Apologies to those who are bothered by strong words; I feel that science deserves an especially strong defense.
I think we’ve all heard the pseudo-scientific phrase, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” It’s the kind of thing people throw out at parties to make themselves sound smart.
Except that this slogan isn’t scientific at all; in fact, it’s a perversion of science. Here’s why:
Evidence Is Evidence
Science is a process of getting rid of bad ideas, of chopping them up. And just to be clear, science is not the formulaic list of steps you learned in school. Science is a careful examination of nature. It requires you to fully engage your mind and not to follow a pattern. Anyone’s pattern. As Richard Feynman used to say:
It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is. It doesn’t matter how smart you are… If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.
Neither does being respected and published make a theory any better… it makes no difference whatsoever.
Science starts with the smallest ideas and carefully compares them with the real world. Then, once they are very carefully checked, new things can be built on top of them. And even then, if new evidence contradicts the existing structure, you have to start over.
There is no second standard for “extraordinary claims.” Science is science, and the standard remains the same for everything. That’s the point!
Who Decides What’s Extraordinary?
Here’s where we find the hidden poison.
When a “respected professor” with a dozen initials after his name proclaims some new idea to be “an extraordinary claim,” why should we listen to him? Because he’s famous?
What the big man is doing is excluding the new idea from the scientific process – saying that on his word, this idea must be double-rejected and held to a near-impossible standard.
And yeah, that’s bullshit. No one gets to decide what’s “normal” and what’s “extraordinary.” Everything must stand or fall by the same process.
These “authorities” are going back to 1400 AD, when an accepted pattern was held above everything else and facts were filled in beneath it. So, let’s be very clear: Any pattern held above the raw scientific process is a perversion.
By holding to things they’re comfortable with and assigning “extraordinary claims” to vicious, mile-long gauntlets, these “authorized” and “respected” people are destroying science. And let’s be honest: They do this to protect their positions and their power.
I want you to see an example of how this affects the world. (We covered this story in detail in FMP #35, but I’ll give you a summary here.)
Ignaz Semmelweis was the man who discovered antiseptics, making him the savior of millions.
When Semmelweis was a young doctor specializing in obstetrics, he confronted the primary killer of young mothers at that time, childbed fever (more properly called “puerperal fever”). This condition was common in mid–19th-century hospitals and was often fatal.
Semmelweis discovered that the incidence of the fever could be drastically cut by the use of hand disinfection in obstetrical clinics, using carbolic soap.
But despite results showing that disinfection reduced mortality to below 0.2%, Semmelweis’s observations conflicted with “established” scientific opinions, and so were rejected. The high-and-mighties demanded that Semmelweis explain precisely how hand washing worked. But Semmelweis couldn’t explain it; he knew only that it did work. (Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister would later discover the reason.) But that wasn’t enough for the lords of academia.
Semmelweis was excluded, persecuted, and finally condemned to an insane asylum. He died after being beaten by the guards and developing sepsis.
It wasn’t enough that Semmelweis provided conclusive evidence. No, the lords of academia said he needed extraordinary evidence. Proving that it worked by the scientific process wasn’t sufficient; he also had to convince them of precisely how it worked or he and his theory would be rejected.
As a result, not only did Semmelweis die, but thousands of young mothers, among perhaps millions of others, died unnecessarily.
But authority was upheld! The great men and institutions of academia retained their positions and their respect!
What we see, then, is that “exceptional claims require exceptional evidence” is worse than bullshit. It is, in fact, the agent of mass death.
Science does not have a second standard for things “authorities” don’t like.
* * * * *
A book that generates comments like these, from actual readers, might be worth your time:
I just finished reading The Breaking Dawn and found it to be one of the most thought-provoking, amazing books I have ever read… It will be hard to read another book now that I’ve read this book… I want everyone to read it.
Such a tour de force, so many ideas. And I am amazed at the courage to write such a book, that challenges so many people’s conceptions.
There were so many points where it was hard to read, I was so choked up.
Holy moly! I was familiar with most of the themes presented in A Lodging of Wayfaring Men, but I am still trying to wrap my head around the concepts you presented at the end of this one.
