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Laszlo Bencze: Who decides what is “extraordinary” evidence?


Further to David Deming’s observation that is often misused, Laszlo Bencze offers this thought: reminds us that he reflected a while back on the whole business of extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence.

As to Carl Sagan’s “Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence,“ well, my goodness, there’s a flaw here. The person making the demand is always the one to judge the sufficiency of how “extraordinary” is extraordinary enough. The extraordinary evidence demanded may be a mite too extraordinary. By these standards, we might still be stuck with ancient animistic notions of how the world works because no evidence extraordinary enough could ever be found to dislodge them.

But what’s wrong with “ordinary” evidence such as we usually get in the world of science? After all most great scientific insights are the result of thinking about quite ordinary events. Galileo’s swinging chandelier in the cathedral of Pisa comes readily to mind. What could be more ordinary? Yet it led to the extraordinary understanding that the time period to swing through a complete cycle is independent of the amplitude of the swing.

As Karl Popper points out, refutations of theories can be ordinary. A single contradictory fact is quite sufficient to upset a theory nor must the fact be spectacular. It can even be quite subtle. Certainly a single refutation of a popular theory will be viewed with a great deal of skepticism and will be examined rigorously. Nonetheless, if the example is sound then one is all that is needed. It does not have to be extraordinary (whatever that might mean).

The Michaelson-Morley experiment which showed that the speed of light did not vary according to the movement of the earth was unspectacular. It involved no pyrotechnics, no explosions. In many ways it was subtle and difficult to understand. Yet it pretty much laid to rest the notion that light traveled in a rarified medium called “ether.” I’m not sure that it received much popular notice at the time. But it did set the stage for a new physics that Einstein proposed about a decade later.

So I think it is better to use the phrase “An extraordinary claim demands ordinary, sound evidence.” Or more technically, “A single refutation upsets the theory.”

See also: David Deming: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” misused due to ambiguity


The Materialist “Extraordinary Claims” Double Standard (Barry Arrington)

