Extraordinary Claims require Extraordinary Evidence - A Crackpot Assertion

Discussion in 'General Science & Technology' started by Ivan Seeking, Jan 6, 2024.

  1. Ivan Seeking Registered Senior Member

    While I was probably as much a fan of Carl Sagan as anyone, he was perhaps the first pop science icon. And he got sloppy when he needed to do so, to promote his own beliefs. This particular claim of his is easily refuted. The most obvious point being, "extraordinary" has no scientific meaning. It is an entirely subjective term. It has no place in science. What it really means is that if a person doesn't like a claim, they can set an arbitrarily high standard for acceptable evidence. In other words, if they don't like any particular scientific evidence, they will just reject it as not extraordinary enough. Now who else does that? We generally call them cranks or crackpots.

    Or did he mean that extraordinary evidence means "proof"? Science doesn't prove claims. Science falsifies claims. No evidence, no matter how compelling, is proof of any claim. If scientific evidence later emerges that challengers what is accepted as fact, and that evidence is tested and the results peer reviewed over time, the evidence wins every time. And anyone who demands proof of something can always dismiss any result. There is no such a thing as proof beyond doubt for anything. The results of tests might have been faked. It might be a conspiracy. They might be flawed. The vaccines might really just be a delivery method to chip everyone. Even now we find that in spite of a vast consensus among climate experts, there are those who believe the vast majority of the world's climate experts are involved in an expansive global conspiracy. The denialists require extraordinary evidence of their own choosing. Nothing could ever be good enough.

    Of course this is often applied to UFO claims where people want to set an arbitrarily, undefined high standard for evidence. I think this is what first motivated the claim from Sagan. It is notable that ball lightning and earthquake lights are accepted as real by the experts, despite the fact that far more evidence for UFOs can easily be found. One guy in Japan took some grainy photos of earthquake lights and suddenly they were real! Same for ball lightning. One forestry worker took a photo that was virtually impossible to make out, and suddenly scientists were saying it's real.

    The most absurd extreme I have encountered for denial of evidence came from a discussion about UFOs, and whether some might be alien spacecrafts. I had no definite opinion either way but asked a friend what evidence he would require to accept they are real. He quickly responded, NOTHING! I asked what he meant. Surely there is some standard he would find acceptable. Eventually I realized no reasonable evidence would ever be enough for him. No evidence could be extraordinary enough. So I asked "What if a UFO landed in your back yard, and an alien emerged and offered to take you for a ride in his flying saucer? You then go in his craft and fly around for a bit," He replied, I would assume I was hallucinating.

    What is an extraordinary claim? It is anything you don't expect. If aliens are galivanting around the cosmos as some claim, a visitation might be far less than extraordinary. It might be common. It might be inevitable. We just don't expect it because our world view doesn't include this possibility. This reminds me of that bastard Galileo who made claims of heliocentrism and sought to dethrone humanity as the ultimate reason for existence. That was so extraordinary that he was nearly executed for saying so. But today we accept it as an obvious fact. It was only extraordinary because it violated the world view most people held back then.

    And note that while I have made this argument for probably two decades, or nearly so, I am now joined by Avi Loeb, from Harvard. He has made this same argument publicly. The fact is, when it is reasonably considered, the word "extraordinary" obviously has no place in science. We already have standards for evidence. We don't need subjective interpretations.
    Last edited: Jan 6, 2024
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  3. exchemist Valued Senior Member

    You do realise that deploying the Galileo Gambit is a classic sign of a crank.
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  5. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member

    David Hume, in his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, had this to say, back in 1748:

    "When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened.... If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion."
    Of course, there's much more than this in the text, about evidence and proof and miracles and when it is and isn't reasonable to believe something.

    The basic ideas are simple, though. They include notions such as: the degree to which one should believe one claim over another ought to be proportional to the degree to which the evidence for one claim outweighs the evidence for the other. Or, put more simply: one's belief in a claim should be proportional to the evidence in support of it.

