The following is from an article written by Winston Wu in 2011. The article, "Debunking Pseudo-skeptical Arguments of Paranormal Debunkers", makes several rational arguments for many statements made by Pseudoskeptics. This one covers the blanket statement, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence".
This is one of the core mantras of hard nosed skeptics, and is usually presented like this:
“If my friend told me that on the way here he was delayed because his car got a flat tire, then I would believe it because it is an ordinary claim. However, if he claimed that on his way here he was temporarily abducted by aliens in a UFO, then I would not believe his claim because it is extraordinary in nature. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
Now it would help if the skeptics who proclaim this argument specify what they would accept as extraordinary evidence. Otherwise, arbitrarily stating this argument gives one an out no matter what evidence is shown, and a way to move the goal posts endlessly. While it is reasonable to expect a higher standard of evidence for more extraordinary claims, there are nevertheless 7 problems with it to keep in mind.
1) First of all, this argument gives skeptics a shady and underhanded way to move the goal posts any way they like. By not defining the standards for “extraordinary”, they are free to move the goalposts up further anytime their standards have been met on pure semantics, which they have often done.
Definitions of what are “extraordinary claims” vary based on prior beliefs and experiences. Not everyone agrees on whether a claim is extraordinary or ordinary. Suppose we were fishes for example, and lived underwater our whole lives without ever seeing or hearing about land. The claim of land existing above water would be an extraordinary claim to us, though not to the creatures living on the land above. Now obviously just because the claim of land is extraordinary to us as fishes does not mean that the land doesn’t exist.
The point is that extraordinary claims are not extraordinary to everyone. What is extraordinary to some is ordinary and natural to others depending on their experience and level of consciousness. For example, the internal body energy of chi gong (or quigong) is a mystical force to Westerners but has been a natural everyday part of life for thousands of years in China. There, chi is used, felt, and observed by its practitioners much the same as the effects of gravity are felt and observed by us. Likewise, having Astral Projections and Out of Body Experiences are extraordinary to those who have never experienced them, but for those who have them regularly, they are an ordinary part of life. In the same way, our cars, radios and cell phones are extraordinary to tribal natives in remote parts of Africa, but ordinary to us.
The best solution, in my opinion, is for everybody to put their cards on the table by honestly specifying their prior beliefs. This sets the standards for what is to be expected and leads to a better mutual understanding of each other.
3) Third, although this rule is good as a general guideline, the fact that 3 possible alternatives exist make this rule fallible.
a) It is possible for something to exist without leaving behind collectable evidence as a souvenir to us. For example, planes, radio waves, electromagnetism, and light move around without leaving “hard evidence” yet they exist. Therefore, extraordinary phenomena can exist without leaving behind extraordinary evidence.
b) It is possible for something to exist yet the evidence for it hasn't been found or understood yet, which is the case for almost every discovery in history from fire and wheels to gunpowder and gravity, to planets, atoms and electromagnetism.
c) It is possible that the evidence is already there but that it's subject to interpretation, making it controversial. This is true for instance, of the alleged mysterious implants found by doctors and surgeons in alleged alien abductees. So even when something leaves a trail, residue or mark, they are subject to interpretation anyway.
Of course, some skeptics have argued that all these things are possible but not probable, hence the requirement for extraordinary evidence. However, in order to really know all that is probable and improbable in the universe and reality, it would require that one have complete knowledge of every dimension and reality that exists in the universe and beyond. No one, neither skeptic nor believer, has that kind of knowledge. Therefore, it would be more accurate to state that:
"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence to convince skeptics, but not necessarily to exist in objective reality."
4) Fourth, the argument is based on an unproven premise. It is based on the premise that paranormal phenomena are either impossible or extremely improbable. The reason it reflects this premise is obvious. Someone who believes that paranormal events are impossible is obviously going to need a lot more proof than someone who believes that they are possible and normal. However, just because miracles, ESP, sightings of apparitions, or OBE’s haven't happened to skeptics doesn't mean they haven't happened to others. Likewise, just because I haven’t been to Spain doesn’t mean that everyone who has is mistaken or deluded.
