not just a hypothesis but a theory. Plate tectonics is now a mundane (but proven) reality, although it used to be an extraordinary claim. Wegener’s data about geology and fossils were supportive of his hypothesis, but it needed – and got – the extraordinary evidence it had to have to clinch it – the actual measurements of plate tectonic movement. It’s a pity he died before he was vindicated.]

    [To get things back on topic, though, claims that contradict what science knows are extraordinary claims. To accept such claims without commensurate evidence is what is “not very rational,” as you put it, as well as being bad thinking.]

    [One more thing: In The Shields Gazette 30th May, page 44, there are two advertisements for psychics. According to one ad, one can connect to one’s Guardian Angels. “Learn how to attract angelic healing and protection.” And the facilitator is a “Certified Angel Therapist,” no less. It’s a half day workshop, but the claims made seem to me to be as extraordinary as the cost: £33.00 per person. It must be mundane to some people; what do you think? (The facilitator is certified, remember – or maybe he should be.)]

    [The second ad is for six mediums, including Angel card readers. At least the cost is only £2.00 admission (plus unspecified charges for individual readings). Again, it’s obviously mundane to the believers. Maybe they really can contact the dead. I can’t disprove it, but I’m not going to believe it without some extraordinary evidence.]

    [So try again to prove that Carl Sagan was not being very rational about extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence.]

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  4. Mike Hallowell

    “I did not suggest that you supported these “deplorable practices” (reworking what I said in terms of what you wrongly think I meant is another straw man argument on your part). My comment referred to the fact that you ignored it, not that you supported it.”

    Then if you don’t think I supported them, why did you ask me to justify them?:

    “Justify the deaths of innocent people who are killed on the basis of “ordinary evidence” for what you think are “ordinary claims.”

    Why would you ask me to justify something you already knew I didn’t support?

    “But maybe I’m wrong. If you really think that an extraordinary claim like witchcraft should be given any kind of acceptance or respect just because it is real to some people, justify your claim.”

    There you go again. The only respect I believe should be given to this sort of practice is a) an acknowledgement that it is actually practiced (unfortunately) and b) that, misguided though they may be, some of those who practice it do so sincerely. This should not, obviously, be taken as any support of approval for the practice.

    “Heterodox thinkers” are usually wrong, and are often referred to as cranks – especially when they try to contradict established science.”

    Not much “respect” there then. Calling people “cranks” is hardly likely to open the doorway to constructive dialogue – not that you’ve ever shown any signs of wanting any, as my repeated challenges to you to defend your claims about me in a public debate show. You refuse to engage with me, as you know full well you’d be exposed as someone who makes claims about others and can’t defend them.

    “Any claims I have made about you and the unsubstantiated claims you make are soundly reasoned and honest opinion. Your answers, however, tend to be sophistry at its most blatant: you won’t get it quite right until you understand the logic that underpins it. Stick with this blog.”

    Oh, you’d love me to “stick with this blog”, and for obvious reasons. That way, it would be much easier to avoid the false claims you DID make about me, including the allegation that “many times” over the past decade I’d made extraordinary claims in my column and promised to back them up with evidence, but then failed. Out of the ”many times” you claimed I’d done this you only came up with one, when I challenged you, and that was your hilarious claim regarding my involvement in the “hairdresser case”. I hadn’t even written the article you quoted from, never made the claims you’d suggested, and your defence? That you weren’t writing a scholarly treatise at the time and so your farcical and numerous (at least 7) errors didn’t count. So, of the “many times” you said I’d failed to come up with the goods in my column, the only instance you could find was a complete crock from start to finish and you a) never defended your statements, and b) only made one half-hearted apology which you then immediately withdrew. Eye-wateringly funny from the guy who monotonously demands “evidence” from others. These were no “soundly reasoned and honest opinions”, but gross factual inaccuracies. My answers weren’t “sophistry”, but were point-by-point refutations of those same factual inaccuracies.