    Hume defines a miracle as a "transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent." He contrasts miracles with "laws of nature", which are established by "a firm and unalterable experience"; they rest upon the exceptionless testimony of countless people in different places and times. Hume is careful to distinguish the miraculous from the merely wondrous or unusual.
    Last edited: Jan 6, 2024
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  7. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member

    And yet, people mostly tend to agree about what is ordinary and what isn't, most of the time. So, it's not a useless term.
    This is where weighing up competing theories becomes important. We don't just consider claims in isolation from everything else that is known. We compare competing claims.

    Thus, in the example of a UFO sighting, one claim might be that the UFO was an alien spaceship, while a competing claim might be the the UFO was a mistaken sighting of the planet Venus. Which claim should we believe?

    Hume says our belief in either of these claims should be proportional to the evidence for each, and the degree to which we ought to accept one claim over the other ought to be proportional to the degree by which the evidence for one outweighs the evidence for the other.

    So, in this example, we need to look at all the evidence put forward for the Venus hypothesis, and compare it to all the evidence put forward for the alien spaceship hypothesis. Either claim might win out, conceivably; it depends on the strength of the evidence. (Any disconfirming evidence counts against a hypothesis, of course.)

    But, at the same time, we should consider whether what is being claimed is akin to a miracle. And then, we ought to consider whether it is more miraculous for eyewitnesses to the UFO to be mistaken about the whole alien spaceship conclusion than for it to be true.

    There have been countless confirmed sightings of the planet Venus, and not a single confirmed sighting of an alien spaceship, so far. So, in most cases, the sensible working assumption will be that it wouldn't be particularly miraculous for an eyewitness to a UFO sighting to make a mistaken identification, whereas it would be surprising in the extreme if it turns out that this time the UFO actually was an alien spaceship - the first one ever positively identified by human beings.

    So, the problem, in such cases, is that there ought to be quite a strong presumption that the UFO was probably not an alien spaceship, but a mistaken attribution. That presumption is not a conclusion, of course. It's just one constant competing hypothesis whose weight of evidence needs to be compared against the competing hypothesis of the (miraculous - or at the very least unexpected) alien spaceship.

  8. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member

    You read the book, right? If I recall correctly, Sagan was pretty clear about evidence not equalling proof, both there and elsewhere.
    All this is true, but largely irrelevant to the point you're trying to make. Nobody has demanded proof.
    Denialist are called such because they ignore evidence they don't like. They are not in the business of weighing up the evidence for claim A (human activity is responsible for the current global heating trend) against claim B (the current global heating trend isn't real) against claim C (human activity does nothing to contribute to global heating). If the denialists did that in an unbiased way - like the real climate scientists do - they would quickly find that the weight of evidence is strongly in favour of claim A.
    Pretending to care about evidence while denying its very existence is what makes somebody a Denialist.
    It's easy to claim that the standard is set too high. Maybe you really think it is. But if so, perhaps you should calibrate the amount or quality of evidence that you, personally, require to believe in alien spaceships vs the amount or quality of evidence you require to believe in, say, Cold Fusion, or God, or the existence of Ottawa. If it turns out that you're going easy on the UFOs because you think it would be really cool if aliens were here, then maybe your standard of evidence needs a recalibration. The same goes if you're ignoring all of the UFO cases that turned out definitely not to be alien spacecraft.
    The claims "ball lightning exists" and "alien spaceships are visiting Earth" are not competing claims. So, while it is conceivable that scientists have ballsed it up when it comes to ball lightning (see what I did there?), it doesn't mean they're wrong about the UFOs.
    Anybody who says that nothing can change their mind about a belief they hold has a belief that isn't based on evidence. That's a very important thing to realise about people.

    A lot of people believe a lot of things for reasons that have very little, if anything, to do with evidence. As a scientist, I'm sure you want to avoid making the same mistake when it comes to UFOs. Certainly, Carl Sagan wanted that.
    Not necessarily. For instance, in the 1850s, extraordinary claims would have included "Invisible rays exist that can allow us to see the bones in people's bodies without breaking the skin" and "The continents move around on the surface of the Earth over long periods of time, radically reshaping the surface constantly, but slowly". But neither of these ideas was outside the bounds of imagination. In fact, you could argue that something like an x-ray machine was an "expected" future technology.

