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.
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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.
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