Monday, March 16, 2015

How do Intelligent Design Creationists interpret "extraordinary evidence"?

Marcello Truzzi was one of the founding members of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). Back in 1978 he said, "An extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof." Carl Sagan popularized this idea as "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

The basic idea has been around for centuries.

We often use this saying when we encounter gullible creationists making extraordinary claims. For example, a few weeks ago Vincent Torley claimed that back in the 1600s a monk named St. Cupertino was routinely seen to fly through the air on numerous occasions [see What counts as "evidence"?].

Vincent Torley has returned to the topic in a recent post on Uncommon Descent: Good and bad skepticism: Carl Sagan on extraordinary claims.
If my friend Tom tells me that he saw a UFO land in his backyard last night, then I would naturally suspect that he was pulling my leg. But if several members of his family, as well as some friends of his whom I knew to be fine and upstanding people, swore on a stack of Bibles that they had seen the same thing, then I would have to believe that they weren’t lying, and that their claim was a genuine one. I would be irrationally obstinate, if I didn’t accept this fact at the outset of my investigation. The standard of evidence that would need to be satisfied here is what lawyers refer to as proof beyond reasonable doubt.
That's a pretty good example. Most of us will strongly suspect that the claim is false and a UFO did not land in the backyard.

Let's see how Vincent Torley deals with the extraordinary claim ...
I would then proceed to consider naturalistic explanations for the sighting. The first question I’d need to answer is whether it had a subjective or an objective explanation. Could the witnesses have been hallucinating? If I were able to rule out known possible causes of mass hallucinations, such as alcohol, drugs or mass hysteria, I’d have to move on to the next question, which is whether the witnesses had experienced an optical illusion of some sort – perhaps caused by poor lighting, or freak atmospheric phenomena known to cause mirages. Physical traces left in the backyard after the sighting (e.g. burn marks on the ground) would rule out the possibility of an illusion or mirage. The third question I’d ask is whether any known physical phenomenon could account for the sighting – perhaps ball lightning, or a meteorite, for instance. But if witnesses’ accounts of the object’s appearance or pattern of descent proved incompatible with these phenomena, then I’d have to reject a physical explanation and look for an artifactual one. The fourth question I’d have to consider is whether any man-made artifact could explain the sighting – perhaps a child’s radio-controlled toy UFO, or some falling debris from a plane or satellite flying overhead, or for that matter, a top-secret military aircraft. It would be difficult to rule out all of these hypotheses, but I can certainly think of evidence that would convince me that the object seen was extra-terrestrial in origin: traces on the ground of elements not naturally found on Earth, or a star-map left behind by the visitors which contained detailed information, unknown to our astronomers. This would indeed be extraordinary evidence, and in order to satisfy myself that it was satisfactory evidence, I’d have to establish that the probability of such evidence having a human or natural source was vanishingly low.
That sounds reasonable to me. When it comes to extraordinary claims, you need to come up with extraordinary evidence.

Here's where it gets complicated. Apparently it's okay to be skeptical about the claims of a small number of people in a specific instance. Different rules apply when there are a large number of so-called witnesses and there are several instances of a miracle.
A similar failure of logic can be seen in biochemist Larry Moran’s dismissive comments regarding the massive amount of documentary evidence that thousands of people in the seventeenth century claimed to have witnessed a man levitating above the ground, often for hours, and on thousands of different occasions. Moran asks: "is it more reasonable to assume that thousands of people saw St. Cupertio fly or is it more reasonable to assume that they all just imagined it, or that the second-hand reports are untrue? (italics mine – VJT)" As I showed here and here, there are thirteen volumes of of eyewitness reports. Moran is happy to suppose that these may have been forged, rather than believing in a miracle. But here, he is confusing the question of whether people claimed to have seen a man levitate with the question of whether the man they claimed to have seen levitate actually did. As we have seen, a very high degree of skepticism is warranted only with regard to the second question. Proof beyond reasonable doubt suffices for the first.
Extraordinary!!!


