Belief Paradox

Let us, for the moment, compare apples and oranges.
Let us, for the moment, compare apples and oranges.

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.

I feel like I am getting into a sticky mess here. So be it.
I feel like I am getting into a sticky mess here. So be it.


  1. “Here’s the problem: these are extraordinary claims.”

    This is the only part of your entry I find myself disagreeing with. Every other part, I easily nod along to. It makes sense. It stands up. Except for this one part.

    We can stipulate, I think, to one another that “extraordinary” is a somewhat subjective, relative term, and each of us might disagree on what, exactly, constitutes “extraordinary”. So it’s easily possible that we’re seeing the word differently here.

    Are you saying that claims of sexual assault are extraordinary in the same way that claims of, say, biblical literal truth are extraordinary? Because, in my experience, these are two very different kinds of claims.

    One of them, as you know, has never once proven to be true. No one has ever been shown to be, say, raised from the dead after being buried for three days. There is zero evidence that the Earth suddenly ceased its rotation for 24 hours and then got on rotating again (as the Bible claims).

    The other (sexual assault) has, to my knowledge, quite often been shown to be true. Not only is history riddled with rapes and other non-consensual sexual behavior (forced marriages and child marriages come to mind), but day-to-day guilty pleas and convictions and rape kits and public admissions — all point to the fact that this is relatively common, rather than extraordinary behavior.

    As always, I appreciate your thoughts on matters, and I (typically) make an effort to logically work through each issue that comes my way. On this issue, my skepticism doesn’t come into play very strongly simply because the claims do not seem extraordinary to me.

    “I have friends who I trusted who became furious…”

    It’s always upsetting when a friendship turns sour, or when a single issue is enough to put up walls. Here’s hoping those friends will come around at some point.

  2. I did mention this concept in the eight paragraph, “The most significant difference…”

    To me an “extraordinary claim” can be made of a deity or a fly on the wall. The “extraordinary” part of these claims is that there is no 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.”

    More people claiming it doesn’t create evidence.

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