In order for one to know what is impossible or improbable, one would have to be an all knowing creator of the universe who possesses every knowledge that there is. But none of these hard nosed skeptics are anywhere near that level, so their assumption that paranormal events are impossible in my view is baseless. As scientist and author Arthur C. Clarke states in his first law:
“When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”
5) Fifth, the argument favors conservatism or retaining the established theory in spite of contrary evidence. This has its pros and cons. Obviously, it makes sense to retain what works until something better comes along. However, when it comes to modifying our paradigms or world view we also tend to resist change, even when the data calls for it. This argument I fear, is used as an excuse for those who resist change. But if we never abandoned theories or expanded them, then science would not make progress. History has shown that progress comes with new discoveries and abandoning old outdated theories that no longer fit the new data acquired.
This skeptical rule does not specify a sufficient condition for sufficient evidence. Therefore, rules should be established to clarify whether a competing theory is promising enough to warrant further research so that when those rules are satisfied, excuses can’t be used to try to dismiss the evidence off hand. Otherwise, as Ron Pearson says in his article Theoretical Physics Back Survival:
“Science, however, cannot progress by theory alone; it requires a synthesis of theory and experiment. When observation runs ahead of theory to provide anomalies which seem inexplicable, then as history has shown by repeating itself over and over, the anomalies are avoided, ignored or discredited in order to maintain the status quo: to avoid the need to injure existing intellectual vested interests.”
6) Sixth, as my friend Michael Goodspeed pointed out in one of his articles, science has not historically gone by this rule:
“Even hopelessly flawed arguments posited by the pseudoskeptic can have the power to flummox his opponents. In heated debates, he need not speak Truth to emerge "victorious." Games of semantics, creative ad hominem, and the deliberate misstatement of his opponents' positions are quite effective and oft-used tactics in his intellectual battles. The potential violence of King's English is brought to its greatest fruition by the pseudoskeptic. With his back against the ropes, he will daze his opponent with a well-placed quote from Carl Sagan ("Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence!"), send him reeling with the words "You can't prove a negative!", then slash his throat with Occam's Razor ("The simplest explanation is also the most likely!").
These ordinarily sound scientific platitudes are used as the ultimate "get out of jail free" cards for pseudoskeptics who have no answers to inconvenient questions. Let's examine Sagan's assertion that "extrarordinary" claims require "extraordinary" evidence. The problem with this statement is that popular science does not require extraordinary evidence for its extraordinary claims. Big Bang theory may be the most extraordinary claim in the history of popular science. Here we have an idea that can be neatly encapsulated in eight words: "At first, there was nothing…then it exploded." (Source:http://w3trid.com/~wboggs/comics.html) But how can NOTHING explode? Big Bang theory "defies gravity" and violates innumerable laws of physics, it remains a HYPOTHETICAL mathematical model, yet it is promoted as truth by NASA and institutions of higher learning around the world. Why has the mainstream never demanded the same standards of Big Bang theorists that it does of "paranormal" proponents?
Where are the "double-blind tests" validating Big Bang theory? Has Big Bang theory been tested by JREF or other skeptical organizations?
What about Einstein's theory of relativity? The general public seems unaware that it has always been and is stil a matter of contention among accredited scientists. As Marcus Coleman writes (From http://www.wbabin.net/physics/marcus.htm):
"Einstein's relativity was not accepted by a number of his contemporaries. Rutherford, widely thought of as the 'father of nuclear physics', considered it to be nonsense. Columbia University astronomer C.L. Poor in 1922,'26 & '30 gave unassailable refutations of the claims of Eddington, i.e., that observations of the 1919 South American solar eclipse confirmed Einstein's predicted gravitational attraction of light. (Poor also documents a similar situation existing with the 1922 West Australian eclipse and the claims of Campbell & Trumpler.) It was this 'proof' espoused by Eddington however, which brought Einstein his first acclaim and greatest fame.