25 comments :

  1. I think it is important to remember we are talking about a town called Cupertino. People just don't seem to be objective in regard to news from towns named that. Even today, when the news from another Cupertino is of a computer or phone with relatively unimpressive stats, people seem to think a miracle has occurred and get up early to go to a local shrine of Apple to wait in line to behold the relics.

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  2. I see evolutionary concepts as extraordinar claims for biological origins.
    Its very unlikely as even a possibility.
    so it demands great heaps of evidence.
    Yet I never find biological scientific evidence backing up evolution
    Instead its lots of lines of reasoning from raw data and "evidence' from seconary subjects.
    Something that is not true couldn't possibly have excellent evidence backing it up.

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  3. But here, he is confusing the question of whether people claimed to have seen a man levitate with the question of whether the man they claimed to have seen levitate actually did. As we have seen, a very high degree of skepticism is warranted only with regard to the second question. Proof beyond reasonable doubt suffices for the first.

    Am I missing something here? He seems to be suggesting that it is a "miracle" for large numbers of people to have claimed so have sen someone levitate, whether or not he actually did levitate. Surely a trained philosopher would not make a claim like that.

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  4. BTW, this comic from xkcd is highly pertinent. Though he doesn't mention "miracles", I think it could be included:

    http://xkcd.com/1235/

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  5. Larry: may I suggest you start referring to him not as "Vincent Torley" or "Vincent Torley, philosopher" or "Vincent Torley, creationist", but as "Vincent Torley, the man who believes St Cupertino could fly".

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  6. Unless thousands of witnesses wrote personal accounts or signed notarized statements, what we know is that there are claims that thousands of people witnessed the event(s).

    In the case of levitation, we know that levitation has for centuries been a common bit of stage magic.One of the characteristics of stage magic is that it depends on people forming false memories of what actually happened.

    Anyone who follows police investigations -- real or fictional -- knows that eyewitness are the pits.

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    1. Millions of people witnessed David Copperfield causing the Statue of Liberty to disappear. So I guess it really happened,.

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    2. Millions, possibly hundreds of millions, have seen Indian mystics levitate. Happens all the time. I wonder how Torley rationalises this.

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    3. @DAK: I imagine this is exactly why Torley thinks levitation stories are believable. Indian mystics levitate, Christian saints levitate, everyone levitates. Why would anyone think of denying such a commonplace occurrence? Next you'll be denying that Jesus likes to appear in pita breads.

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  7. no mr vincent tooley, i will not believe any nonsense claim in the past about 1) ufos , 2) levitations or 3) god men. Its too great a claim to accept on faith. I have to see it to believe it. Call me doubting thomas.. Except in this real life story, jesus never shoes up to give the convincing evidence to me so i can believe .

    All gods are man made and deliver nothing but placebo's.

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  8. Unless thousands of witnesses wrote personal accounts or signed notarized statements, what we know is that there are claims that thousands of people witnessed the event(s).

    I believe (I know for a fact) that many people have reported Sasquatch sightings (often multiple people at once), but this doesn't mean that I believe Sasquatch exists.

    But as Petrushka says above, one has to be skeptical of the supposed large numbers of witnesses in the first place.

    I grew up in the 1970s where at every grocery store checkout lane there was a World Weekly News or National Enquirer newspaper touting something about UFOs, sasquatch, or the Loch Ness Monster. Just how many unique and supposed sasquatch sightings have there been anyway? Probably not that many. But circa 1976, Weekly World News convinced me as a ten year old that there were hundreds of sightings every year.

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    1. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a personal friend of Harry Houdini. He was so convinced that Houdini's magic was real that re refused to believe Houdini's own disclaimers.

      (And, as everyone knows, Sir Arthur was completely duped by two little girls in the Cottingley Fairies affair.)

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  9. It is interesting to see that you now blog on extraordinary evidence (EE), while I raised the topic yesterday in the context of Darwinian theory. A theory that claims that all life is accidential, the result of accumulated genetic noise, is rather unconvinidng when not supported by extraordinary evidence. The adaptive phenotypes we observe and for which we understand the genetics do certainly not qualify as EE.