    “One more thing: In The Shields Gazette 30th May, page 44, there are two advertisements for psychics. According to one ad, one can connect to one’s Guardian Angels. “Learn how to attract angelic healing and protection.” And the facilitator is a “Certified Angel Therapist,” no less. It’s a half day workshop, but the claims made seem to me to be as extraordinary as the cost: £33.00 per person must be mundane to some people; what do you think? (The facilitator is certified, remember – or maybe he should be.)”

    What do I think? I think if you believe in this sort of stuff and want to give it a go, it’s up to you. I don’t believe in it personally, but I respect the right of people to follow their own religious beliefs no matter how incorrect they may seem to be to me. The real nightmare would be the introduction of restrictive legislation to curtail the practice of such beliefs just because a coterie of self-appointed judges think they’re bogus. Religion is primarily about belief and faith, and if we’re to insist that those beliefs have to be scientifically proven before we can espouse them then we’ll end up living under a fascist dictatorship. In fact, the only religion deemed acceptable would be science, despite its ever-changing nature. Not that you’d want to impose such draconian measures if you had your way, of course.

    “The second ad is for six mediums, including Angel card readers. At least the cost is only £2.00 admission (plus unspecified charges for individual readings). Again, it’s obviously mundane to the believers. Maybe they really can contact the dead. I can’t disprove it, but I’m not going to believe it without some extraordinary evidence.”

    Well bully for you. No one is making you consult psychics or angel therapists, so just avoid them. But stop picking on those who do believe in such things just because their claims don’t live up to your demands for “extraordinary evidence”. You may not believe in those practices, but people have a right to their own beliefs. You bleat on about freedom of speech and the horrors of being bullied when you exercise it. Well, why not practice what you preach and stop whining on about those who differ with you? You admit, “Maybe they really can contact the dead. I can’t disprove it”. So, if you accept that talking to the dead is theoretically possible – even I don’t believe that – then wouldn’t the mature thing be to maintain a dignified silence, or at least word your retorts in a civilised way?

    But maybe that’s asking too much of you.

    “It is true, however, that you write articles that contradict what science knows…”

    Actually, I might occasionally write articles which contradict what scientists currently think. That’s not quite the same thing.

    “and you have not backed them up with empirical evidence that science now accepts or even takes seriously.”

    And I’m sorry if that upsets you. The truth is, however, that I simply don’t feel the need to back up everything I think or believe with “science” as science is, as you admit, not “a sacred cow” and it can be flawed. As I don’t trust science implicitly, I reserve the right to believe things and express opinions which are not acceptable to the great and the good of scientific academia. I believe there are other criteria by which one can judge something as true or false. You may not agree, but I really don’t care. You have an awful habit of asking people to prove things that you don’t believe in. At times, your requests verge on being demands. Now you have a right to do this, of course, but I think you need to remember that if people don’t just jump to attention and kow-tow to your requests you shouldn’t take that as an automatic sign that they’re running scared from your challenges. Why do you feel the need (actually, more of an obsession) to continually demand proof from those who believe things you don’t? Live and let live, for goodness’ sake. Campaign against witch burning and other despicable practices, but get off the backs who think that God created prehistoric creatures and not evolution. They can believe what they want and say what they want, and they don’t need your blessing or permission. Neither do they have to supply any proof at all to you to justify their beliefs. I think you should get out more, and you definitely need to get another hobby.

    “It is also true that you reject science as a method of finding out the truth about the universe if it contradicts your personal beliefs.”

    Not exactly true. Yes, my spiritual beliefs do take precedence over science, and I’m not ashamed about that at all. However, I don’t reject the scientific opinions of others out of hand. In Islam we’re encouraged to listen to the arguments of others, and there’s plenty wiggle room for debate which does not impinge upon the fundamental teachings of our faith. I accept science as a valid method of discovering the truth about many things. I just don’t follow it blindly.

    “It doesn’t need literal pitchforks and burning torches to take us back to the dark ages, it just needs a concerted effort by motivated believers – for example the creationist movement if they are ever successful – to undo centuries of empirical research.”