    The existence of alien life has long been "expected". Many scientists expect it and give cogent argument as to why it is a reasonable thing to expect. On the other hand, the same scientists also tend to give cogent reasons for why aliens visiting Earth in spaceships should not be "expected", despite it being a theoretical possibility. But in the end, the evidence will decide the matter, one way or another, not the expectation.
    If it was common, you'd think we'd have some good evidence for it by now, would you not? Or are you going to make "extraordinary" excuses?
    What are you talking about? Our entertainment media is chock-a-block full of this possibility. We're bathed in a dominant culture of alien spaceship expectation.
    Check your history. The extraordinariness of that idea wasn't the reason for Galileo's persecution. Not at all.
    The fact that he is making this argument is hardly extraordinary, as I'm sure you'll agree. I'd even say it would be expected, from him.
    It just means "out of the ordinary". It's not a magic word. It's not a technical, science word. And Carl Sagan was not writing for a technical, science, audience there, either.
    There's no way to completely eliminate subjective interpretations. They are inevitable. But that's beside the point.
    Last edited: Jan 6, 2024
  9. Ivan Seeking Registered Senior Member

    It was an example of collapsing world views. And comparing oneself to Galileo is a sign of a crank; which I was not doing. Misrepresenting what was said to create a false impression is also a crackpot move. And you did that.

    I was actually wondering who would be ridiculous enough, trivial enough, and inattentive enough to make this argument first. Thanks for clearing that up.
    Last edited: Jan 7, 2024
  10. Ivan Seeking Registered Senior Member

    Oh people do that. People also believe the earth is flat. People think the vaccines make you magnetic. So what people do is irrelevant. Show me the scientific definition of "extraordinary".

    So now you are changing the subject. This has nothing to do with setting arbitrary standards for evidence. It took you two sentences to start changing the subject.

    OMG this is trivial. You can't be serious. No serious person is interested in this because of Venus. It is a standard in UFO studies going all the way back to Bluebook that 90-95% of UFO report are explained or are not impressive [can be explained trivially]. It's the other 5% that interests serious people. Clearly you don't know the first thing about this subject and are wasting my time.

    Who said anything about beliefs? This is about setting arbitrarily high standards for evidence. Science and beliefs have nothing to do with each other, And Hume was a philosopher, not a scientist. Do you understand the difference?

    These arguments are beyond trivial and frankly it is insulting. Additionally, brilliant people are interested in the subject of UFOs for good reasons and you haven't named one of them.

    "Extraordinary" is not a scientific concept and has no place in science. It is by definition a subjective concept and no one has shown or can shown otherwise. QED.
    Last edited: Jan 7, 2024
  11. origin Heading towards oblivion Valued Senior Member

    I think the idea that 'extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence' is a very succinct and elegant way to state the obvious.
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  12. C C Consular Corps - "the backbone of diplomacy" Valued Senior Member

    ECREE doesn't seem to have been intended as a standard for science (in general). Any more than a "skeptical movement" is a discipline of science.

    Carl Sagan: An interesting debate has gone on within the [Federal Communications Commission] between those who think that all doctrines that smell of pseudoscience should be combated and those who believe that each issue should be judged on its own merits, but that the burden of proof should fall squarely on those who make the proposals. I find myself very much in the latter camp. I believe that the extraordinary should certainly be pursued. But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. --Broca's Brain

    Accordingly, ECREE is perfectly fine as a guideline for such evaluative efforts (like skeptical movements) whose purpose is to address affairs along the pseudoscience border (ufology, ghost hunting, cryptozoology, etc).

    Although the soft sciences may occasionally waste time and resources on trendy social or "just-so" theories outputted by the humanities, it's not the job of legit disciplines to dabble in and vet very dubious knowledge claims. That role is usually farmed out to auxiliary enterprises and freelancers (skeptics, debunkers, etc).