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    1. Does life exist? Yes.

      Is there any evidence for the existence of "the supernatural"? No.

      That's all the evidence needed to support the position that life arose thru natural processes.

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    2. Perhaps Peer should take a look at the baloney detection kit.

      With focus on 5:
      "Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours. It’s only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don’t, others will."

      and 7:
      "If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) — not just most of them."

      You need to deliver proof and evidence for frontloading. Finished that grant proposal yet?

      And lets not forget 9, you need to supply proof and evidence which can be falsified.

      "Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified. Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much. Consider the grand idea that our Universe and everything in it is just an elementary particle — an electron, say — in a much bigger Cosmos. But if we can never acquire information from outside our Universe, is not the idea incapable of disproof? You must be able to check assertions out. Inveterate skeptics must be given the chance to follow your reasoning, to duplicate your experiments and see if they get the same result."

      Using 9 alone disqualifies frontloading, there's no evidence for a supernatural being, nor is there any evidence in favor of frontloading. You haven't supplied the evidence in FAVOR of frontloading.

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  10. Ed, this accounts for all defenders of hopeless Darwinian theses.

    Most of them have Darwinism/selectionism as excuse for an atheistic world view.

    Let's pay a bit of attention to 9.

    How do I falsify a theory that claims all shared characteristics proof common descent and all unique features proof modifcations.

    How do I falsifiy a theory that explains novelties by positive selection and if not by negative selection.

    This is not science, Ed. And you know it.

    Even a boneless chicken fits.

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    1. While it would be fun deconstructing and thus showing how deeply ignorant your comment is, it's better to just point out that instead of offering the evidence for your own claims, you rather deviate attention from your inadequacy by painting cartoons about evolution. If your stance had merit, it would be easy for you to just show it so, and let evolution die a good death all by the evidence for your stance. But you have nothing except your over-inflated ego, mixed with ignorance and stupidity. Empty claims with no substance.

      I am sorry Peer, but your self-image won't transpire onto us. We won't start adoring you for your amazing intellect, because such an intellect is just not there. It's an illusion Peer. It's your own self-deception. In reality you're just an imbecile with delusions of grandeur.

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    2. Peer, are you actually going to present data in favor of frontloading? Because up to now, you've presented nothing, nada, noppes.

      Can the theory of evolution be falsified? Yes, and it's withstood over 150 years of rigorous scientific scrutiny, including the past 30 years when molecular DNA techniques really lifted off.

      Can frontloading be falsified? Can it explain the cambrium explosion? Can frontloading explain forensic DNA typing? Can it explain rudimentary organs, like the pelvis in whales? Can it explain why simple organisms (for example lungfish) have tonnes more coding DNA comparerd to humans? Can frontloading explain non-coding DNA? Can frontloading explain why children are born with large pieces of DNA missing, without any physical of mental disabilities, except perhaps extremely high IQ's?

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    3. The only "excuse" needed for an "atheistic worldview" is the complete and utter failure of a rational, evidence-based case for the existence of any gods.

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  11. Photo, if an original contribution would make a spark in the dark your contribution just switched of the light.

    Let me repeat: How do I falsify a theory that claims all shared characteristics proof common descent and all unique features proof modifcations.

    How do I falsifiy a theory that explains novelties by positive selection and if not by negative selection.

    And let me add: How do you falsify a theory where common traits can be proof for common desccent as well as for convergence, homoplasy.

    Evolutionary science explains it all and that's why it is not science. Infalsifiable non-science (pronounce: non-sense)

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    1. In other words, since there's no defence for your claims about front loading, you shall insist on a cartoon about evolution.

      OK, having established that you have nothing for your position, let's examine your stupidity, lack of self-awareness, and astounding ignorance of science. Maybe that'll teach you something (if you have any intelligence left).