    Maybe, maybe not. But the point is this; if you had your way, I think you’d restrict religion, creationism , belief in the paranormal etc. in any way you could, and if the whole world became atheistic overnight I don’t think you’d bat an eyelid. In fact, I think you’d throw a party. The restriction of both freedom of thought and the promulgation of heterodox beliefs is, ironically, the very thing that arrests our progress. Some of the greatest discoveries were made by the “cranks” who, in their day, were heterodox thinkers. Had you been alive then, my suspicion is that you’d have been howling them down along with the rest of the orthodoxy.

    You talk about the pitchforks and burnings being “metaphorical”. Well that’s a relief, but it’s still inflammatory rhetoric and really doesn’t help.
    I’m curious about your stance on the statements made by many astronauts and military personnel who acknowledge that we have been visited by extraterrestrials. Some have openly admitted that they have been shown this evidence and made privy to the details about such visitations. Some have seen classified reports where the same acknowledgements were made. Now you don’t seem to deny that these admissions have been made, and yet to my knowledge you have made no efforts to refute them. So, do you believe these astronauts, military personnel and others are telling the truth, and that extraterrestrial visitations are therefore likely to have taken place, or do you believe they are all lying?

    Just wondered.

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    • Mike,

      First of all, you are completely off topic. The post was about your claim that Carl Sagan was not being very rational when he said that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. You have avoided that altogether.

      Secondly, you have brought up the same old dross you have been referring to over and over and over for years. You’re like a scratched Mp3, repeating the same old stuff again and again. If you can’t cope with the reality that I have proven the things I have said, then that’s tough. I said earlier that you are free to comment here, but I didn’t mean that you should feel free to wallow in self indignation and bore the pants off everyone. If you are going to keep dredging up the same old false accusations about me time and time again, or if you cannot stay on topic, then I will not publish your comments. That won’t be censorship, however; you’ve said your bit umpteen times, and I’m tired of you posting the same old cobblers over and over. You might not feel the need for any originality in your Wraithcrap column, but I would like to see something new and original here from those who want to contribute.

      Thirdly, you seem to have missed most of what I said in my last comment; you have barely addressed anything I said, and where I have clearly answered and refuted your claims, including the relevant links, you are completely silent.

      Fourthly, you keep banging on about having a public debate. We ARE having a public debate, but you can’t keep on topic.

      The only thing in your comment that interests me and is worth replying to is your last paragraph – a prime example of Bad Thinking that I shall now deconstruct and explain to you. Here we go, with a step by step analysis and my explanations in square brackets:

      “I’m curious about your stance on the statements made by many astronauts and military personnel who acknowledge that we have been visited by extraterrestrials.” [“MANY astronauts and military personnel.” So much for you saying that you “do NOT” suggest that the number of people who believe a claim somehow gives it more credence. Go back to my previous comment and study the links I gave.]

      “Some have openly admitted that they have been shown this evidence and made privy to the details about such visitations.” [No, they have not “admitted” (or “acknowledged”) that they have been shown evidence or are privy to anything. When someone “admits” something, the implication is that they would not have said anything if they had not been pressed on the matter, which is why a news report might tell you that a suspected criminal, say, finally “admitted” to a crime; they usually don’t volunteer such information. The reality is that some of the people you refer to just can’t stop going on about it. They have motivation because they are making money from books, lecture tours and so on; they might even believe that they are doing a public service because they are genuine in their beliefs, but they, like you, make extraordinary claims without backing up those claims with evidence that will stand up to any scrutiny.]

      “Some have seen classified reports where the same acknowledgements were made.” [How do you know? Is it because they say so? You are simply taking their word for it. That logical fallacy is called the appeal to authority – which I explained in a previous post. It would be different if they published these classified reports, but they have an easy get-out: the reports are, wait for it – classified.]

