Extraordinary answers to unlikely events

THINKER ... Carl Sagan was one of the world's most personable and respected cosmologists.
THINKER ... Carl Sagan was one of the world's most personable and respected cosmologists.

CARL Sagan was one of the world’s most personable and respected cosmologists.

I didn’t agree with some of the things he said, but I had no problem with his attitude.

Until his death in 1996, he was also an avowed, but dignified, sceptic.

Sagan will be remembered for many utterances, but perhaps most of all for his statement that, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.

Coming from the mouth of a highly-intelligent and extremely rational thinker, we cannot dismiss what has been dubbed “the Sagan Standard” lightly.

In fact, some of our indigenous sceptics are wont to quote this maxim monotonously. But does it really hold water?

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.

Think about it; evidence is, quite simply, something which helps us to prove or disprove a belief or assertion.

If I’m accused of a crime, a solid alibi that I was elsewhere at the time can be used as evidence to prove my innocence.

I shouldn’t have to produce extraordinary evidence; just enough to establish that I could not have committed the crime.

But when it comes to the paranormal, many sceptics aren’t satisfied with evidence that is adequate; they want a higher standard of evidence; a level of evidence that would not be required under other circumstances.

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.

How do we measure how “extraordinary” something is, or even whether it is extraordinary at all? Atheists may say that to assert the existence of God is an extraordinary claim, but to a religious person it isn’t extraordinary at all, and is actually something for which proof in abundance exists throughout the universe.

What is extraordinary to one person, then, may be quite mundane to another. The bottom line is that each of us has our own set of criteria when it comes to labelling something as extraordinary, and this is where some sceptics become a little sneaky.

If I were to say to a sceptic that I was born in the town of South Shields – which I was – he or she would be unlikely to doubt my statement, or demand “extraordinary evidence” of it, unless they already had prior grounds to doubt my words.

However, if I were to claim that I’d seen a flotilla of extraterrestrial spacecraft pass overhead, then you can bet you cotton socks that they’d want proof by the bucketful.

Why? Because they’d find my claim “extraordinary”. It wouldn’t be enough for me to produce “evidence”; they’d demand “evidence plus”, so to speak.

What such sceptics are doing is cherry-picking in the most arbitrary way, although I don’t think that’s what Sagan intended.

If they find an idea acceptable or palatable, then they’ll simply demand evidence of a standard level. 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.

It’s a neat trick, but it’s one that stifles creative thought. Any claims that don’t sit well with the sceptics can be dismissed so much more easily just by shifting the evidential goalposts, raising the evidential bar.

Sceptics have the right to ask for evidence – although all too often they think they have the right to demand it – but I don’t think they should raise and lower the bar purely on the basis of their preconceived opinions.

If there are any sceptics out there who disagree, and they want to tell me why, I’ll be happy to give their opinions house room on this page.

* Seen anything odd? Tell Mike at wraithscape@mikehallowell.com