      Photo, if an original contribution would make a spark in the dark your contribution just switched of the light.

      Take a look in the mirror Peer. Your displays of ignorance are far from being any sparks in the dark.

      Let me repeat: How do I falsify a theory that claims all shared characteristics proof common descent and all unique features proof modifcations.

      How come you think that repeating some claims I already called imbecilic would make your status improve at all in the eyes of any thinking reader? Are you appealing to some audience, equality imbecilic as yourself?

      Which theory is that? Because it certainly is not evolutionary theory.

      As for myself, I would ask what this theory is about more properly, because just claiming such and such does not tell me what this theory is about. Is it about some process? About a set of processes? About some observations? What's there besides these supposed claims? What's the context?

      How do I falsifiy a theory that explains novelties by positive selection and if not by negative selection.

      That's not enough information. Are these oncepts that make/help understand that theory instead of just claims? If so, what's the context? Given the context, what can be asked that should be true if those kinds of selection were the proper explanations for those differences/non-differences? Would there be a comparison of just two things? Many things? What's desirable about those samples in order to test these claims?

      And let me add: How do you falsify a theory where common traits can be proof for common desccent as well as for convergence, homoplasy.

      Again, is that all there is for your imaginary theory? What's the context? Given that context what should be true for cases of homoplasy and what should be true for cases of homology? How many samples would be needed to test for those things? What kinds of samples?

      Evolutionary science explains it all and that's why it is not science. Infalsifiable non-science (pronounce: non-sense)

      Ah! So you think that the theory of evolution is just a bunch of claims then! OK then try and understand what the theory is actually about. You have to actually check what each feature means given the context and the overall picture. Claiming that it could go either way shows you to be both lazy and an imbecile, since, given your laziness to figure things out, you still present your straw-men fully convinced that you had no need for checking anything before writing.

      Now, pay attention: what would happen to front-loading if you applied half the skepticism, and straw-manism, to it as you apply to evolutionary theory? How much would your pet idea survive without any data and context? Try and be honest Peer. If not with me, with yourself. I bet you would be far from proposing front-loading if you were a tad consistent about the way you go about understanding anything.

      Since you have a lot of homework to do. I don't expect any answers soon. Of course, I'm assuming that you have self-respect. Too contradictory an assumption since you think that lazily presenting a few concepts naked from context is enough to claim that evolutionary theory is unfalsifiable. We'll see.

      Just remember, arrogance and imbecility don't mix well. You should renounce at least one.

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    2. Peer: "How do I falsify a theory that claims all shared characteristics proof common descent and all unique features proof modifcations. "

      Evolutionary theory claims no such thing, so it's irrelevant. The hypothesis you describe was invented by creationists because they could not falisfy real evolutionary theory.

      As for falsifying the real thing, please go off to read Douglas Theobald's "29+ Evidences for Macroevolution" at TalkOrigins. He explains falsification very carefully.

      Don't repeat this claim unless and until you can at least summarize (let's say) 3 of the methods Theobald describes for falsifying macroevolution. We don't care if you agree with them or not-- you must at least be able to summarize them. If you can't do that, you're just an ignorant troll who learned all his "science" from creationist websites, like 10,000 other guys.

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  12. If "my friend Tom" and "several members of his family, as well as some friends of his whom I knew to be fine and upstanding people" all swore they'd seen a UFO land, I'd think they'd all gotten together to pull my leg as a prank. Wouldn't any sane person? But Torley wouldn't.

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  13. You've just provided me with a moment of supreme irony.

    I actually used the question "would you accept assertions from me, that I can fly like Superman?" as a means of dismissing evidence-free supernaturalist assertions on several occasions over at Rational Skepticism. Yet here I see someone from the creationist camp, trying to claim that assertions centred upon someone doing this 300 or more years ago somehow magically have to be true, just because a lot of people predisposed to think in supernaturalist terms, and with scant knowledge of basic physics, said they saw this happen.

    I have much more to say arising from this, but sadly, your blog limits my post size.

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