    Attempts to describe or define what "science is" are outputted by philosophical activity (philosophy of science in particular). That includes a proposal like "science falsifies claims" (Karl Popper was a philosopher).

    There is the actual "practice of science" as the two bygone scientists below delve into (in the course of their downgrading the universal status or employment of a so-called single "scientific method"),

    And then there are the multiple philosophical attempts (over decades, centuries) to interpret and generalize what the "activity of scientists" is in conceptual language. Those are not discovered under a rock or in a lab experiment, but created slash formulated by thought processes attempting to abstract schemes from those observed human actions.

    Nevertheless, individual scientists do choose their favorites from the "philosophy of science" pool and collectively can arrive at a precarious or unstable consensus with respect to offering a popular set of ideas as to "what science is". Which the public may take as immutable gospel. There may be well-intentioned parties who try to include ECREE in that mix, but -- again, Sagan intended it for a narrower domain of application.

    Percy Bridgman: It seems to me that there is a good deal of ballyhoo about scientific method. I venture to think that the people who talk most about it are the people who do least about it.

    Scientific method is what working scientists do, not what other people or even they themselves may say about it. No working scientist, when he plans an experiment in the laboratory, asks himself whether he is being properly scientific, nor is he interested in whatever method he may be using as method.

    When the scientist ventures to criticize the work of his fellow scientist, as is not uncommon, he does not base his criticism on such glittering generalities as failure to follow the "scientific method," but his criticism is specific, based on some feature characteristic of the particular situation. The working scientist is always too much concerned with getting down to brass tacks to be willing to spend his time on generalities.

    [...] What appears to [the working scientist] as the essence of the situation is that he is not consciously following any prescribed course of action, but feels complete freedom to utilize any method or device whatever which in the particular situation before him seems likely to yield the correct answer. In his attack on his specific problem he suffers no inhibitions of precedent or authority, but is completely free to adopt any course that his ingenuity is capable of suggesting to him.

    No one standing on the outside can predict what the individual scientist will do or what method he will follow. In short, science is what scientists do, and there are as many scientific methods as there are individual scientists.
    --Reflections of a Physicist

    Peter Medawar: Ask a scientist what he conceives the scientific method to be, and he will adopt an expression that is at once solemn and shifty-eyed: solemn, because he feels he ought to declare an opinion; shifty-eyed, because he is wondering how to conceal the fact that he has no opinion to declare.

    [...] If the purpose of scientific methodology is to prescribe or expound a system of enquiry or even a code of practice for scientific behavior, then scientists seem to be able to get on very well without it. Most scientists receive no tuition in scientific method, but those who have been instructed perform no better as scientists than those who have not. Of what other branch of learning can it be said that it gives its proficients no advantage; that it need not be taught or, if taught, need not be learned?
    --Induction and Intuition in Scientific Thought
    Last edited: Jan 7, 2024
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  13. exchemist Valued Senior Member

    Then I am happy to oblige.

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    Alleging that we are living in a time of "collapsing world view" is a pretty grand claim, in the context of a debate about UFOs.

    Sagan's aphorism, surely, is no more than a statement, in lay terms, that a claim that challenges a lot of settled science needs to be extremely well supported, because it is highly likely to be wrong. That should be pretty uncontroversial, I should have thought. We have well-founded faith in settled science and are justifiably sceptical when it is challenged.

    To take an example, what is our reaction when a poster shows up on the forum, claiming to have proof of a violation of one of the laws of thermodynamics? Do we think, "We could well have a Nobel prizewinner here!" or or do we think," I wonder where the error is, in his analysis of whatever system he has dreamt up?"

    When people come along with tales of alien spacecraft, in spite of all the obvious limitations on long distance space flight that the sheer size of the cosmos - and even the speed of light itself - imposes, and which furthermore move with nearly impossible accelerations with no recognisable means of propulsion, we are in effect being asked to set aside established physics.