"Poor showed clearly that the actual observations were not what was claimed and that they did not support Einstein's prediction. This is still a valid refutation of Einstein's presumed gravitational attraction of light, and notwithstanding the 'Gravitational Lensing' phenomenon, still remains standing as an unanswered challenge to Einstein's general theory of relativity and theory of gravitation. As a side issue, this relegates the concept of 'black holes' to pure science fiction as many non-conventional scientists contend – that is, despite evidence of the most recent discoveries being claimed as proof of their existence (even to including the latest data concerning the centre of the Milky Way), such 'proof' does not survive close scrutiny."
My point here is not to argue one side or another in debates over specific cosmological questions, but rather to demonstrate that these most sacred "truths" of popular science are in reality EXTRAORDINARY CLAIMS which have never required EXTRAORDINARY EVIDENCE.
A more accurate phrase to describe the standards of pseudoskeptics (and, I'm sorry to say, much of the mainstream) is, "UNPOPULAR claims require extraordinary evidence." In its time, Galileo's thesis was considered quite extraordinary, as was Newton's. Why should this have been held against them? What is wrong with judging the evidence of a claim on its MERIT, while ignoring all pre-conceived notions of what is possible and impossible?”
7) Seventh, from a certain standard, it could be said that we already have some extraordinary evidence for certain types of paranormal claims. Take the following 4 types of phenomena for instance.
UFO's (Unidentified Flying Objects): It can be said that there is extraordinary evidence to support the existence of UFO's from unexplainable photographs, video camera footage, multiple eyewitness sightings, abduction reports, Air Force radar reports, etc. All of these constitute convincing evidence for some people, but not for others.
Although much of it can be explained as misperceptions, natural phenomena, weather balloons, aircraft, birds, balls of lightning, luminous Earth lights, etc. there are still many cases which are unexplainable and display features not known of any natural phenomena.
One example is the White House Merry Go Round Incident of July 1952 where Air Force fighters repeatedly chased UFO’s that kept appearing on Air Force radar was never adequately explained. Even skeptics admit that some cases are unexplainable, though they claim that “unexplainable does not mean inexplicable”. (See Argument # 11) Another is the famous Bentwaters UFO Incident that occurred on an American military base in England in 1980 involving two dozen military witnesses, including Colonel Halt, of an up-close UFO sighting, which remains an undebunked and compelling case.
After years of extensive investigations and interviews with Alien Abductees by Budd Hopkins and John Mack, who wrote books on the phenomenon, they concluded that there was more to the abduction experience than mere hallucination or sleep paralysis.
Since it’s not always possible for extraordinary things to leave behind some type of tangible evidence, if I saw a UFO at close range and didn't have my camera with me and then it flew away, how am I expected to have extraordinary evidence? Am I supposed to be able to call that UFO back as if it were under my command or chase it like Superman? The fact that this event happened without our control makes us unable to satisfy this criteria. The same goes with ghosts and other things.
For hard nosed skeptics though, even good evidence will not be enough, since their mentality is to debunk rather than to discover and learn. You see, even if I had a piece of a crashed flying saucer and showed it to them, they would just say that it is probably just a piece of top secret military aircraft that we don't know about yet. They would want the full saucer itself to be convinced. Then if I found a whole saucer and showed it to them, that would still not be enough because then they could say that there is no proof that the saucer is extraterrestrial in origin and that it could just be a secret type of aircraft invented by the military. Of course, if they had real alien bodies in front of them, then it'd be much harder to dismiss, but you get the idea here. They will continually raise the bar. It's their mentality that causes them to close their minds and ignore everything that doesn't fit into their viewpoint.
Nevertheless, many brilliant researchers have concluded that UFO’s, whatever they are, are definitely real. Author and nuclear physicist Stanton Friedman who has spent years in this field has written a series of articles on this, which you can find at: http://www.v-j-enterprises.com/sf_Articles.html He has also published some well researched and convincing books such as Crash at Corona: The U.S. Military Retrieval and Cover-Up of a Ufo and TOP SECRET/MAJIC. (Incidentally, Friedman has issued a public challenge to the US Air Force to publicly debate the UFO phenomena, which has gone unanswered.)