      “Now you don’t seem to deny that these admissions have been made, and yet to my knowledge you have made no efforts to refute them.” [“Admissions,” as I said above, do not mean that those people have been put under any pressure to speak out, and it’s a bit misleading to word it that way. I certainly don’t deny that those people have made those claims, but they have certainly not “admitted” anything, they have just made certain claims. No one can refute a claim that is presented without evidence, but there is no need to. The simple answer to an unsubstantiated claim is, “Where’s your evidence?” If evidence is presented, then that evidence might or might not be refuted, but an empty claim on its own cannot be refuted (or proven) by any logical means.Show the evidence, I say; at least there would be something to evaluate. If you make a claim without evidence, I can dismiss it without evidence. If they really are revealing classified military secrets, then they should face a court martial. And where are the alleged “men in black” who supposedly suppress this information, by the way?]

      “So, do you believe these astronauts, military personnel and others are telling the truth, and that extraterrestrial visitations are therefore likely to have taken place, or do you believe they are all lying?” [This is the best bit: two logical fallacies in one sentence: the appeal to authority, and the false dichotomy. The appeal to authority is something I have dealt with here:

      https://badthinking.wordpress.com/2013/02/24/the-appeal-to-authority-not-so-authoritative/.

      I begin that post with these words: “The worst reason there is for believing anything is that someone says so.” And that is very true.

      The false dichotomy is another blog post I will make thanks to your inspiration. What you have done there is to offer two options in answer to your question when, in fact, there are more:

      1) Are they telling the truth? Or:

      2) Are they telling lies?

      But there are other options:

      3) They might be honest in their beliefs but have been fed with misinformation by a government that finds it useful to cover up secret aeroplane testing by encouraging people to falsely believe they are seeing UFOs rather than secret military hardware.

      4, etc.) There are numerous other possibilities one could think of, each with its own level of plausibility or lack thereof.
      Presenting two options to support an argument when in fact there are more is the logical fallacy called a false dichotomy, sometimes called a false dilemma. In more formal terms, it is known as the fallacy of the excluded middle (not to be confused with the law of excluded middle, i.e., the principle of non-contradiction).

      This example is in the same vein as the old “have you stopped beating your wife” question. A “yes” implies you used to do it; a “no” implies that you do it – even though you might never have raised a finger to your wife. (A yes or no answer also implies that the person being questioned actually has a wife.)

      In this example, the false dichotomy is nothing more than a rhetorical ploy by you to try to put me into a position where I am forced to make a choice between two propositions, neither of which I (or you) can prove or disprove, thereby deflecting attention away from the fact that there are other options, and the fact that there is no evidence to support the claims being made in the first place.

      It still comes back to my original blog post – extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Any claim requires evidence commensurate with the claim being made. Extraterrestrials? That’s an extraordinary claim, and believing it with little or no evidence is what is truly “not very rational.” It’s Bad Thinking, in fact.]

      Mike, if you intend to respond to my comment, then I have to insist that you stay on topic. If you are going to use your option to post here just to vent your personal anger at me, then your comment will not be approved for publication. You claimed that Carl Sagan was being “not very rational.” Take it from there and keep it relevant. You made the claim; the onus is on you to prove it (even if you “don’t feel the need to prove anything to anyone,” as you have said before).

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  5. Mike,

    Your most recent comment is not being approved for publication because it is completely off topic and just a personal attack against me (fine, that’s up to you if that’s the best you can do), but it’s not a curtailment of your free speech. You have your own website and other outlets available to express your opinions.

    You are not banned from this blog, however, but if you want to comment here you must keep your comments relevant, and be prepared to address the issues raised.

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  6. Pingback: Extraordinary Claims Are Objective Claims | Bad Thinking

  7. Pingback: True Or Not – A False Dilemma | Bad Thinking

  8. Sagan got into trouble with my 85 year old physics PhD Neighbor. It was a defense symposium in Boston. Sagan claimed at after a few nukes went off it was game over due to nuke winter, and had some formula Sagan made up. This sounds like a repeat or a pre peat of the trouble Sagan had with Feynman over nuke winter due to nuke testing.

    Like

  9. Thanks for commenting, Clark.

    I’m not aware of the symposium you mention, so I can’t say much about it.

    Carl Sagan might have been wrong sometimes, and I’m sure Feynman and many others were, too. It’s one of the costs of being human. But being wrong and being irrational are different things. I think Sagan was perfectly rational when he said that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

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