A couple of weeks ago my ministry hosted an online discussion (voice/text/vid) about the merits of the skeptical mantra, “Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence.”
One of my objections is right to the point: any notion of what makes something ‘extraordinary’ is hopelessly subjective. I for one find it deliciously ironic that our hyper-rationalistic scientific minded atheist friends so easily adopt such a weak standard for evaluating claims. To measure the temperature of water, we’d use a thermometer. For air pressure, a barometer. These are scientific tools used by scientific minds; I’ve never seen an instrument that can measure extraordinariness.
There is a corollary to this objection that I have recently seen illustrated. The corollary is this: if one applies a higher standard of inquiry against claims that they might deem extraordinary, then claims they find to be ordinary will ordinarily be accepted- without demonstration at all. Here again we see skepticism turned on its head: the skeptic is not skeptical about the things he is prepared already to believe. It is only the things he deems unlikely that he is skeptical about- God alone knows how the skeptic determined something was ‘unlikely.’
It is a fact of human nature, I think, to quickly accept things that one is already prepared to accept. If I am told tomorrow that some Democrat in high office has failed to pay his taxes- again- I will pretty much accept it as a fact because I have become accustomed to Democrats doing such things (eg here, here, here, and here). We should expect nothing less from the people who believe that we should all pay higher taxes; by ‘we all’ it is known they mean us all. I am prepared to believe it as a pretty ordinary claim in the realm of things and therefore will demand very little evidence to support it. So you see, I am not exempting myself from this human tendency.
The problem is that this preparedness opens us all up to be exploited and taken advantage of. A true skeptic- and I am closer to such than any so-called skeptic I have ever met- tests every claim according to reasonable, consistent standards of examination before accepting it as provisionally true. By ‘reasonable’ I mean standards that are not ad hoc, capricious, and arbitrary, ie, labeling certain claims as ‘religious’ and turning the screws on them while being perfectly content to convict a man for murder and sentence him to death based on nothing more than a tiny piece of hair found on the murder weapon that matches that man’s DNA.
So earlier this week on Facebook I saw exactly the sort of outcome that can be expected when one hears a claim that one is prepared to immediately accept as true. The headline of the news article: Conservative Pie: Republicans Introduce Legislation Redefining Pi as Exactly 3. What morons! The Facebook friend says, paraphrased, “Not content with screwing up political matters, congress is screwing up math. This isn’t disturbing at all. Our kids aren’t going to get smarter if you dumb things down.”
This was followed with an apology by someone else for the state of Alabama for producing the legislator who produced the legislation.
I thought it was worth pointing out what was already quite clear: this article was on the Huffington Post’s humor page.
His reply? Paraphrased, “Given the record of congressional Republicans in some kinds of issues, such things aren’t all that unbelievable.”
And there you have it. He was prepared to believe it before he heard it so when he heard it he believed it immediately and uncritically. Ordinary claims are accepted uncritically, while extraordinary claims are held to hilariously high standards.
I discovered my facebook friend was not alone. Here are five websites that I found of people who re-printed the original article and apparently believed it was representing a true news account. (There are certainly more. This was a quick search. It is clear from the comments on the original article itself that people were fooled) Here, Here, Here, Here, Here. You can look for more examples of you own, here. There seem to be a lot of people who quoted this verbatim, but I have a life.
This one is a classic, because it is now deleted, after the Democrat admitted that they accepted it immediately. Oops. That’s called transparency.
Now, I know that this entry has been constructed with political undertones to it. The irony of the fact that the enlightened liberal secular humanist skeptical atheists who think the rest of us are bumpkins are the ones that so readily gulped this up hasn’t escaped my notice. But it wasn’t really the purpose to take a jab at Democrats. The incident illustrated what I was referring to in my objection, and it isn’t my fault that the incident happened to be a faux news article that took aim at Republicans. I have to work with what I’ve got, you see.
So we return to that point, now. All claims require demonstration. They will all be demonstrated in the same ways. That is, in real life they will be. Special standards of demonstration actually create a blind spot in one’s intellect, creating an area where one is less skeptical the moment they create an area where they are more skeptical.
I would submit that each and every one of us has a duty to the truth and the facts and we should be prepared to scrutinize our own most cherished beliefs with the same level of scrutiny we apply to the ones we are suspicious about. I won’t deny that practically speaking we must erect filters to help us make judgments as we wind our way through life, and that these filters are constructed with our past experiences in mind. This is a fact- yet, if we are honest, we will admit that these filters cannot be given our full trust. They can let us down. Indeed, they often do. For this reason, we must constantly be on our guard- not against the manipulators and exploiters (alone)- but against our own prejudices and preferences and desires about the world.