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Thread: Do extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence?

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    Do extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence?


    (View video on YouTube)

    As you might know, the agade "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" was popularized by Carl Sagan (I don't think he coined it). Is it correct, though?

    William Lane Craig in the above video argues that it is not correct. He thinks eyewitness testimony is enough, apparently.

    Personally, I think the adage makes logical sense. If you make a claim that potentially overthrows the currently known laws of nature, you have a lot of explaining to do, including incorporating all of the present data.

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    Contributor ruby sparks's Avatar
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    WLC is not a physically unattractive man, and that beard suits him, but he is talking complete shite.

    Even if there was eyewitness testimony for something as extraordinary as the resurrection (which there isn't, there's just reported eyewitness testimony in very ropey old texts written quite a few years after the alleged event) he'd still be talking complete shite.

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    Sapere aude Politesse's Avatar
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    What is "extraordinary evidence"? ??

    This adage has never made any sense to me. How do you decide what kind of claim is which? How do those terms make sense at the same time? If "extraordinary" claims is a code word for "supernatural" claims, it seems like "extraordinary" evidence would be supernatural evidence. So for instance, perhaps the spectral evidence introduced at the Salem Witch Trials to prove the extraordinary accusations of witchcraft might qualify. But most people do not think of the Salem Witch Trials as a crowning moment in the history of rationality. I don't see that a rational person ought to include their personal judgements of how extraordinary the claim is into their consideration at all, and would simply hold everything to the same standard of ordinary evidence. What do the facts care whether you are personally incredulous about them or not?

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    Veteran Member James Brown's Avatar
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    What is "eyewitness testimony"?

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    Quote Originally Posted by Politesse View Post
    What is "extraordinary evidence"? ??

    This adage has never made any sense to me. How do you decide what kind of claim is which? How do those terms make sense at the same time? If "extraordinary" claims is a code word for "supernatural" claims, it seems like "extraordinary" evidence would be supernatural evidence. So for instance, perhaps the spectral evidence introduced at the Salem Witch Trials to prove the extraordinary accusations of witchcraft might qualify. But most people do not think of the Salem Witch Trials as a crowning moment in the history of rationality. I don't see that a rational person ought to include their personal judgements of how extraordinary the claim is into their consideration at all, and would simply hold everything to the same standard of ordinary evidence. What do the facts care whether you are personally incredulous about them or not?
    I think the video below explains the logic behind it.


    (View video on YouTube)

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    Veteran Member James Brown's Avatar
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    Does WLC accept eyewitness testimony of phenomena that he doesn't already believe in?

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    Contributor ruby sparks's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by James Brown View Post
    What is "eyewitness testimony"?
    It's a direct report from someone who saw something.

    For example, two blokes have, let's say, agreed to meet for a drink, in ancient Judea. On the way, one of them sees Jesus, and has a chat with him. He knows Jesus from before and he was at the crucifixion and burial. The other guy stumbles into a temporary wormhole and lands up in the year 2125 for a while, before stumbling back out. Anyhows they both meet up as planned and the first guy says, 'you'll never guess, I've just seen a man who has risen from the dead'. The second guy says, 'ok, that's pretty awesome, sort of, but wait till you hear about some of the stuff I just saw'.

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    Sapere aude Politesse's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Tammuz View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by Politesse View Post
    What is "extraordinary evidence"? ??

    This adage has never made any sense to me. How do you decide what kind of claim is which? How do those terms make sense at the same time? If "extraordinary" claims is a code word for "supernatural" claims, it seems like "extraordinary" evidence would be supernatural evidence. So for instance, perhaps the spectral evidence introduced at the Salem Witch Trials to prove the extraordinary accusations of witchcraft might qualify. But most people do not think of the Salem Witch Trials as a crowning moment in the history of rationality. I don't see that a rational person ought to include their personal judgements of how extraordinary the claim is into their consideration at all, and would simply hold everything to the same standard of ordinary evidence. What do the facts care whether you are personally incredulous about them or not?
    I think the video below explains the logic behind it.


    (View video on YouTube)
    I'm not a big video watcher. What would you describe as the most salient points?