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Even if the evidence for the resurrection was not extraordinary, if you look at it honestly and objectively, it is very compelling. Indeed, it has some of the authenticating characteristics of what historians look for when they are trying to determine the authenticity of an event or series of events. For example, the fact that the first eyewitnesses were women. Why is this significant? Because it is not what we would expect if this was a fraudulent made-up account fabricated by a group of devout Jewish males who had been brought up in a very patriarchal society. Women were not considered to be reliable eyewitnesses. Of course we know this not to be true. This is known as the criteria of embarrassment. The argument is that when you put yourself in an embarrassing light you are being what we call brutally honest. Dishonest people don’t typically do this. We can also see this in the depiction of Jesus’ male disciples after his arrest and crucifixion. Their actions are portrayed as fear and cowardice. Not a very flattering for men of any era. Look at the actions Peter-- his denials after Jesus’ arrest. Later he would emerge as the leader of the Christian movement. Would men from a patriarchal society, trying to perpetrate a fraud, portray their leader this way? It doesn’t quite seem to fit. Then there is the criteria of dissimilarity. The resurrection of Jesus, who claimed to be the messiah, doesn’t fit with first century Jewish theology. Jews were expecting a political messiah who would overthrow the Romans. A messiah who was crucified then resurrected was not what anyone was looking for. The Jews believed the The Resurrection would take place at the end of the history. A resurrected Messiah just didn’t fit with anyone’s thinking. This is what Paul is trying to explain in I Corinthians 15-- how the resurrection does fit. There is also the conversion of Paul who had been very hostile to the Christian faith. What caused his conversion? He is very explicit about the resurrection being a necessary part of the Christian faith. Look at his testimony and sermons in Acts. His personal testimony in the epistles. Again, what was it that won him over to the Christian faith? Then there is also the matter of Jewish burial customs. In first century, Jewish burials were a two-stage process. First after the body had been prepared and wrapped in linen, then it was entombed. After the body decayed a year or two later the family would reopen the tomb and place the bones of the deceased into an ossuary. Archaeologists have recovered hundreds of these ossuaries or bone boxes. How would a family and loved ones react if they believed that the body had been stolen as Mary Magdalene initially believed? It would be outrage. They certainly wouldn’t make up a story about resurrection unless… Well that is just a few reasons why, extraordinary or not, I find the evidence for the resurrection to be so compelling. But that only scratches the surface. Thoughts? Comments? john_a_designer
Laszlo make an interesting response in #2 where he says all the evidence for the resurrection was ordinary. It seems to me that if the evidence was **not** ordinary then the skeptic would complain that the cited evidence was obviously fabricated or made up to convince people or she would have some other excuse. I wonder then: if the authors wanted to convince people by any means possible, including lying if required, then what sort of evidence would they prefer? Ordinary, or extraordinary? Robocop
The resurrection of Jesus was most certainly an extraordinary event but the all the evidence for it was quite ordinary… My point is that such remarkable evidence was unnecessary. Ordinary evidence did the job.
It seems to me that one of the problems with “Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence,“ standard is it is not a one size fits all standard. So, is it really a standard? Back in the early 1980’s, while vacationing in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, I took a tour of an old abandoned copper mine where I witnessed something quite extraordinary. At the conclusion of the tour the tour guide announced that he was going show us a “ghost.” He then instructed us at a certain point on the opposite wall 15-20 yards away. Then he had the lights turned out. It was pitch black. However, after a minute or two, after our eyes became dark adapted, we could see a very faint but very distinct glow where he had instructed us to look. He then told us to look around to prove to us that the glow wasn’t an after image. Sure enough the faint glow stayed in one place. After he had the lights turned back on he explained to us that they had brought scientists in to examine the glow but no one could explain it. It wasn’t radiation, phosphorescence, bio-luminescence or anything else they could think of. They couldn’t figure out what was causing it. On the other hand, he wasn’t implying it a real ghost or anything supernatural. It was just something that science at the time could not explain. Of course he could have been lying to us. Maybe this was a cynical publicity stunt to try to generate more business. That they had somehow created the glow and lied about bringing in the scientists. Maybe, but I doubt it. The truth is, like the face in the Shroud of Turin, which I mentioned earlier, there are things that science cannot explain. The ghost in the mine is something that I witnessed, along with some friends, with my own eyes. It was extraordinary but the only evidence I needed was to see it in a very ordinary way. john_a_designer
The resurrection of Jesus was most certainly an extraordinary event but the all the evidence for it was quite ordinary. A couple of women go to his tomb and see that the stone blocking the entrance is moved away. They then notice that the grave clothes are empty and so arrayed as to indicate no struggle in escaping them. Then some men show up and they see the same things. Later Jesus makes appearances to various people, talks with them, dines with them, and finally ascends into the heavens. These things are witnessed by ordinary people using ordinary senses. Nothing special there. What would extraordinary evidence have looked like? Perhaps a swarm of meteors simultaneously striking the moon is such a way as to spell out "He is Risen." Or perhaps the simultaneous explosion of supernovae so as to reveal "The Messiah has come." How about all the donkeys of Jerusalem wandering about the city quoting scripture from isaiah in Aramaic? That would have been extraordinary evidence. My point is that such remarkable evidence was unnecessary. Ordinary evidence did the job. Laszlo
Let’s be honest. The claim that the first century Jewish teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, rose from the dead after being crucified by the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate, is an extraordinary claim. However, it is not a scientific claim. It is a theological, religious and historical claim. Does the so-called ”Sagan standard” apply to non-scientific claims? Even if it does, is it fair to apply it in the same way? In other words, is every claim, extraordinary or not, a scientifically provable claim? Last weekend The History Channel, aired a two hour special on the Shroud of Turin, in which several members of the team of scientists who examined the shroud in 1978 make the extraordinary claim that they cannot explain image, the face of a man, in the shroud, which is more prominent in the photographic negative. For example, it could not have been created by a medieval artist, there is no evidence that any kind of paint or pigment was used. Ironically, this extraordinary claim is because of, not in spite of, the evidence for which there is presently no explanation. So it cannot be simply rationalized away because the evidence itself points us to something quite extraordinary. http://www.history.com/specials/the-real-face-of-jesus-redux Nevertheless, I personally remain skeptical of the shroud’s authenticity. I have several reasons. For example, it is hard to connect the dots of the historical tradition so that it goes all the way back to first century Palestine. And then there is the Carbon 14 dating, which dates the cloth to sometime around the 13th century. And yes, I am aware that not the best of samples from the cloth was used for the testing. And yes I also know about the Middle Eastern pollen etc. found in the cloth. Interesting, but nowhere near conclusive. BTW not even the Roman Catholic Church, has declared the shroud to be authentic. However, even a skeptic like myself has to concede what science has found out about this artifact is quite extraordinary. So, I believe the extraordinary claims because they really are extraordinary. The best place to begin, when considering the resurrection, is with historical accounts. We have several accounts that we can reliably date to the first century, not only the four canonical gospels but the testimony of Paul in I Corinthians. A strong historical case can be made that first century Christians believed in a physical bodily resurrection of their Messiah (their Christ) who had been crucified by the Romans after his arrest in Jerusalem. Notice that this is really a modest claim. I am not arguing whether or not the resurrection actually happened, only that that is what Jesus’ first century followers believed. In that respect, this is really no different than Alexander the Great’s visit to the Oracle of Ammon at Siwa. Why did Alexander visit the Oracle which was located deep in the Egyptian desert? It was because he, like a lot of his fellow Greeks, believed in oracles. Most modern historians, who study ancient accounts, accept Alexanders visit to Siwa as authentic. In the same way there is no reason to doubt based on the historical documents that the earliest followers of Jesus believed in his resurrection. Of course, personally I am a skeptic when it comes to oracles. Yes, some of the predictions that were recorded seemed to be quite uncanny. But so do some the predictions of fortune cookies. On the other hand, the disciple’s belief in the resurrection cannot be so easily dismissed. The accounts themselves force us to consider that the reason the early disciples believed was because the resurrection really happened. But I have to concede that I am biased because I believe and that belief is based on more than the historical evidence. Nevertheless there is historical evidence which deserves to be honestly considered and not simply debunked. Easter is a good time to consider that, is it not? john_a_designer

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