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Was Sagan wrong about “Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence”? UPDATED!

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Or is the concept often misused. That what David Deming contends:

Abstract: In 1979 astronomer Carl Sagan popularized the aphorism “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” (ECREE). But Sagan never defined the term “extraordinary.” Ambiguity in what constitutes “extraordinary” has led to misuse of the aphorism. ECREE is commonly invoked to discredit research dealing with scientific anomalies, and has even been rhetorically employed in attempts to raise doubts concerning mainstream scientific hypotheses that have substantive empirical support. The origin of ECREE lies in eighteenth-century Enlightenment criticisms of miracles. The most important of these was Hume’s essay On Miracles. Hume precisely defined an extraordinary claim as one that is directly contradicted by a massive amount of existing evidence. For a claim to qualify as extraordinary there must exist overwhelming empirical data of the exact antithesis. Extraordinary evidence is not a separate category or type of evidence–it is an extraordinarily large number of observations. Claims that are merely novel or those which violate human consensus are not properly characterized as extraordinary. Science does not contemplate two types of evidence. The misuse of ECREE to suppress innovation and maintain orthodoxy should be avoided as it must inevitably retard the scientific goal of establishing reliable knowledge. — Philosophia volume 44, pages1319–1331(2016)

The paper is open access.

Here’s the update:

Hat tip: Ken Francis, co-author with Theodore Dalrymple of The Terror of Existence: From Ecclesiastes to Theatre of the Absurd

22 Replies to “Was Sagan wrong about “Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence”? UPDATED!

  1. 1
    Seversky says:

    The origin of ECREE lies in eighteenth-century Enlightenment criticisms of miracles. The most important of these was Hume’s essay On Miracles. Hume precisely defined an extraordinary claim as one that is directly contradicted by a massive amount of existing evidence. For a claim to qualify as extraordinary there must exist overwhelming empirical data of the exact antithesis. Extraordinary evidence is not a separate category or type of evidence–it is an extraordinarily large number of observations.

    I don’t see this as particularly controversial. All it says in effect is that, in order to overturn and replace a well supported claim, you need an alternative claim with even stronger support. For example, in over two thousand years of observations there has been no verified instance of a human being coming to life days after being pronounced dead. So, in order to accept Christian claims for the resurrection of Jesus, we need a lot more than four inconsistent and unverifiable accounts from the Bible. That does not mean it could not have happened but neither are we obliged to accept the claim just because a lot of Christians believed it did.

    ECREE is commonly invoked to discredit research dealing with scientific anomalies, and has even been rhetorically employed in attempts to raise doubts concerning mainstream scientific hypotheses that have substantive empirical support.

    Is that true or is just that it is being used in the sense discussed above?

  2. 2
    EDTA says:

    Not sure ECREE applies to _historical_ claims though. The claim isn’t that people randomly arise from the dead, such that a statistical analysis could tell us something. The claim is that it happened just a few times, and then not again. So the evidence is fixed, and not directly observable by us. This is why I think Hume (and those following) were wrong to try to apply the principle to any religious claim.

  3. 3
    ronvanwegen says:

    It’s a ridiculous claim. One needs only “sufficient” evidence for any claim not “extraordinary” evidence. If Jesus rose from the dead one does not need God to make a world-wide public service announcement. One simply needs the evidence as it has been presented, by witnesses who are members of the group “twelve good men and true”.

  4. 4
    Mung says:

    Was Sagan wrong about “Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence”?

    Not even wrong.

  5. 5
    goodusername says:

    Ronvangwegen,

    It’s a ridiculous claim. One needs only “sufficient” evidence for any claim not “extraordinary” evidence.

