• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence

November 2020

In addressing the shortcomings of the arguments to which the religious give voice, by which, as good proselytizers of their faith, they try with all zeal and sincerity to convince the unconverted, one often hears it said in response by the patient skeptic—to whom their fervent reasoning is posed—that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. This response, of which the empirically-minded makes such devastating good use, upon whose mere utterance, the burden of proof and the onus of explanation very quickly turns, has been articulated in various ways through the course of many years.

When seen in the form as written above, it’s to the great cosmologist, Carl Sagan, that it’s generally attributed. Undoubtedly original though the astronomer was, with an epigrammatic freshness upon which no modern thinker has yet been able to improve, the birth of this line stretches to an earlier date. It can be seen, though somewhat less distinctly, in the famous statement issued by William of Ockham, the dauntless British friar against whom a world of Medieval Platonists and obdurate Academicians fiercely fought. He, as we know, argued in favor of parsimony—a notion with we, a bunch of modern profligates, are entirely unacquainted. The best claims, in his opinion, were those that assumed the least, and he preferred those arguments that indulged the fewest conjectures. Hypotheses, under the treatment of his law, were to be judged not on airy possibilities, but on the concrete facts by which real knowledge is staked to the ground.

Naturally, the refinement and evolution of his idea took place on the island of his birth. Where else, after all, but Britain would so vehement a rejection of superfluity and nonsense be found? Then as now, that industrious nation floating in the North Sea is little known for its sophistry, metaphysics, and jargon. Those, rather, are the dizzying embellishments and dark obscurities of a European continent of which, perhaps now more than ever, she wants no further part. They’re the thoughts produced by an inscrutable land, a home to the likes of Hegel, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, and Kant, into whom we can only pretend to penetrate, from whom she’s happily distanced. British philosophy, on the other hand, reflects its people: practical, honest, approachable, brilliant, and mercifully unadorned.

A few hundred centuries into the future, Ockham’s idea was slightly modified, but, on the whole, enthusiastically embraced by the polymathic Bertrand Russell, a jack of all intellectual trades to whom no field of study (be it mathematics, logic, political philosophy, or theology) was ever deemed foreign. He developed, in an unpublished article for the oddly-named magazine, Illustrated, the idea that came to be known as “Russell’s Teapot”. The eponymous source of this strange mental image, Russell urged readers to picture a cosmic china teapot, imperceptible to the human eye, and evasive of all star-gazing instrumentation, orbiting the sun between Earth and Mars. Having no ability to confirm its presence by sight, and lacking all acuity to perceive the furtive quivers of its distant movement, none would be able to refute an assertion of its existence. It was, in a word, unfalsifiable.

Of course, he who stands upon firm ground, with neck strained toward the sky and eyes squinting at the heavens, isn’t the one upon whom so demanding a detection and so heavy a job should fall. No, the party responsible for proving the teapot’s existence, and for adding to our cosmos this most fragile satellite, and numbering among the constellations this newest porcelain star, is the same by whom the initial assertion was made. The burden of proof rests with him, and him alone. His task, therefore, is a positive one: he must demonstrate that something actually does exists. He must do so convincingly and unequivocally, without asking anything of his friend. It’s not the skeptics job, then, negatively to disprove him, but to consider the evidence presented, and make a judgment based on the facts.

Christopher Hitchens, a similarly versatile thinker and atheistic Brit, had, as we all do, an affinity for the unparalleled Russell. Hitchens, himself a sui generis thinker, was in many ways the latter’s polemical pupil and philosophical friend. Time and again, he and the fellow New-Age Atheists of whom he was the leader made frequent rhetorical use of Russell’s Teapot, which had proven itself surprisingly resilient. Neither the attacks of sublunary churchmen, nor the thunderclaps of celestial dogma, ever fully cracked its shield.

Hitchens, however, felt it necessary to modify Russell and the “Sagan Standard”—which is the name by which the “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” dictum also goes. Omitting the “extraordinariness” of the claim, and thus burdening not only the teapot-believer, but the mundane nonsense-peddler further still, Hitchens stated that, “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence”. The assertion need not be extraordinary, only at risk of failing to gain verification. The empiricist’s position had, until Hitchens, never been expressed with such startling pith.

Whether inclined to the philosophy of empiricism or not, one can’t help but take refuge in these various useful tools—be it the Sagan Standard, or Russell’s Teapot, or the Razor of Ockham or Hitchens—when listening to the Trump legal team’s breathless, and possibly groundless claims of widespread voter fraud. Having listened to the grave pronouncements of such eminent lawyers as Sidney Powell, Lin Wood, and Rudy Giuliani, and having immersed myself in the commentary with which they were received, I’m shocked by the largeness of their accusations and the extraordinariness of their claims.

Powell, having recently argued with unexpected legal acumen and oratorical skill in the defense of General Michael Flynn, tickled our intrigue by announcing that she’d soon release the “kraken”—an awesome image by which every conspiratorial interest was immediately piqued. Those versed in the heroic mythology of the Norse recognized this to be the deadly leviathan of the northern seas, the mythical Scandinavian octopus into whose many-legged grasp, a thousand wayward vessels fell. This tremendous beast, she explained, would prove the connection between the Venezuelan Chavista government, the American C.I.A., and the Democrat Party. Like the limbs of the Kraken, it would make for a tentacular arrangement between the three, an overwhelming jumble from which none could hope to be freed, into which none would dare to look.

Wood and Giuliani contributed similar claims. They accused the electoral process of having been subverted by international fraudulence, tenebrous machinations, and Communist-style deceit. They said, in so many words, that the entire system by which the president is chosen was rigged and, in the case of Wood, that the governor of Georgia ought to go to prison, either for his connivance in permitting these abuses to happen, or his incompetence to detect them at the start.

These are, irrespective of your political fancy, and without concern for the identity of the man for whom your vote was cast, quite extraordinary claims. Do they not demand, then, commensurately large evidence by which they might be confirmed? I should think so. Otherwise, this charge of electoral software infected with Venezuela’s DNA should be treated like Russell’s Teapot. If discernable in the light of day, and evident to the detection of all, we should be allowed to see it. And, what’s more, it’s the responsibility of those claiming its existence categorically to prove it. Thus far, and with little time remaining before the formal certification of state ballots, they’ve not.

Yet we can, in the meanwhile, walk on the edge of our preferred razor—be it that sharpened by Ockham, or that forged by Hitchens. We must incline ourselves to the alternative that assumes the least, toward the scenario to which the fewest number of improbabilities have been added. In so doing, we can dismiss, rather brusquely and without evidence, that which has been asserted to us without evidence. And, as it stands, there simply is no evidence of a Kraken lurking on the surface of the sea, a beast by whom Joe Biden’s election will be swallowed, and Trump’s second term spit forth.

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