    And then there is the separate question of the political credibility of a supposed conspiracy by the military to hush up (why?) without any discussion with scientists, anywhere, what they have supposedly learnt about these aliens, that is piling Pelion upon Ossa. So we should demand really strong evidence that such highly improbable events have been observed. And we don't have it.
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  14. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member

    Ivan Seeking:

    It seems that I told you something you didn't want to hear, and then you sort of switched off and didn't bother reading or considering the remaining content in my posts to you.
    If you'd read through to the end, rather than trying to work out how to lash back at me, you would have noticed where I wrote this, for instance:

    It just means "out of the ordinary". It's not a magic word. It's not a technical, science word. And Carl Sagan was not writing for a technical, science, audience there, either.​

    This was you in the opening post, was it not?

    What it really means is that if a person doesn't like a claim, they can set an arbitrarily high standard for acceptable evidence.
    Your complaint, as I understood it, was precisely this: that skeptics set an arbitrarily high standard of evidence for your UFOs.

    What did I get wrong?
    I addressed the subject as I understood it from your post. Maybe you could have communicated more effectively?
    Bear in mind that, even though obviously you're a super expert who already knows all this stuff, you're not the only person who might read this thread.
    I'm glad we are in agreement on that. Of course, that 5% figure is more or less just a figure you made up. Who says it isn't 1%?
    Clearly, you haven't read much from me on the subject. Maybe you're wasting my time.

    If you honestly don't have the first clue about how much I know about this subject, why would you post that, in your opinion, I don't know the first thing? The only reason I can see is that something about my reply to your thread made you angry and your first instinct was to lash out, rather than to discuss what upset you like an adult.
    That was a quick flip-flop back to your original claim, again. And this, just after you said in the same post that this wasn't what you wanted to talk about.

    Which is it, Ivan Seeking? Make up your mind.
    Science and beliefs have nothing to do with each other? Well, that's an interesting claim. Perhaps you and I can have a separate discussion about that particular claim. This thread is probably not the place - unless you think it is, of course. It only took you a few sentences to start changing the subject. Fancy that.
    Take it up with Hume. Oh, of course it's too late for that.

    Anyway, if you weren't so busy looking for reasons to take exception and to get angry, perhaps we could have a more useful discussion. Are you willing to give it a try, or would you rather keep pretending that talking to me is beneath you?
    You didn't ask me. Besides, you wouldn't want me to change the topic, would you?
    I already accepted that "extraordinary" is not a technical scientific term. That does not, however, mean that it has no place in science. It just means "out of the ordinary" - you know, its usual everyday meaning. Like I explained. If you'd read to the end you would have seen that and you wouldn't have needed to repeat yourself.
    Well done. QED. You win.

    Should we close the thread now, or is there something else you'd like to talk about on this topic?

    Let me know.
    Last edited: Jan 8, 2024
  15. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member


    Most of what you wrote is, as usual, reasonable. I take issue to some extent with the last couple of quotes you used, however.

    Medawar makes a valid point: that many scientists are not trained in the philosophy of science. Many do not think about how it is that they do what they do, in explicit terms. That, I think, goes some way towards explaining this:

    What is happening with the shifty eyes is that this particular scientist probably appreciates that there are people out there whose job it is to look at people like him and explain what he is doing and how he is doing it, while also appreciating that he himself hasn't spent much time looking at the findings of any of those people, because he himself has been busy trying to find out more about natural world, instead.

    The shifty-eyed look is the look you tend to get when you ask any expert a question that she recognises is out of her field of expertise. She wants to be helpful, seeing as you have gone to all the trouble to ask. But at the same time she knows that her best answer might not be very helpful. She might think that you're asking the wrong kind of expert.

    This is not the part I take issue with, though.

    I am inclined to disagree with Medawar's premise that scientists receive no tuition in scientific method. The problem is particularly obvious if we accept Bridgman's definition that "scientific method is what working scientists do". Scientist have all received tuition that has led them to do what they do in the ways that they do it.

