Please pardon the acronyms in the title (expansions forthcoming in the post), I’m attempting to keep my post titles reasonably concise. Which is exactly what the final sentence in the quote below does in relation to the rest of the paragraph preceding it: it restates the whole argument of the paragraph pithily in just five words (bolded in the following quote).
“In the vastness of the cosmos, there must be other civilizations far older and more advanced than ours — so shouldn’t we have been visited? Shouldn’t there be every now and then alien ships in the skies of Earth? There’s nothing impossible in this idea, and no one would be happier than me if we were being visited, but has it happened in fact? What counts is not what sounds plausible, not what we’d like to believe, not what one or two witnesses claim, but only what is supported by hard evidence, rigorously and skeptically examined. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
~Carl Sagan; Cosmos, Episode IV
Those five words have now been further abbreviated to the acronym ECREE due to the discussion I’m about to outline below.
A bit of background: I have been working through another bout of this recurrent bronchitis, and when I am ill I get cranky and prone to engaging in nitpicking of the most extraordinarily pedantic kind. In order to avoid raising hostility levels within the family to Critical, at such times I prefer to go and play around online in various sceptical forums so that I keep my extreme nitpicking on the internet where it belongs. Skeptical forums specialising in the paranormal are particularly good value for the nitpicking because there are so many folks who think they’re sceptics because they have rejected their Christian upbringing but who nonetheless buy into a mindboggling array of New Age woo claims which cannot be verified by hard evidence rigorously and skeptically examined.
So I was pleased to hit absolute semantic quibbling gold on the JREF forums with a glorious example of a Thread O’ Doom (TOD) that has been continuing for months now: 80+ pages of a contrarian arguing that, unless one can give hir a perfect definition of “extraordinary claims” and “extraordinary evidence”, Sagan’s popular maxim should be denounced as nonsense and abandoned in skeptical arguments. Many forum members have given hir what would seem to be perfectly acceptable answers to anyone genuinely seeking to understand the phrase, yet hir response is always to reject these explanations, usually by finding a way to recast anything at all that is claimed to be “extraaordinary” as actually “ordinary” (this has led to hir appearing to tie hirself up in some astonishingly Gordian knots, but whenever sie gets too entangled sie just goes back to an earlier post of hirs as if the last pages of discussion have not occurred).
Annnnyyyywwwaaaayyyy: this TOD has been my procrastination tool of choice for the last few days of also being busy with a very many tedious tasks, and being at my most nitpickety, I discovered one angle that has not yet been tried. I have no real expectation that my effort will be accepted by the contrarian crew, but this particular TOD has largely become SIWOTI as performance art for the sake of the lurkers, so I wanted my turn to exhibit. Because the JREF forums take a while to approve one’s application to join, I had plenty of time to work on my nitpickery. If anyone is at all interested in seeing just how excruciatingly pedantic I can get, you can read my contribution here.
A quick summary of my more detailed argument on the thread (from the post linked above and my supplementary clarifying post) below especially for the benefit of those who may have come across other contrarians challenging ECREE with similar arguments:
- Maxims are used as summary-phrases that encapsulate more complex concepts in a memorable soundbite.
- So long as the background concept is not nonsense, the summary phrase cannot be nonsense either.
- ECREE summarises the broader concept of applying the scientific method as the necessary test standard for scientifically contentious claims.
- The scientific method of critical analysis of contentious claims is not nonsense, therefore ECREE cannot be nonsense.
One thing the discussion did reveal was that for many skeptics, already immersed in a worldview of holding evidence to the standards required to withstand scrutiny by the scientific method before they judge it to be credible evidence, their understanding of ECREE is holistic and heuristic rather than having a neat explication ready for anybody who challenges ECREE. Frankly, there was quite a bit of floundering around in circular arguments, which was probably the contrarian’s intent when sie attempted to frame ECREE as saying something about any claims provided by anybody in the world about anything instead of sticking to what is absolutely clear from the context: that Sagan was talking specifically about analysing scientifically contentious claims.
For anyone still hung up on the exact definitions of “extraordinary claims (EC)” and “extraordinary evidence (EE)” (the contrarian has demanded simple and objective definitions) I’ve taken a go at that as well.
- Let EC be “scientifically contentious claims”.
- Let EE be “evidence able to settle these contentions when critically scrutinised via the scientific method”
- Let “scientifically contentious claims” = “claims whose proponents seek scientific credibility but whose supporting evidence has not yet been able to withstand critical scrutiny by the scientific method”
- Let “supporting evidence able to withstand critical scrutiny by the scientific method” = “evidence sufficient to reject the relevant null hypotheses at a statistical probability equal to or greater than the 95% confidence level”.
This leads to a more precise rephrasing of ECREE as
Scientifically contentious claims require evidence able to settle these contentions when critically scrutinised via the scientific method.
I’m fairly happy with this as an intermediate-level explication of ECREE when ECREE is challenged as confusing. It places ECREE firmly within the context of scientific credibility, which was always Sagan’s point, and is not so overly-precise that it is totally unwieldy. My points (3) and (4) above are included to demonstrate that increased precision exists within nested explications of terms used in my intermediate explication should they be required.
I still prefer Sagan’s elegant and poetic five word summation though. It’s much easier to remember for a start.
I’m sure you can see why I try not to burden my family with dealing with me when I go fully into Extreme Nitpicker mode :)