    Obviously “sufficient” evidence is required – that’s true by definition. The point is what’s considered “sufficient” changes depending on the claim. That’s hardly ridiculous – it’s self-evident. For example, if you saw what appears to be cat print in the soil of your front yard, you’d probably conclude that a cat stepped there. But if you saw what looks for all the world like a T-Rex print in your front yard, I’m guessing you wouldn’t conclude that a T-Rex stepped there. It’s the same evidence, and yet it’s sufficient in one case and not the other. Even if a neighbor showed what appears to be a photo of a T-Rex stepping in your yard, my guess is that you still wouldn’t be convinced and instead think that someone is playing a trick on you. I’m not sure what would be convincing; it would probably take something… extraordinary.
    That all being said I’m not sure if it’s actually a useful aphorism, considering that what’s considered “extraordinary” and “sufficient” are both in the eye of the beholder.

  6. 6
    Allen Shepherd says:

    it seems that he claim that life came from non-life, abiogenesis, is exactly the same claim that Christians make for the Savior. Life from something dead. There is actually. more evidence for the later, 1 Corinthians 15 etc.

    No one has seen abiogenesis. So extraordinary evidence would be required,

  7. 7
    kairosfocus says:

    News (attn GUN et al), yes, Sagan and Clifford’s evidentialism are manifestly wrong. The correct balance is that claims require adequate warrant. The assertion about “extraordinar[iness]” is little more than a policy declaration that one is putting in place a double standard to reject what one does not wish to believe. Similarly, “evidence” tends to be loaded and not comprehensive enough. What is needed is warrant informed by sound comparative difficulties analysis. An infinite “turtles all the way down” regress of warrant is impossible and futile, question-begging circularity is self-defeating, we are forced to deal with clusters of finitely remote first plausibles that define our worldviews. Where, only a relatively few can be self evident or incorrigible or sense data taken as credible fact, etc. Evidentialism, as a proposition also fails its own test: what is the extraordinary evidence for so strong a claim? And, for that body of evidence? And, for that second order body? And so forth to infinity or else circularity. KF

  8. 8
    kairosfocus says:

    Sev, kindly notice there is an active thread that addresses some controversial claims you recently made, here: https://uncommondescent.com/culture/further-on-sev-and-eg-vs-the-christian-faith-in-community/ KF

  9. 9
    kairosfocus says:

    News, BTW, every individual observation in succession is a singular case. It is thus dismissible as no evidence compared to the body one wishes to accept. Then, step by step, there is no large body of observations, poof, gone. In fact, inductive bodies of evidence and inferred patterns cannot rule out contrary exceptions. Newton in Opticks, Query 31, was right; one monitors for further evidence and modifies so far best explanations. In the case of miracles, Hume fell into grand question-begging. There is no good reason why the Author of the world might not act in unusual ways in it, for his own good reasons. In particular, miracles REQUIRE that there be a recognisable general pattern if they are to stand out as signs. If there is no pattern, a chaos, nothing can stand out. KF

  10. 10
    Bob O'H says:

    Was Sagan wrong about “Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence”?

    Not even wrong.

    What an extraordinary claim. 🙂

  11. 11
    kairosfocus says:

    BO’H: Mung has a point. KF

  12. 12
    bornagain77 says:

    In critique of David Hume’s argument against miracles, first off, David Hume self-servingly presupposed that the laws of nature were completely natural with no need of God to explain the existence of the laws of nature.

    Specifically David Hume stated, “A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; ”

    “A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and because firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the case against a miracle is—just because it is a miracle—as complete as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined to be.”
    – David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding – 1748

    Yet atheists simply have no right to presuppose that the laws of nature are completely natural.

    As Paul Davies stated in 1995, “even the most atheistic scientist accepts as an act of faith that the universe is not absurd, that there is a rational basis to physical existence manifested as law-like order in nature that is at least partly comprehensible to us. So science can proceed only if the scientist adopts an essentially theological worldview.”