    So, although a scientist might be oblivious to the formal language around the "scientific method" that is used by philosophers of science, that does not necessarily imply that they have no implicit understanding of the method(s).

    A separate issue is that one can be proficient in a skill without necessarily being able to explain to somebody else what it is, exactly, that enables the proficiency. At least, not beyond generalities like "practice practice practice".

    Medawar's mistake, I think, is to assume that unless a person is formally trained in the language of the philosophy of science, one cannot be said to have "learned the scientific method". I'd say that, on the contrary, for most scientists, the relevant learning happens by osmosis, with modelling by teachers being the most obvious source of the relevant knowledge about method(s).
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  16. Dywyddyr Penguinaciously duckalicious. Valued Senior Member

    And, of course, "brilliant" people are never mistaken or wrong (or deluded) are they?
  17. geordief Valued Senior Member

    Even genius ducks can get it wrong from time to time

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  18. Dywyddyr Penguinaciously duckalicious. Valued Senior Member

    I deny that - absolutely!

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  19. Yazata Valued Senior Member

    I agree. I like Carl Sagan, though I sense that some of the things he said were rather intuitive. (His famous "billions and billions" as the music swelled, was clearly intended to convey his sense of awe at the scale of the universe.) I'm not criticizing it, just pointing it out. (I share that sense of awe.)

    And that brings us to ECREE. What kind of proposition is ECREE? A statement of logic? An epistemological maxim? Or perhaps something more subjective?

    The subjective interpretation translates ECREE something like "I'm still not persuaded. You need to do more to convince me."

    This subjective version makes ECREE into a descriptive statement about individual personal belief. It doesn't seem to imply the more prescriptive "... so nobody else should believe it either!" To make that move would require that it have some more objective justification that's applicable to all cognizers. But supplying that justification might be difficult.

    Yes, that's where my own criticism of objective ECREE would tend to focus.

    Does 'extraordinary' apply to individual experience such that it refers to anything that falls outside the scope of a particular individual's experience? That seems to be how the word is typically used. But it would seem to apply to much of science, which is filled with surprising or counterintuitive observations and results, when seen from the personal perspective.

    Or is there a sense of 'extraordinary' that is more objective, referring to anything that falls outside the scope of humanity's experience collectively? This is where the coherence arguments seem to fit. If a proposition fails to cohere with what the community collectively accepts that it knows, it seems reasonable to call it 'extraordinary' and assigning it a higher standard for acceptance. I have no strong objections to that interpretation either.

    But it seems to me that interpretation falls prey to similar objections, starting with the Pessimistic Induction and noting that humanity's collective experience is certainly limited as to time, place and historical context, bound by the limitations of human cognition, to say nothing of the fact that none of us individually has access to the entirety collective human experience. (Especially when the goal of the whole exercise seems to be to rule out some of that experience and make it inadmissable.)

    Yes, that's how it often looks to me. Often the propositions to which ECREE is applied aren't inconsistent with generally accepted scientific principles at all, but rather inconsistent with particular individuals' preexisting beliefs. So we are back at subjective ECREE.

    I guess that my views of ECREE are mixed.

    I have no real objection to subjective ECREE: "I'm not persuaded, you need to do more to convince me". That's just a statement of fact as I see it.

    But difficulties start to arise when ECREE is turned into some kind of objective principle. How does one justify it? What does 'extraordinary' mean in this application of the word? (Various attempts have been made to try to justify it probabilistically, without notable success. The problem of induction often makes an appearance here, as David Hume recognized back in the middle of the 18th century.)

    ECREE does seem to have some prescriptive value as a warning against excessive credulity though. I have no objection to that. But what is and isn't excessive credulity once again seems to be a more subjective matter.

    Ultimately, I remain skeptical that ECREE is a principle of logic or a law of nature, or anything quite like that.
    Last edited: Jan 8, 2024
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  20. DaveC426913 Valued Senior Member

    Note that there is likewise no scientific definition of "sufficiently compelling evidence".

