Skepticism concerns itself with extraordinary claims, but hardly just the obviously weird ones…
Unlike topic areas such as overt pseudoscience or the paranormal, more conventional claims count as extraordinary merely by being important and contestible — and there are few claims which cannot be important or contested in the right context. There is also the matter of how much a claim requires us to overturn what we already know if we accept it.
Note that the mere illusion of knowledge, in the form of pre-determined conclusions, fed by ideology, emotion, confirmation bias and rationalizations doesn’t count here.
What we need is a particular degree of evidence. Abstract philosophical argument alone with counterfactual ‘maybes’ and ‘possiblys’ are of no help to us here. This is why debates over the existence of a God or Gods are still raging even after thousands of years, strongly argued by both theists and religious skeptics.
To switch gears a bit, since this is not an antitheism blog…
Take a murder trial. This is hardly trivial given the usual penalties to the defendant if convicted, and even without ‘weird things’ involved it’s every bit as extraordinary as the most bizarre alleged haunting, alien abduction claim, or cryptid sighting. We know murders happen. What is contested here is the innocence or guilt of the defendant.
Rarely does this involve claims of improbable phenomena unknown to science…a body, a weapon, opportunity,a plausible motive and compelling case by the prosecution are usually all that’s needed.
The penalty for murder needs high standards of evidence to get a conviction…to back it up in court and make the conviction stick, after all. A conviction could mean the defendant’s very life in some jurisdictions. We’re not talking about being caught nicking candy from the convenience store.
Even a seemingly innocent claim such as ‘the sky is blue’ could require some evidence, especially when told this only seconds after just hearing of a local tornado warning — if the sky’s actually turning green, credulity could be dangerous as the wind picks up before getting to shelter, but one need only a look at the current weather alerts from safety using whatever device is at hand.
So nearly any claim can be extraordinary depending on the right context, and this depends on two major factors, sometimes in combination:
 The importance of the claim: What is at stake if we uncritically accept it, jumping to an unwarranted conclusion with serious consequences? If the claim is true, then there must be evidence strong enough to support it and once that’s in, we’d be wise to heed it. Reality’s a bastitch when spurned, and doesn’t care about your politics, your religion, or what you had for breakfast before updating your Facebook status. If the claim is false, on the other hand, we need to know so that no one wastes time, money, or risks their health or lives pursuing the claim as though it were true. Properly evaluating the evidence will show this. Again, reality doesn’t give a hoot what you believe, silly relativist arguments about the impossibility of objective reality or truth aside.
 The unusual or strange nature of the claim: This mostly applies to claims of ‘weird things’ but also for rare mundane phenomena, which can seem weird to those unfamiliar with them. Does there seem to be no explanation for the claim immediately on hand? Does the claim require that to accept it, we overturn much or even all of modern science to explain it? Given that, let’s face it, “Science, it works, bitches,”* we use science as the gold standard for factual knowledge even while publicly denouncing it. We cannot just accept or reject a claim unless we’ve given it a fair hearing, and that’s where science steps in. We examine the reasoning and the initial evidence, especially the scientific evidence for it. If it doesn’t pass muster, we are right to reject it as improbable or baseless in fact until shown otherwise, or sometimes as impossible. The latter, though, should be done with care.
*attributed to Richard Dawkins
And both of the above can apply to claims in which there is a legitimate controversy, not one manufactured by the media, zealots, or ideologues intent on undermining the science they don’t like. In any case, importance, consequences, and the plausibility of a claim at the time can make even seemingly trivial ones extraordinary…
…context and the stakes raised by the claim are deciding factors here.
“What may be asserted without evidence may be dismissed without evidence.”
~ Christopher Hitchens
G’day. You all know me by my pseudo-pseudonymous handle, and for over four years now I’ve been posting on this blog on various matters, some skeptical, some personal, and sometimes atheistic, posts on these and other topics punctuated by my frequent, and to some, annoying, fractal posts.
But the drama that has shaken the Skeptical Community™ to its knees has shattered my resolve, nay, my Faith™ in Science, and sent me looking to more fertile ground for mental and spiritual sustenance that a cold, sterile, mechanistic, reductionistic, materialistic, and yes, Physicalist™ worldview cannot supply. I have sought a new paradigm to feed my hungry soul, that even the Great Old Ones could not besiege, and lo, the paradigm has shifted…The stars are right!
So, I have discovered my potential, tasted the forbidden fruit of the paranormal, and decided to renounce science, skepticism, ethics and intellectual honesty forever. No more being mean to psychics, no more Dogmatic Scientistic Closed-Mindedness™ about UFO’s™ and cryptozoological creatures, no more roundly mocking popular gurus about their lucrative book sales and seminars…I want in on the action too!
So, it is with heavy heart that I rededicate and retool this blog, saying goodbye to those I’ve met in the Skeptical Community™ and opening my mind so far as to step over that fine line I’ve drawn on the floor and embrace total, complete and utter madness!
Yes, the stars art right, and henceforth, I shall blog on paranormal topics from a believer’s point of view and begin, without any journalistic training or professional writing ability whatsoever, and no real or relevant credentials (after all, having no qualifications on a topic means I can think outside the box and speak on it with authority, because I wasn’t conventionalized by the Establishment!), a series of books on Alternative Science™ and the start of my own religion based on my own feverish ravings of revelations from insane alien beings.