    Physics and the Mind of God: The Templeton Prize Address – by Paul Davies – August 1995
    Excerpt: “People take it for granted that the physical world is both ordered and intelligible. The underlying order in nature-the laws of physics-are simply accepted as given, as brute facts. Nobody asks where they came from; at least they do not do so in polite company. However, even the most atheistic scientist accepts as an act of faith that the universe is not absurd, that there is a rational basis to physical existence manifested as law-like order in nature that is at least partly comprehensible to us. So science can proceed only if the scientist adopts an essentially theological worldview.”
    https://www.firstthings.com/article/1995/08/003-physics-and-the-mind-of-god-the-templeton-prize-address-24

    And again in 2007 Paul Davies went on to state, “All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. You couldn’t be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed.,,,
    ,,, the very notion of physical law is a theological one in the first place, a fact that makes many scientists squirm. Isaac Newton first got the idea of absolute, universal, perfect, immutable laws from the Christian doctrine that God created the world and ordered it in a rational way. Christians envisage God as upholding the natural order from beyond the universe,”

    Taking Science on Faith – By PAUL DAVIES – NOV. 24, 2007
    Excerpt: The problem with this neat separation into “non-overlapping magisteria,” as Stephen Jay Gould described science and religion, is that science has its own faith-based belief system. All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. You couldn’t be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed. When physicists probe to a deeper level of subatomic structure, or astronomers extend the reach of their instruments, they expect to encounter additional elegant mathematical order. And so far this faith has been justified.
    The most refined expression of the rational intelligibility of the cosmos is found in the laws of physics, the fundamental rules on which nature runs. The laws of gravitation and electromagnetism, the laws that regulate the world within the atom, the laws of motion — all are expressed as tidy mathematical relationships. But where do these laws come from? And why do they have the form that they do?
    When I was a student, the laws of physics were regarded as completely off limits. The job of the scientist, we were told, is to discover the laws and apply them, not inquire into their provenance. The laws were treated as “given” — imprinted on the universe like a maker’s mark at the moment of cosmic birth — and fixed forevermore. Therefore, to be a scientist, you had to have faith that the universe is governed by dependable, immutable, absolute, universal, mathematical laws of an unspecified origin. You’ve got to believe that these laws won’t fail, that we won’t wake up tomorrow to find heat flowing from cold to hot, or the speed of light changing by the hour.
    Over the years I have often asked my physicist colleagues why the laws of physics are what they are. The answers vary from “that’s not a scientific question” to “nobody knows.” The favorite reply is, “There is no reason they are what they are — they just are.” The idea that the laws exist reasonlessly is deeply anti-rational. After all, the very essence of a scientific explanation of some phenomenon is that the world is ordered logically and that there are reasons things are as they are. If one traces these reasons all the way down to the bedrock of reality — the laws of physics — only to find that reason then deserts us, it makes a mockery of science.
    Can the mighty edifice of physical order we perceive in the world about us ultimately be rooted in reasonless absurdity? If so, then nature is a fiendishly clever bit of trickery: meaninglessness and absurdity somehow masquerading as ingenious order and rationality.
    Although scientists have long had an inclination to shrug aside such questions concerning the source of the laws of physics, the mood has now shifted considerably. Part of the reason is the growing acceptance that the emergence of life in the universe, and hence the existence of observers like ourselves, depends rather sensitively on the form of the laws. If the laws of physics were just any old ragbag of rules, life would almost certainly not exist.,,,
    ,,, the very notion of physical law is a theological one in the first place, a fact that makes many scientists squirm. Isaac Newton first got the idea of absolute, universal, perfect, immutable laws from the Christian doctrine that God created the world and ordered it in a rational way. Christians envisage God as upholding the natural order from beyond the universe, while physicists think of their laws as inhabiting an abstract transcendent realm of perfect mathematical relationships.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11.....avies.html

    And as C.S. Lewis stated, “Men became scientific because they expected law in nature, and they expected law in nature because they believed in a lawgiver.”