    There is no authority on truth or fact (although there are some people who we may decide we aceept as trustworthy).
    We each decide for ourselves what is considered "extraordinary", just as we each decide for ourselves how much evidence would be required to tip our scale from dubiousness to acceptance.

    IOW, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" is not a scientifically-enforcible tenet; it is a personal tenet, with each of us setting our own bar.

    A very clear example exists right here in the UFO forum. Magical Realist has said that he has no reason to doubt a complete stranger claiming he saw a UFO. Others of us feel that is insufficient.

    This is discussion; not law-making. All we can do here is present our evidence and argue our cases, and grant - or not - that the evidence for someone's report is sufficiently compelling.
    Last edited: Jan 8, 2024
  21. foghorn Valued Senior Member

    There is a NOVA interview with Carl Sagan and standard of evidence he thinks is required. My bold below

    " NOVA: Speculate for a moment on the parts of human nature, the commonality of believing in abductions, or aliens anyway, and the part of human nature that wants to search for other life forms in the universe.

    SAGAN: I personally have been captured by the notion of extraterrestrial life, and especially extraterrestrial intelligence from childhood. It swept me up, and I've been involved in sending space craft to nearby planets to look for life and in the radio search for extraterrestrial intelligence...It would be an absolutely transforming event in human history. But, the stakes are so high on whether it's true or false, that we must demand the more rigorous standards of evidence. Precisely because it's so exciting. That's the circumstance in which our hopes may dominate our skeptical scrutiny of the data. So, we have to be very careful. There have been a few instances in the [past]. We thought we found something, and it always turned out to be explicable...

    So, a kind of skepticism is routinely applied to the radio search for extraterrestrial intelligence by its most fervent proponents. I do not see [in] the alien abduction situation a similar rigorous application of scientific skepticism by its proponents. Instead, I see enormous acceptance at face value - and leading the witness and all sorts of suggestions. Plus, the contamination by the general culture of this idea.

    It seems to me there is a big difference between the two approaches to extraterrestrial intelligence, although I'm frequently written to [to] say how could I search for extraterrestrial intelligence and disbelieve that we're being visited. I don't see any contradiction at all. It's a wonderful prospect, but requires the most severe and rigorous standards of evidence….."
    The interview continues here:
    Last edited: Jan 8, 2024
  22. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member

    The main problem with Ivan Seeking's objection to ECREE is that he wants to pretend that it is a purely subjective standard. I'm not sure exactly how things land for Yazata on the matter.

    I myself am more inclined to borrow from the legal profession and suggest that the sentiment behind ECREE is similar to what the law refers to as a "reasonable person" test.

    When it comes to evaluating evidence for a claim, it should not be so much a matter of trying to work out what would satisfy any particular individual that the claim is true, because clearly that will vary from one individual to the next. Rather, one should take a step back and think about what sort and what degree of evidence ought to satisfy a hypothetical "reasonable person" of the truth of the claim.

    The "reasonable person" is assumed to be somebody who doesn't have a special interest in the subject matter, or any particular bias towards one conclusion or another, before considering the evidence that is alleged to support the claim. The "reasonable person" is to be, as far as is possible, as "disinterested observer" of the claim and the evidence put forward to support it. Of course, this is an idealisation. There is no such thing as the perfect "reasonable person" or an "average person" or a "completely unbiased observer". But the abstraction in itself is a useful distancing mechanism. One removes one's own biases and wishful thinking out the outcome of the investigation and tries to imagine how things would appear to the hypothetical unbiased, "neutral" observer.

    So, when it comes to that 5% of difficult-to-solve UFO cases, you might ask yourself: what should the reasonable person require, before he accepts the claim that "this particular UFO was an alien spaceship visiting Earth"? The reasonable person is aware that there exists no public confirmation of the existence of any other alien spaceship. If this one turns out to be the aliens, as claimed, it will be the first one publically confirmed as such. The reasonable person here doesn't have top secret military clearance. Assume that our reasonable person in this case is a well-educated member of the public with no special expertise in science, although from his general reading he is probably aware that science has not endorsed the existence of alien visitors to Earth so far.

