Is the Sagan Standard Misused?

Author: Jeff_Goldblum ,

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  • Jeff_Goldblum
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    The Sagan Standard: "Extraordinary Claims require Extraordinary Evidence"

    I often hear atheists on the internet use this line, seemingly to raise the evidence requirements for theistic claims. But something about this sits wrong with me. Shouldn't all claims be evaluated equally (i.e. on their evidential merits)? If someone wants to claim God exists, what makes that claim Extraordinary, compared to claiming the Big Bang happened? Why can't we approach them both as claims, and decide if we accept the claim based on its merit?

    I found this article abstract that argues "Extraordinary Claims" should be precisely defined as a claim that is contradicted by a wealth of factual observations. The author defines "Extraordinary Evidence" as a massive number of supporting observations.

    Under these definitions, claiming God exists would not be an Extraordinary claim, would it? After all, an invisible metaphysical entity cannot be disproven. To be clear, I'm not some crank trying to justify their god belief by saying the Sagan Standard is misused. I'm just a skeptic.

    What do you think?
  • Jeff_Goldblum
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    --> @oromagi
    I hope you don't mind me tagging you out of the blue. I noticed in your "Bigfoots are Bullshit" description, you seemed to invoke the Sagan Standard. I was wondering if you care to comment on the ideas presented here?
  • Stronn
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    --> @Jeff_Goldblum
    The reason for differing levels of evidence is that claims differ in their implications to our worldviews. If you tell me that you have a penny in your pocket, I would accept that as true on minimal evidence--perhaps even your say so. Doing so in no way requires a change in my worldview. But if you claim that aliens abducted you, then believing that requires a fundamental change in my worldview..

    If someone wants to claim God exists, what makes that claim Extraordinary, compared to claiming the Big Bang happened? Why can't we approach them both as claims, and decide if we accept the claim based on its merit?
    Scientists do treat both claims the same. The Big Bang is an extraordinary claim. The difference is that there is extraordinary evidence for the Big Bang. There is no such evidence for any theistic claim.

    I found this article abstract that argues "Extraordinary Claims" should be precisely defined as a claim that is contradicted by a wealth of factual observations. The author defines "Extraordinary Evidence" as a massive number of supporting observations.
    I wouldn't define extraordinary claims that way. Rather, I would say a claim is extraordinary to the extent that it affects one's worldview.
  • Jeff_Goldblum
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    --> @Stronn
    I really appreciate your reply - I had given up hope on being able to discuss this with anybody.

    I can see the reasonableness of your definition of Extraordinary Claims, and I can see how it would be useful for you (or anyone) when approaching claims that have paradigm-shifting implications.

    I guess the only question I have is, are you ok with the fact that one person may consider claim X Extraordinary while another person, who holds a different worldview, may consider claim X non-Extraordinary? Does the subjective nature of Extraordinary reduce its usefulness?
  • Stronn
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    --> @Jeff_Goldblum
    I would have to see an example.There may be some grey area between extraordinary and non-extraordinary. Or rather, some extraordinary claims are more extraordinary than others. But I think you will find that most people would agree on what constitutes extraordinary. Most theists would admit that the existence of God is an extraordinary claim, even though they believe it and incorporate it into their worldview.
  • oromagi
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    --> @Jeff_Goldblum
    I disagree with the statement that all claims require the same degree of evidence.

    If you walked in the door and said that while driving home you saw a bicyclist on the side of the road, I would accept that information prima facie- not because you provided any evidence but because I often see bicyclists while driving.  I find your claim ordinary and consistent with my experience so I don't really want or need evidence to back your claim.

    If you walked in the door and said that while driving home you saw a bear on the side of the road, I might accept that information but with a grain of salt.  I have seen bears on the side of the road although I also know that such incidents are rarer than bicyclists.  My skeptical side might well consider whether the time of day or time of year was consistent with the claim.  I might also consider whether you had reason to invent or misperceive the sighting.

    If you walked in the door and said that while driving home you saw a bear riding a bicycle, I would greet the claim with considerable skepticism.  I have seen bears ride bicycles in circus acts so I suppose it is not impossible but my experience of bears tells me that no bear would bicycle under its own initiative or indeed outside of certain cruel and well rehearsed circumstances, the side of the road not qualifying.  I would require some solid proof of your claim even knowing the claim was possible- witnessing the biking bear myself or perhaps seeing it on the news.  I would probably even doubt some ordinarily very good pieces of evidence such as pictures or second witnesses without at least one piece of extraordinary evidence.

    If you walked in the door and said that while driving home you saw bigfoot riding a bicycle, I would refuse to believe you. Even if I witnessed the event myself or saw it on the news I would not accept it as fact without considerable testing.  Given what I know about the strong evidence refuting bigfoot, I would need some well documented capture of a live or dead bigfoot, repeatable DNA testing, authoritative zoological confirmation and probably a few months of digesting and revisiting the event before I actually believed you.

    The Sagan standard is more than just a standard- it is the common sense human reaction to and evaluation of claims that are unfamiliar to or inconsistent with prior experience and information.

    If you are suggesting that I should accept your claims of bigfoot riding a bicycle with the same aplomb as your claim of a human riding a bicycle, I would say that your judgement is impaired.
  • Jeff_Goldblum
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    --> @oromagi
    Would you agree to the following definition of Extraordinary Claim? "Any claim that seemingly contradicts a great number of facts."

    It seems like your escalating bears on the side of the road examples implicitly fit within this definition. In each case, your incredulity rises as the hypothetical claims increasingly fly in the face of what we know about bears in the wild.