    When things just don’t fit: Science and the Easter faith – John Lennox – 13 April 2012
    Excerpt: Alfred North Whitehead’s view, as summarised by C.S. Lewis, was that: “Men became scientific because they expected law in nature, and they expected law in nature because they believed in a lawgiver.” It is no accident that Galileo, Kepler, Newton and Clerk-Maxwell were believers in God.
    https://www.abc.net.au/religion/when-things-just-dont-fit-science-and-the-easter-faith/10100632

    In fact, the first major unification in physics was Sir Isaac Newton’s realization that “the same force that caused an apple to fall at the Earth’s surface—gravity—was also responsible for holding the Moon in orbit about the Earth”,,

    Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation
    Excerpt: The first major unification in physics was Sir Isaac Newton’s realization that the same force that caused an apple to fall at the Earth’s surface—gravity—was also responsible for holding the Moon in orbit about the Earth. This universal force would also act between the planets and the Sun, providing a common explanation for both terrestrial and astronomical phenomena.
    https://www.learner.org/courses/physics/unit/text.html?unit=3&secNum=3

    In regards to this first unification, Sir Isaac Newton stated: “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being. And if the fixed stars are the centres of other like systems, these, being formed by the like wise counsel, must be all subject to the dominion of One;,,,”

    “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being. And if the fixed stars are the centres of other like systems, these, being formed by the like wise counsel, must be all subject to the dominion of One; especially since the light of the fixed stars is of the same nature with the light of the sun, and from every system light passes into all the other systems: and lest the systems of the fixed stars should, by their gravity, fall on each other mutually, he hath placed those systems at immense distances one from another. This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all; and on account of his dominion he is wont to be called Lord God pantokrator, or Universal Ruler;,,, The Supreme God is a Being eternal, infinite, absolutely perfect;,,, from his true dominion it follows that the true God is a living, intelligent, and powerful Being; and, from his other perfections, that he is supreme, or most perfect. He is eternal and infinite, omnipotent and omniscient; that is, his duration reaches from eternity to eternity; his presence from infinity to infinity; he governs all things, and knows all things that are or can be done. He is not eternity or infinity, but eternal and infinite; he is not duration or space, but he endures and is present. He endures for ever, and is every where present”:
    – Sir Isaac Newton – “Principia”

    Again. atheists simply have no right to presuppose that the laws of nature are completely natural.

    In fact, atheists, with their ‘bottom up’ materialistic explanations, simply have no clue why there should be universal laws that govern the universe in the first place:

    “There cannot be, in principle, a naturalistic bottom-up explanation for immutable physical laws — which are themselves an ‘expression’ of top-down causation. A bottom-up explanation, from the level of e.g. bosons, should be expected to give rise to innumerable different ever-changing laws. By analogy, particles give rise to innumerable different conglomerations.
    Moreover a bottom-up process from bosons to physical laws is in need of constraints (laws) in order to produce a limited set of universal laws.
    Paul Davies: “Physical processes, however violent or complex, are thought to have absolutely no effect on the laws. There is thus a curious asymmetry: physical processes depend on laws but the laws do not depend on physical processes. Although this statement cannot be proved, it is widely accepted.”
    Saying that laws do not depend on physical processes, is another way of saying that laws cannot be explained by physical processes.”
    – Origenes
    http://www.uncommondescent.com.....ent-624496

    In fact, if atheists were ever honest with themselves, which would be a miracle in its own right, then they would honestly admit that they should should a-priorily expect random chaos that cannot be grasped by the mind in any way rather than a ordered universe that can be understood by the mind of man.

    As Einstein himself stated, ““You find it strange that I consider the comprehensibility of the world (to the extent that we are authorized to speak of such a comprehensibility) as a miracle or as an eternal mystery. Well, a priori, one should expect a chaotic world, which cannot be grasped by the mind in any way”,,,

    On the Rational Order of the World: a Letter to Maurice Solovine – Albert Einstein – March 30, 1952
    Excerpt: “You find it strange that I consider the comprehensibility of the world (to the extent that we are authorized to speak of such a comprehensibility) as a miracle or as an eternal mystery. Well, a priori, one should expect a chaotic world, which cannot be grasped by the mind in any way .. the kind of order created by Newton’s theory of gravitation, for example, is wholly different. Even if a man proposes the axioms of the theory, the success of such a project presupposes a high degree of ordering of the objective world, and this could not be expected a priori. That is the ‘miracle’ which is constantly reinforced as our knowledge expands.
    There lies the weakness of positivists and professional atheists who are elated because they feel that they have not only successfully rid the world of gods but “bared the miracles.”
    -Albert Einstein
    http://inters.org/Einstein-Letter-Solovine