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    Fair dinkum thinkum bilby's Avatar
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    The idea is that the more impact a new claim has on our understanding of reality, the more evidence we should demand before accepting that claim as true.

    It's a shortcut - a way to get around the onerous requirement to thoroughly test everything, and instead to decide to provisionally accept those claims whose impact is small, with a smaller amount of evidence.

    For the most trivial claims, about things we consider unimportant, this can even fall as far as 'taking somebody's word for it'. Which is a very risky epistemology, but one that is tolerable when the cost of being wrong is trivial.

    So if someone tells you that the Earth's equatorial bulge is a metre larger than geologists currently understand it to be, you might just take his word for it - as a non-geologist, you don't really care either way.

    If the same person makes the same claim to a group of geologists, then they will want good evidence (perhaps a set of accurate and repeated GPS readings) - because the new claim overturns some of their understandings, and might have a knock-on effect on other geological measurements, hypotheses, or theories too.

    If the claim is that the equatorial bulge is a kilometre greater than current understanding, then it starts to have a knock-on effect on geography as well - and the impacts on geology are going to be significant. Such a change in understanding implies big changes in the theoretical structure and/or composition of the planet. For this more far reaching claim to be accepted as true, not only will the claimant need to show that they correctly measured the distances involved, but they wll likely also need to find and demonstrate the errors in the earlier theories and hypotheses, that led to the previous erroneous understanding of the shape of the Earth.

    If the claim is that the Earth is a flat disk, then the need for evidence is greater again. Not only must the claimant explain their new methodology to measure the shape accurately, and demonstrate that it is repeatable and accurate; But they will also need to explain all of the prior (mis)understandings that are incompatible with their new claim. How does the Sun move around the disk to create its observed apparent motion in the sky? Why haven't cats pushed everything off yet? Where is Australia, and how do you explain the existence of Crocodile Dundee movies if no such continent exists?

    The more extraordinary a claim is, the more other parts of our model of reality will need to be adjusted in order to accommodate that claim - and so, the more compelling and wide-ranging the evidence must be before it is reasonable to accept the claim.

    The model of reality constructed by the scientific method over the last few centuries is a cohesive whole - it has no independent parts. Making a small tweak to one component or another is easy; Making a big change that affects many components is hard.

    It's like a complex wooden model of an intricate object - the earliest work was rougher and more coarse-grained, and could be done with a chainsaw. But the closer you get to the final product, the more subtle your tools must be - polishing a tiny bit here and there with fine sandpaper is easy to justify, but you will need some serious justification before you get out the chainsaw again. Incorporating a BIG new claim - an EXTRAORDINARY claim - is going to need that chainsaw. But you will need to be absolutely certain it's necessary. You will need EXTRAORDINARY evidence.

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    Contributor ruby sparks's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Politesse View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by Tammuz View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by Politesse View Post
    What is "extraordinary evidence"? ??

    This adage has never made any sense to me. How do you decide what kind of claim is which? How do those terms make sense at the same time? If "extraordinary" claims is a code word for "supernatural" claims, it seems like "extraordinary" evidence would be supernatural evidence. So for instance, perhaps the spectral evidence introduced at the Salem Witch Trials to prove the extraordinary accusations of witchcraft might qualify. But most people do not think of the Salem Witch Trials as a crowning moment in the history of rationality. I don't see that a rational person ought to include their personal judgements of how extraordinary the claim is into their consideration at all, and would simply hold everything to the same standard of ordinary evidence. What do the facts care whether you are personally incredulous about them or not?
    I think the video below explains the logic behind it.


    (View video on YouTube)
    I'm not a big video watcher. What would you describe as the most salient points?
    I watched it. To me, the best way to sum it up very briefly, and the most salient point is, extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence.

    It may be slightly too pithy. Someone (you) could say that the wording implies that if the event is a claim involving the supernatural, the evidence needs to be supernatural also, but it is not really trying to say or mean that. Perhaps 'unusual claims require more evidence' might be better, or even (if we want to allow for exceptions I suppose) 'arguably, unusual claims should, normally, require more evidence (before they are generally or widely accepted as being factual, true an/or correct)'.

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