And finally, for those of you convinced I’ve finally gone over the edge and completely lost my mind…
May you all have a terrific 1st of April. ;-) G’day.
G’day. As a former theist and paranormal believer, I hold what I understand only to varying degrees of probability, nothing as completely certain outside of formal logic and maths, and those as certain only by virtue of arbitrary but accepted and useful conventions of logic.
As a theist, I had been brought up to see my religion as uniquely privileged to the Truth™ and in this I find that I was not unique at all.
Many of us raised or indoctrinated later in life into a religious belief system find it difficult to pierce the bubble of continuous doctrinal reinforcement and confirmation bias that surrounds us.
As a theist, I’d been paradoxically blinded to religion by that very thing. Religion was so much a part of my thinking that it was always in the background, always so well, blindingly obvious as to be just out of sight, and hence out of mind.
I never noticed it in the cultural environment I grew up in. It had never come to my attention how religion and religious belief was so pervasive.
In the religious tradition of my upbringing, I had been taught that unbelievers (everyone not a Bible-believing Adventist) were at best delusional and at worst evil. How ironic that it was only a few years later I became one of those same unbelievers, as my indoctrination waned from a lack of reinforcement.**
The same applies to my paranormal beliefs. Growing up with shows like In Search Of, including having attended a lecture at Edgar Cayce’s Association for Research & Enlightenment, I accepted nearly every sort of claim that made the tabloid headlines at the time.
Yes, the beginnings of an interest in science were there, but lacked a crucially important tool; a well-calibrated and functioning baloney detector.
There was neither the understanding nor the skill to filter the good science from the very, very bad science.
I knew about people called skeptics, but knew very little of them, and not in a positive light. They were ill-tempered meanies, spoiling my fun by debunking all of those cool things the media said psychics were doing. Skeptics too, were unbelievers held in almost the same light as those evil atheists.
Almost, though not quite as bad.
It was the 1970s, during the birth of an organized skepticism I knew next to nothing about, and the paranormal was everywhere in the popular culture, from tabloids, to movies, to comic books, toys, animated cartoons, television, and paperback fiction billed as nonfiction. There was so much of it out there that it was almost invisible. Again, hidden in plain sight.
I was literally, in a psychological sense, blinded to the prevalence of supernatural and paranormal belief by immersion in that very belief. I suppose It’s possible to internalize a set of beliefs so much that you think of that set as normal, acceptable, and desirable, and only notice when they are lacking, like those diabolical black-hat atheists and skeptics who I had foolishly thought so in denial of obvious reality and normalcy.
There resided in my skull not a smidgen, not a molecule of good critical sense.
But things changed since my teens. There was the move from magical thinking and religiosity to, in time, a worldview valuing reason and evidence, if nothing else because that was what helped you make credible arguments whether you won or not, and the novel discovery that it’s okay to be wrong as long as you admit it, correct it, and move on.
But is it possible that I’ve just traded one sort of blindness for another? Was there now credulity for skepticism?
That’s just as silly as it sounds, since the first thing learned as a skeptic is to consider all sources, all authorities, as fallible, and to follow any claim to its primary source whenever possible. There is questioning and testing of even conventional claims when better data comes to light, even those of other skeptics and scientific research workers.
Such is the case with any branch of science. Even established findings are subject to this, and many may need revision or rejection in the face of better observations when these are made. Science questions itself much more than it’s critics assert with every new finding it makes, much more than in most other endeavors.
Try to find that in politics or religion without it resulting only in doctrinal schisms or ideological purges.
There is the testing and so the questioning of assumptions, to see whether they at least are still useful in producing effective results, whether they are true as well as useful. Assumptions which fail such inquiry are abandoned for better ones. Skepticism has a set of values that apply to it, but is not itself an ideology nor a belief system. It’s a method of asking questions which requires only that we accept the answers we get even if we must force ourselves to accept what the data say despite our wants and wishes.
I see the skeptical approach at work plain as day as well as the effects and influence of religious and paranormal claims everywhere now.
Others, better skilled than I are to be learned from, not hero-worshiped, their knowledge tested, not taken as a given, their authority questioned within the bounds of good reason, not knee-jerk rejection, their facts and credentials checked in relation to those of similar training, experience and knowledge background.
There are men and women I admire and respect, not uncritically, the living and the departed, who have taught me much of value, who’ve enjoined me to learn more on my own, and I hope I’m not embarrassing those major contributors of skepticism and secular thought still among us by mentioning their names; Michael Shermer, the late Martin Gardner, Neil deGrasse Tyson, the late Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan, the late Paul Kurtz, Lawrence Krauss, Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens, the late Isaac Asimov, Ray Hyman, Joe Nickell…
I believe that for a robust skepticism, one must know the human side of their heroes, both the light and the dark. To know them in the context of their lives and relation to the world they lived in. The glitter and the tarnish. For a realistic worldview, nothing else will do.
**text added, paragraph #6, at 12/26/2012, 1:24 am EST.