    Likewise, Eugene Wigner stated, “It is difficult to avoid the impression that a miracle confronts us here, quite comparable in its striking nature to the miracle that the human mind can string a thousand arguments together without getting itself into contradictions, or to the two miracles of the existence of laws of nature and of the human mind’s capacity to divine them.,,,”

    The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences – Eugene Wigner – 1960
    Excerpt: ,,certainly it is hard to believe that our reasoning power was brought, by Darwin’s process of natural selection, to the perfection which it seems to possess.,,,
    It is difficult to avoid the impression that a miracle confronts us here, quite comparable in its striking nature to the miracle that the human mind can string a thousand arguments together without getting itself into contradictions, or to the two miracles of the existence of laws of nature and of the human mind’s capacity to divine them.,,,
    The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve. We should be grateful for it and hope that it will remain valid in future research and that it will extend, for better or for worse, to our pleasure, even though perhaps also to our bafflement, to wide branches of learning.
    http://www.dartmouth.edu/~matc.....igner.html

    Thus for David Hume to blithely presuppose that the laws of nature are completely natural and therefore that the laws of nature therefore preclude the possibility of any further miracles from even being possible. i.e. “A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; “, is a severely disingenuous and dishonest thing for him to do.

    Simply put, the laws of nature are miraculous in their own right. Miracles for which the atheist simply has no rational nor coherent explanation.

    In fact to repeat, it was on the Christian presupposition of a ‘universal law giver’, i.e. God, that modern science itself was born by men who were devoutly Christian in their beliefs.

    For atheists, Hume in particular, to then try to claim that the laws of nature themselves belong exclusively to the province of atheism, a province that precludes any further miracles from even being possible, would have been enough, I imagine, to make Sir Isaac Newton’s blood boil with anger towards David Hume.

    “Atheism is so senseless and odious to mankind that it never had many professors.”
    – Sir Isaac Newton, A Short Scheme of the True Religion

    In short, David Hume was a two-bit thief who stole the ‘miraculous’ laws of nature away from the Christian founders of modern science who first discovered them.

  13. 13
    ET says:

    seversky:

    All it says in effect is that, in order to overturn and replace a well supported claim, you need an alternative claim with even stronger support.

    Unguided/ blind watchmaker evolution doesn’t have any evidentiary support beyond genetic diseases and deformities. Compared to Intelligent Design which has overwhelming evidentiary support from multiple disciplines.

  14. 14
    Truthfreedom says:

    Oh. Speaking of “extraordinary claims”
    All those ‘enlightened’ human beings who proclaim that “consciousness is a spandrel ” and free will an “illusion”:

    “…these claims run completely contrary to virtually universal human experience. Few people experience their conscious willing as ineffective or controlled by ‘something else.’’

    “… *They* might say people are deceived just as people were once deceived about the sun going around the earth. However, in this case, we are not talking about an externally, physically observable and measurable phenomenon but of people’s subjective, internal experience of themselves from minute to minute.”

    “To say that all humans have been deceived about their most personal and intimate aspect of their lives strains credibility. We cannot categorically say it is impossible, but we can say that such an astounding claim requires astounding evidence”.

    http://www.commongroundgroup.n.....ll-part-1/

    (Link provided by Bernardo Kastrup in his essay: Dim-witted biologist: consciousness is accidental).

  15. 15
    JVL says:

    TF, 14

    To say that all humans have been deceived about their most personal and intimate aspect of their lives strains credibility.

    I wonder if that sheds some light on difference between those with faith and those without? That is: those with faith have a personal and intimate experience of their deity whereas those without faith have not been so blessed.