In addition, public coalitions such as The Disclosure Project have brought forth hundreds of high ranking government, military and intelligence officials and insiders who have confessed to knowledge of government involvement with UFO's and ET technology, and the cover ups and secrecy surrounding them.See videos of their testimonies at press conferences here:
Ghosts and Spirits: The same goes with ghosts. There are many credible witnesses who have seen ghosts and experienced unexplainable things taking place in haunted houses, such as sudden apparitions, the feeling of an unseen presence, unnatural movement of objects, frequent displacement of things around the house, sounds, voices, etc. Paranormal investigators have even used geiger counters that detected electrical activity in a haunted area. Plus, there are also countless stories of hauntings in all around the world from the mundane to the incredible and uncanny.
Although these claims are largely anecdotal, we must understand that while anecdotal evidence is not completely reliable, it is not completely unreliable either and is considered to be evidence in societal functions depending on various factors. (See Argument # 5 regarding the validity of anecdotal evidence) In addition, the amount of anecdotal evidence is also relevant because the higher the number and the more credible the witnesses, the stronger the evidence.
However, die hard skeptics will not consider anecdotal evidence to be valid evidence regardless of the amount. To them, credible evidence has to be measurable in some conventional way and reproduced at our beck and call. The problem with this is that what we can measure is limited to our level of technology. For instance, before we had the technology to measure seismic-activity in the Earth’s crust, they still existed even though they couldn’t yet be measured.
Furthermore, since we can’t see radio waves, electromagnetism, air, gravity, magnetic force, etc. but they exist anyway, it is logical to assume that there are other things that could exist but aren’t yet measurable. Our technology may not be up to the level to measure other things that could be there. Or it may be that our technology can only detect things of the physical plane and not the spiritual plane. Looking for physical evidence of something spiritual is like looking for evidence in the ocean for the existence of Mars rather than looking for it in space.
ESP (Extra Sensory Perception) and Telepathy: This is also especially true for ESP and telepathy. Since the 1930’s, starting with JB Rhine, experiments under controlled conditions have been done that revealed consistent well above chance results, which strongly point to the conclusion that ESP and telepathy exist at least to a small degree. These experiments, particularly the Ganzfeld and Autoganzfeld Experiments done from 1974 to 1997, were repeatable too, with 2,549 sessions showing above average results. (See Argument # 17) And PEAR has produced above chance results in telekinesis for nearly three decades. (See Dean Radin’s website which outlines these)
The problem is that not all scientists and researchers are able to produce the same results. Skeptics usually point to the failures of psi experiments and ignore the successes. They will accept the failed psi experiments as evidence against psi, but not the successful psi experiments as evidence for psi. This is an obvious double standard, which is typical of closed-minded skeptics. They will continually raise the bar on evidence until you can’t satisfy it, even demanding a 100 percent success rate! (Nothing is 100 percent, but even if you could get a 100 percent success rate, they would move the goal posts and charged fraud)
Of course, not all skeptics are that closed-minded, but this gives you an idea of the mentality of closed-minded skeptics. I’m not saying that we should only pay attention to the successes and ignore the failures either, but that we should take them both into account, and when we do so, there is in fact strong consistent evidence that psi exists, both from scientific experiments and overwhelming anecdotal evidence (as studies show most of the world has experienced ESP). It is possible of course, that some scientists skew the psi results because they are eager to find evidence for psi, but why do skeptics automatically assume that it must be that? Obviously it’s because of their preconceived beliefs (which they will not admit). If ESP and telepathy exist, it doesn't mean that it has to be controllable at our beck and call like some raw energy. We've only begun to scratch the outskirts on the nature of the whole thing anyway.
Besides experiments, countless accounts of psychic experiences abound, both documented and undocumented. In fact, studies show that about 2/3 of Americans claim to have had psychic experiences, making them quite common rather than “extraordinary”. For instance:
“In their biennial report on the state of science understanding released in April 2002, the National Science Foundation found that 60 percent of adults in the United States agreed or strongly agreed that some people possess psychic powers or extrasensory perception (ESP). In June 2002, the Consumer Analysis Group conducted the most extensive survey ever done in the United Kingdom and revealed that 67 percent of adults believed in psychic powers. Report author Jan Walsh, commenting on the statistics that found that two out of three surveyed believed in an afterlife, said that as far as the British public was concerned, "the supernatural world isn't so paranormal after all."”
