Here is the current paradox that troubles me…
“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” This is a foundational tenant of skepticism. At that same time last fall, supposed skeptics and free thinkers were asking me to believe claims of sexual misconduct against various politicians and celebrities.
I am not advocating inappropriate sexual conduct. And of course I agree that the gamut of this behavior, from institutionalized sexual harassment to overt rape, is criminal, and should be punished.
Here’s the problem: these are extraordinary claims.
We demand the Sagan Standard of science and belief. We test and analyze claims to verify their validity.
When is it reasonable to believe claims that are offered without evidence? When should we demand evidence? Is it valid to accept claims without evidence when we are all in agreement? When we all want to believe? When it seems these claims are valid? And how does this differ from believing religious experience?
A big portion of this issue: is it really a form of evidence that many people are making the same claim? “39 women have come forth to say that Celeb Celebrison fondled them or sexually harassed them.” In what circumstance would claims like this be dismissed? When 39 people claim to know that a spaceship is hiding behind a comet and will take them to heaven? When 39 people claim to have witnesses a dead human come back to life? That’s a functional fallacy called Bandwagon. The religious trot this out all the time.
The most significant difference between dismissing religious claims and dismissing personal claims of assault and/or bullying is that religious delusion has always been logically show to be false, but personal claims of assault have often been shown by evidence to be true.
On the other hand, it is extraordinary to claim or believe that something happened without evidence? “It wasn’t seen by anyone else, I didn’t record it, and there is nothing left of the event to reconstruct it. But I want you to believe it.”
Also, “I won’t believe two billion people making an unverified claim, but I will believe 15 people making an unverified claim.”
Thrown into this mix is the inevitable decay of truth in the presence of politics and the internet.
This is a tough one that’s been going through my head off and on for a while now. And I’m not alone. It’s a very real concern I see and hear expressed all the time. I have friends who I trusted who became furious that I wasn’t eager to jump on one bandwagon or another, but that’s passion, not evidence. How dare I doubt unverified claims? How dare I.
I feel I will be set upon again by my liberal friends for casting doubt on something they believe I should accept, my #metoo friends, my #blacklivesmatter friends. They have done it before. It’s the nature of debate to use the ugliest tools at your disposal to justify your beliefs. For those of you: I am not asking you to step off your bandwagon, and I am not claiming that human cruelty is acceptable. I am asking questions about the nature of critical thinking.