    Along with the evidence for the alien spaceship hypothesis, our reasonable person will, of course, be presented with facts that tend to go against that hypothesis, and asked to balance the evidence for and against before making a decision about what to believe (provisionally). So, for instance, our reasonable person will be made aware that every solved UFO claim has turned out not to be an alien spaceship, so far. Our reasonable person will also be made aware of the problems with anecdotal evidence, with human perception and memory, and so forth. And, of course, our reasonable person will be informed about the specific evidence in the particular case at hand: the radar records, the eyewitness accounts, the fuzzy photographs, the shaky video footage, and so on.

    On the face of it, the claim that this particular UFO, this time, is finally the Real Deal, after decades of the non-appearance and/or misidentification of alien spaceships, is extraordinary (meaning "out of the ordinary"). Because the ordinary, in this case, is that alien spaceships are never positively identified as such. Therefore, it is important that when our reasonable person makes his judgment as to whether this one is the Real Deal or not, he doesn't blunder into error by rushing to accept poor or faulty evidence as sufficient to make the case. The bar should rightly be set high, because this first ever identification of an alien craft will be of momentous importance to humanity as a whole. Thus, the extraordinary claim should demand extraordinary evidence. So low-quality evidence, dubious evidence, untrustworthy evidence, shouldn't cut the mustard.

    The bottom line here is that the question of what is or isn't an extraordinary claim is not a completely subjective one, like Ivan would have you believe. My claiming to have eaten corn flakes for breakfast is not an extraordinary claim. My claiming to have found an alien lifeform eating my cornflakes for breakfast is an extraordinary claim. Any reasonable person should be able to agree on that. And it quite sensibly follows that any reasonable person ought to demand a higher standard of proof for the latter claim than the former, in order to accept it as true and verified to an acceptable standard of proof.
    Last edited: Jan 9, 2024
  23. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member

    With my previous post in mind...
    I would put in on the level of a useful rule of thumb, similar to Ockham's razor.
    None of us choose our beliefs. We become convinced of things. Subjectively, I agree that there is some room for variation among individuals as to which claims they personally regard as extraordinary. Also, as a matter of fact, there is a very wide spectrum in what different individuals are willing to accept as sufficient reason to believe a claim.

    What Sagan was after with ECREE, I think, was a somewhat more objective standard.
    No objective justification will ever satisfy all cognizers. Some people become convinced about a lot of things for reasons that have very little - if anything - to do with objective justifications. And once somebody is convinced of something, they can sometimes become inflexible about changing their minds in the light of new evidence - especially when their belief doesn't rely on objective evidence in the first place.
    This is why I advocate a more objective standard. See my previous post. I'm confident Sagan had a similar view.

    Science itself tends to be about valuing objective measures above subjective ones.
    Try on the "reasonable person" test I referred to, above, for size. It doesn't appeal to lofty ideas of the totality of "humanity's experience collectively", but rather to the everyman's experience. It's more practical, I think, since nobody has access to the entirety of humanity's collective experience.

    It's used in courts of law all the time. For instance, rather than looking at the actual mindset of an individual criminal defendant (something impossible to definitely access), courts tend to consider what a reasonable person in the criminal's general position should have considered, thought, known, etc. This is not always true. It varies from crime to crime, for instance. In some cases, specific evidence of the individual's actual intent is required for a crime, while in other cases the fact that a criminal "ought to have known" the likely outcomes of his actions is sufficient to sustain a conviction.
    That's very similar to the "reasonable person" test. Your "collective community" is represented by an "average", moderately well-informed member of that community: the "reasonable person" in that community.
    The justification is simple and common-sense: it is reasonable to demand extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims. Not to mention prudent, because it's less prone to error. It's better to be conservative than reckless when it comes to deciding what you ought to believe.
    When dealing with human subjects, it is impossible to ever escape entirely from subjectivity.
    I don't think anybody has ever suggested it is either of those. Although, it does make logical sense, for a variety of reasons.

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