The most common type of psychic experience is telepathy, such as when loved ones and close friends from vast distances apart know at the exact time when something traumatic happened to the other. Sometimes, every detail of the traumatic event is observed or felt from afar. They are extremely powerful personal proof. I've had a few of these kind myself. Often, what was suddenly felt out of nowhere about what happened to the loved one is later verified to be true, occurring at exactly the time it was dreamt or felt. This suggests some subconscious telepathic link between people who are close. Experiences of this kind are in fact very common.
Skeptics of course say that these kind of things are nothing but pure coincidence, but this is unsubstantiated and a rush to judgment. They just don’t realize that just because something happens that they can’t understand doesn’t mean that it MUST be coincidence or chance. In the same manner, if someone spoke Spanish and I didn’t, that doesn’t mean that the person speaking Spanish is speaking random gibberish. If someone living in a tribe in Africa saw me turning channels with my remote and didn’t understand how remote controls work, that doesn’t mean that my pushing buttons on the remote and the channels changing are just a coincidence!
Mystical Experiences: And what about mystical experiences, spiritual enlightenment, being "born again", Near Death Experiences and Out of Body Experiences? These can also be said by those who experience them to be extraordinary evidence as well, because they are often self-authenticating and life changing in themselves. As the 1994 New Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia states under Mysticism:
“Mysticism in general refers to a direct and immediate experience of the sacred, or the knowledge derived from such an experience… First, the experience is immediate and overwhelming, divorced from the common experience of reality. Second, the experience or the knowledge imparted by it is felt to be self-authenticating, without need of further evidence or justification. Finally, it is held to be ineffable, its essence incapable of being expressed or understood outside the experience itself… the experience itself is always of an Absolute that transcends the human efforts or methods of achieving it. (New Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia 1994)”
Experiencers will describe these experiences not as faith-based, but an “inner knowing.” The fact that these type of experiences are dramatically life changing makes them “extraordinary evidence” themselves simply because ordinary experiences don't alter people's lives in this way. To say that these self-authenticating, life changing experiences are just pure imagination is closed-minded to say the least. As Faith, a practitioner of Shakti Gaivism and one who has had all-pervasive cosmic transcendental experiences of God in Unity state, constantly reminds us on my email group:
“But remember .. there is "Belief" a chosen activity of mind… and there is an actual Knowing… via direct experience. They are 2 differnt things. I never could accept chosen Belief.. THAT is why I was an Agnostic.
I like the example of the person working in an inner office with no windows. A co-worker could come in and tell them it is raining out. IF they accept That as truth… it is ONLY a chosen belief. But.. If they were to go outside themselves and stand in the driving rain and get soaking wet… then that is no longer a chosen belief… that would qualify as an actual Knowing.. by Direct experience.
Your Mind is Limited… but "YOU" are far greater than your mind… you are ALL that is….. you just cannot see it yet. Mind keeps you contracted…. but You can go beyond individual mind and tap the All Knowing. The only way you can KNOW this… is by experiencing it. I am not talking about "Belief" here… but direct experience. IF you were to accept what I say here…. THAT would be a Belief…. No Good in my book or yours either I am sure. So… I will NOT be disappointed if you do not ACCEPT what I say…. on the other hand….. You cannot really know that what I say is really illogical babble either…… I think the fairest thing to do is… stay open to the possibilities…. That there are things beyond the scope of Science, things that your current logic based min has not been exposed to…. but that are none the less Possible.” – Faith
“Extraordinary evidence” is subject to perspective because those who have firsthand direct experience of the phenomena already have their “extraordinary evidence” while others who haven’t, don’t. For instance, those who have had full blown OBE’s already have a realization and knowing that separation of body and spirit can and has taken place, and that there is life after death, especially if they are able to witness specific details at a distance which are later verified as accurate. For them the experience is as apparent as it would be apparent to you whether you were in your own car or house. Similarly, those with transcendent mystical experiences describe it as an “inner knowing” that transcends all description and removes all doubt. In the same fashion, those who have seen Bigfoot or ghosts firsthand at close point-blank-range also have their “extraordinary evidence.”