In this TAM2013 talk, Russell argues we have the “extraordinary evidence.” That is to say, we have the scientific evidence for the extraordinary claims. What claims? Claims like that the Earth goes around the sun, or that acceleration by gravity is the same for all objects. I enjoyed this talk because it is very easy to forget just how far our civilization has come in a relatively short time. For example, Russell points out that most of the religious people we encounter, even those we argue with about evolution, are still people who generally have a naturalistic worldview. They go to the cardiologist when necessary, not to the chapel.
I have criticized the famous expression popularized if not originated by Carl Sagan, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” My complaint is that the word “extraordinary” has no objective meaning, it is a psychological disposition about a claim, and about evidence that can support it. The possibility of flying metal tubes as a conveyance for people would have been extraordinary to any human living before the 19th century.
Sagan used the terms mostly in the context of UFO claims, for which believers offered insubstantial, inconclusive evidence. In this context, the phrasing is useful and apt. Russell speaks of science here though, and that is where my bone of contention is. Imagine there are two hypotheses on the table, such as when Alfred Wegener proposed his theory of continental drift. This was in competition with the “continents are as old as the earth” hypothesis every geophysicist accepted, but Wegener had better evidence and more of it. His idea, though true, was rejected with extreme prejudice because experts of the day found it extraordinary, and its competing hypothesis more ordinary. But the evidence available at the time clearly fit Wegener’s “extraordinary” claim better. Its novelty should have been irrelevant, but it wasn’t. The same sad science story is told in the tale of Ignaz Semmelweis and the germ theory of disease.
I am not critiquing Russell here, though. His talk is squarely about the sociology of belief, and how we need a proper paradigm to ground ideas in (whether we call any of it extraordinary or ordinary). So it is, we’re very lucky to live in a time when a naturalistic worldview is ubiquitous. It wasn’t always.
The Hellfire Club
Russell Blackford’s blog here on Skeptic Ink