    No way you could you convince someone who had felt their Lord in their hearts that that experience was illusionary.

    Likewise, no way you could show a non-believer how real and substantial that experience is.

    The person of faith feels the presence at their core every minute of every day but the person with no faith lacks that entirely and has something else in its place. The person without faith doesn’t feel a void, how can you miss something you never had? The person with faith knows that it’s part of their very being.

  16. 16
    ET says:

    It takes more faith to be an atheistic materialist, than it does to be Christian

  17. 17
    kairosfocus says:

    JVL, every worldview necessarily involves faith commitments. The issue is which faith, not if faith. Consider some A, why accept, B. Why B, C, etc. Infinite regress, impossible. Circularity at some level, begging big questions. Finitely remote first plausibles antecedent to proofs, and open to comparative difficulties is the best we can do. So, no those who are not theists have different faith points, not no faith point. KF

    PS: If you put up a claim that implies just the likelihood of widespread grand delusion, it will bring our rationality under question, is self-referential and self-defeating.

  18. 18
    JVL says:

    KF, 17

    If you put up a claim that implies just the likelihood of widespread grand delusion, it will bring our rationality under question, is self-referential and self-defeating.

    I certainly didn’t mean to do that. I merely wondered if there was an internal difference between those with faith and those without. I wasn’t casting doubt on anyone’s experience.

  19. 19
    kairosfocus says:

    JVL, understandable, as generally we are not educated about the structure of worldviews and that of chains or webs of warrant. In that context, the common dichotomy made between “faith” and “reason” is ill advised, once we see the force of the Agrippa Trilemma: Infinite “turtles all the way down” chain of warrant vs circularity vs what I term a finitely remote faith point (containing first plausibles sustained on comparative difficulties analysis). Multiply by the inevitably provisional nature of inductive reasoning and the nature of axiom systems in a Godel incompleteness theorems world. Such means that we all must live with faith-points; so we are best advised to evaluate on comparative difficulties. Our proper aim is a reasonable faith, and it is a fallacy to assume one has no faith by contrast with others one might dismiss as depending on intellectual crutches. KF

  20. 20
    JVL says:

    KF, 19: . . . In that context, the common dichotomy made between “faith” and “reason” is ill advised . . .

    I wasn’t trying to incur that comparison, if you thought I was then I wasn’t clear enough.

    I was only considering the notion that personal experiences are extremely powerful for everyone, those of faith and those without.

  21. 21
    Fasteddious says:

    The ECREE demand depends on what is considered “extraordinary”. For example, atheists demand “proof” of spiritual claims, while discounting or ignoring evidence. However, given that the vast majority of humanity, over the full range of recorded history have accepted spiritual beliefs and propositions of one sort or other, then spirituality appears to be the “ordinary” reality of humanity, making atheism the claim that requires “extraordinary” evidence.
    Regarding Hume, he would presumably believe or accept that all “swans are white”. How would presenting him with a black swan be considered “extraordinary”? Surely the fact of a single counter example is sufficient evidence to change a belief or disprove a proposition.
    David Hume’s argument against miracles seems somewhat circular: miracles are rare, therefore, when presented with a supposed miracle, assume it is not true since miracles are rare. His level of “extraordinary” evidence is unspecified, so can be adjusted to fit the belief that there are no miracles. i.e. each piece of counter evidence can be discounted, based on the “knowledge” that miracles probably do not occur, thereby leading to no change in belief.
    For a different view of miracles, see: https://thopid.blogspot.com/2018/12/some-models-of-miracles.html
    Hume’s argument could be used to discount anything new or different. E.g. Everyone can see that the world is flat, so arguments that the world is round need extraordinary evidence. Most people accept the careful, but not “extraordinary” evidence that the world is round, even if they cannot see that themselves.

  22. 22
    aarceng says:

    A little evidence is enough for those who w ant to believe.
    Good evidence is enough for those who don’t want to believe.
    No amount of evidence is enough for those who want to not believe.

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