Get it at Amazon ($18.95) or on Kindle: ($5.99)
* * * * *
10 thoughts on ““Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence” Is Bullshit”
I get what you’re saying, and I agree, but if you are challenging any of the “established scientific truths” that are generally believed and taught, you better have clear and obvious evidence to back up your claims. And even then expect that it will likely take decades for the new information to work its way in.
This is true in physics, where Max Planck noted that “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it”, but even more so in areas such as medicine where big companies and government bureaucracies have vested interests in burying any scientific findings that would hurt their profits or disturb their hierarchy.
Eventually I would hope that truth will win out, but I often am left to wonder what extraordinary evidence it may take.
Yes, we agree, Gordon. 🙂
I think it’s terribly important to point out that Planck’s comment describes a sick, corrupt situation. Any system that supports it (i.e., most of academia) must be torn down – it is the enemy of life and mind.
It is ALWAYS about power. Having spent almost a decade post-secondary, there is no difference in the relationships between profs and up-and-coming-students than there is between royalty and peasant or overbearing husband and meek wife. I am reminded of a fellow I knew well when I attended a western Canadian university. He was working on a Ph.D. in pollenology and had spent a number of years developing a map of the Peace River Arch based on mud core sample taken from all the large bodies of water in the area. Based on that data, his thesis came to be in direct conflict with the paleontological theories developed by just about everyone on his doctoral commitee. They were so protective of their tenure in the scientific community, he had to go to a totally different part of the country to get his doctorate and even then, his thesis was much changed.
No, I am afraid we really are not much removed from those savannah dwelling apes from which we evolved. Many people still operate as if they are alpha animals in a troupe of lesser animals. And I have seen women who do this too, so the troupe mechanics apply to them too, although maybe not as often. I do think women are the more sophisticated half of the human race 🙂 .
Science is easily far and away the best way to look at our universe but even it has a long way to go. There is much too much control of what is deemed true, even (and maybe particularly) in our universities. It is called tenure.
As usual Paul, you go straight for the throat. It is one of my favorite things about you.
Thanks, Mike. 🙂
Semmelweis’ claim (certainly in retrospect) doesn’t seem all that extraordinary; he just ran into a group of a-holes.
Good one Paul,
You have illuminated humanity’s most gigantic and important struggle! There is only one way to ascertain any of the truths of our existence. The first step is to develop a plausible thesis and then laboriously gather ALL of the evidence that relates to that thesis – positive and negative – then carefully weigh that evidence to determine if it confirms or refutes our original thesis. If it refutes our thesis, then the responsible, mature, and intellectually honest thing to do is to abandon our thesis. Unfortunately there is a tremendous profit to be made by ignoring and even suppressing the truth. Dishonest, greedy men have cleverly fabricated a convincing facade of “expertise” that they hide behind while promoting appealing lies for a profit. They first arrive at a conclusion that supports their selfish purposes and then they recognize only the evidence that confirms that conclusion while ignoring all the evidence that refutes that conclusion, and most people believe them because they are mesmerized by the convincing facade that the clever con-artists have fabricated. Human beings will never be free until they question all “truths” and demand to see the evidence that supports and refutes those “truths”. If there is no evidence – then recognize those “truths” for the lies that they are and discard them forever!
All the best,
I agree this isn’t an appropriate double-standard to use for science, but I think it is appropriate in murkier situations.
For example, “a bunch of amateur pilots were able to fly large passenger jets at steep angles and high speeds into small targets” is a pretty extraordinary claim, and I’d like to see extraordinary evidence of that, not just “because we say so”.
I don’t think we can call “because we say so” evidence at all.
True, but I can’t tell if you’re detracting from my point.
Maybe I should have said “here’s some scary pictures of some guys, and oh, I’m an authority and I say so, so that’s evidence.”
I think you know what I mean.
And also, requiring different standards of evidence in non-science matters is appropriate if there are conflicts of interest.
Actually, I’m a fan of “just plain evidence” in pretty much every case.
Comments are closed.