Extraordinary Goof

I was just reading a fascinating post at Canadian writer Robert J. Sawyer's blog on self-publishing. Sawyer's argument in response to a writer who chose to go the self-publishing route was spot on . . . until he cited Carl Sagan's oft-quoted quip, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof." Pardon me, but BULLSHIT!

The measure of proof for any claim is the same regardless whether the claim is extraordinary or not. EDIT: The fact is, no one knows how much proof is required for any claim and that's where the problem lies with this quote: it makes an unwarranted assumption about the evidence before the investigation has even begun. Sagan's quip is nothing more than grandiloquent hockey-puck, and is about as logical as a screendoor on a submarine.

Now, nautical screendoors aside, I don't doubt that Sawyer's entire argument is waterproof from top to bottom, but proof is proof, period.¹ If I claim to be a wolfman, then the proof of my claim is no more extraordinary than the proof that a caterpillar will turn into a butterfly. I had better show forth the necessary metamorphosis or shut up. This is not extraordinary proof. It is simply the proof required, and grandiloquence be damned.

I hope you'll pardon this outburst, but I've come to loathe that idiotic quip.

¹ Some proofs, when they are first demonstrated, no doubt appear to be extraordinary, as when, for example, Copernicus claimed that the Earth orbited the Sun and not vice versa, simply because of the nature of the previous assumptions. Copernicus' claim would've been as boring as pitting an abacus operator against a super-computer if the discoveries of the ancients hadn't been cloaked in the obscurity of the Dark Ages that followed themPythagoras, in 540 B.C.E., proved that the Earth is a sphere (and there is evidence that other cultures knew this even before the ancient Greeks); Aristarchus of Samos, 310-230 B.C.E., believed that the Earth went around the Sun. The fact is, proof is proof. Logically, there are not different levels or forms of proof. Either something can be proven, or it cannot. Period. There is nothing extraordinary about it. Therefore, to say "extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof" is not only pretentious, it also implies a double-standard, even if one doesn't mean to do so.

3 comment(s):

Aaron Sher said...
February 19, 2010 6:02 PM

While your statement is true in principle, in practice most things outside of pure mathematics cannot be "proven" with 100% certainty. If, as you say, I claimed to be a wolfman and showed you the metamorphosis, you most likely still wouldn't believe me unless it was done under relatively controlled circumstances. If, for example, I were to show you a video of the process, you'd be sure (with good reason) that it was a trick. On the other hand, if I were to "prove" that a caterpillar turns into a butterfly by the same method, you'd accept it, because you're already fairly certain that the claim is true. "Extraordinary" proof simply refers to the lengths taken to provide scientific rigor in the proof. No matter how extraordinary, you can never be entirely sure that it's not, for example, a giant conspiracy, so my claim can never be "proven" by your definition.

g d townshende said...
February 20, 2010 3:02 AM

Aaron, I'm not sure I agree with your definition of "extraordinary." From what I've seen, this quip is usually used in reference to things that many consider either quackery or impossible, which is one reason why I call it grandiloquent. Scientists who understand and are faithful to the scientific method would never be so dogmatic. (Sagan, by contrast, once he gained popularity in the media, often resorted to dramatic rhetoric. This isn't surprising, however, because to do otherwise is "bad TV.") Now, if the phrase is used to mean "this is highly unlikely" or "this is highly improbable," then I'm good with that. But in terms of the actual measure of proof required for any claim, the phrase is utter nonsense.

The scientific method isn't concerned with whether something is ordinary or extraordinary; its concern is with providing evidence to prove or disprove the claims made, regardless of the nature of the claims being investigated.

In fact, the idea that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof" actually demonstrates an extraordinary bias that should be absent from the scientific method. However, scientists who are in the public eye are just as wont to demonstrate how human they are as the rest of us. After all, is it not possible that an extraordinary claim might be proven simply or that an ordinary claim might require extraordinary proof? The fact is, no one knows how much proof is required for any claim and that's where the problem lies with this quote: it makes an unwarranted assumption about the evidence before the investigation has even begun. That's why I call this quote grandiloquent, because it defies logic. It's nothing more than rhetoric; it's a means of injecting drama into a subject.

g d townshende said...
February 20, 2010 3:06 AM

Also, given what I just posted as a response, I'll even take issue with my initial wording: "The measure of proof for any claim is the same regardless whether the claim is extraordinary or not." I made the same mistake there that I find in the quip that I'm criticizing. So, I've modified my post, but haven't deleted the original statement.

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