Dr Johnson: Extraordinary Claims and Extraordinary Evidence

In the 8/12/12 Stand to Reason podcast (start at 1:06:00), Greg Koukl discusses the popular aphorism, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” He doesn’t care for it, probably because he wants to lower the bar of evidence for his own remarkable claims about Jesus.

He proposes instead, “Extraordinary claims require adequate evidence.” As an example, he cites the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969. “A man has walked on the moon” is an extraordinary claim (or certainly was in the 1960s), but he notes that we were satisfied with the evidence of “a simple newsreel” (by which I presume he means the live video feed from the moon).

That video alone, as powerful as it was, might not have been enough to support the enormous claim of the moon landing, but of course we had far more than just that. We had public statements from NASA, the press, and the president; we had public launches of ever more enormous rockets from Cape Kennedy through the 1960s; we had thousands of workers within the aerospace industry who were in a position to blow the whistle on a hoax; we had satellites visible from the back yard of the ordinary citizens; and we even had the validation from the USSR—if we hadn’t landed on the moon, they would have delighted to point out the lie.

Was Koukl’s “simple newsreel” extraordinary evidence? In pre-Photoshop days, I think so. Add all the peripheral evidence backing up the claim, and you have evidence that, by any measure, was extraordinary. Koukl’s attempt to downplay the necessary evidence for an extraordinary claim fails. It’s a weak and disappointing attempt to shirk his burden of proof for the supernatural elements of Christianity, presumably because he knows that that burden, rightly evaluated, is gigantic.

One aspect of an extraordinary claim is its importance. “Extraordinary” means both “surprising and unexpected” as well as “important.” The Guinness Book of World Records has many entries for extraordinary in the first sense but very few in the second. The gospel claims are both unexpected and important, so they’re extraordinary by any measure.

Back to Koukl:

Use of this slogan functions to stack the deck against the … religious person making the claim because when you buy that equation it turns out that there’s almost no evidence that is going to be extraordinary enough to substantiate the extraordinary claim (1:09:40).

Yes, there’s almost no evidence documenting events 2000 years ago that can substantiate the extraordinary claim, “Jesus rose from the dead.” No, that’s not stacking the deck. That’s the same skepticism you apply to other nutty claims, whether it’s that Mohammed rode to heaven on a winged horse or that someone can sell you the Brooklyn Bridge, cheap. There simply isn’t enough evidence to support the gospel’s enormous claims, so there is no reason to accept them.

That’s the easy resolution to this difficulty—if there’s not enough evidence, don’t accept the claims.

Koukl admits that “people don’t rise from the dead very often” but then goes on to say that the gospel story isn’t a resurrection claim all by itself but that this is woven into a narrative that says that a man was dead and then people saw him alive again, and before his death the man predicted all this. Given that this is the evidence, “Well, that would change things, wouldn’t it?”

Not in the least. The facts we have at hand are that there is a story that talks about this. It’s not a fact that people saw Jesus risen from the dead, it’s just a story (perhaps more precisely: a legend). It’s in the same bin as the stories of Merlin or Prester John or Caesar Augustus, each of which has supernatural elements. I’ve written more about how the gospels weren’t written by eyewitnesses (“Is Mark an Eyewitness Account?“).

Koukl says that what is an “extraordinary claim” is subjective and depends on the person. Okay—but is Koukl saying that the claims of Scientology aren’t extraordinary to the Scientologists, so they are entitled to believe in their religion because they have a different worldview? And would this also be true for Mormons or anti-vaxers or flat earthers or those who believe in fairies? This seems to be evidential relativism of a sort that I can’t imagine Koukl supports.

Koukl is playing Whac-A-Mole, and by shoring up one problematic issue in his apologetics he forces another to emerge.

Everyone is entitled to their own opinions,
but they are not entitled to their own facts
— Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan

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  • Richard S. Russell

    Greg Koukl, Ray Comfort, Kirk Cameron, and similar vacuum-skulls are perfect illustrations of the fundamental dichotomy involved:
    Rationalists say: “I believe it because it’s true.”
    Fundamentalists say: “It’s true because I believe it.”

    • Bob Seidensticker

      “vacuum skulls”?! Nice!

  • Andrew G.

    Craig has played this game too, by trying to invoke Bayesian probability, in spite of the fact that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” can be considered as a theorem of probability.

    Specifically, if we define an “extraordinary claim” as “a claim with very low prior probability”, then Bayes’ theorem tells us that in order for it to have a high posterior probability after assessing the evidence, then the probability of the evidence under the assumption that the claim is false must be lower than the prior probability of the claim; therefore the evidence in some sense has to be more “extraordinary” than the claim.

  • Richard S. Russell

    All of this is true, and it has a dry intellectual appeal. But it’s like the atheist equivalent of Xians quoting the Bible: not likely to convince anyone who isn’t already on board, so what’s the point?
    As a practical matter, I like to go with an approach that’s got a gaping logical hole in it but which connects at the gut level: Simply ask: “If there really WERE a God, wouldn’t it be stupendously obvious to everyone? I mean, even blind people can tell when the Sun is out. Wouldn’t someone as awesome as you say your God is be even MORE blatantly apparent, day in and day out? Why do you have to resort to these tortuous, nit-picking logical contortions to try to demonstrate the mere existence of someone that even little children should be aware of, like water or air or the floor? In short, why can’t I see him RIGHT NOW?”

  • http://Michael.Santovec.us Michael Santovec

    When I first heard “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” many years ago, I thought it was useful. Since then, not so much. The problem is agreeing on just what is “Extraordinary”. To many people, the reality of ghosts, ESP, space aliens visiting Earth, life after death, etc. etc. etc. is just “common” knowledge. Quibbling over just what is Extraordinary is just a distraction. To me “All Claims require Good Evidence and Sound Reasoning”. But of course, not all claims are worth investigating.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      I’ve heard one commentator recommend, “All claims require extraordinary evidence,” by which was meant that daily mundane claims such as “I have a bottle of water on my desk” have powerful, irrefutable (though boring) evidence to back them up.

      • http://Michael.Santovec.us Michael Santovec

        In the article, you touched on the issue of importance of a claim. And what matters is the importance of the claim to the person evaluating the claim. Take the claim: Last night I was home alone and watched a movie on TV. Were I to make that claim to a coworker, he would likely take it at face value since the accuracy (my senses, memory, veracity, etc.) of the claim is of no great importance to him. However, if I were to make the same claim to the police who suspected me of committing a crime last night across town, they would seriously evaluate the claim. Context makes all the difference.

        In the case of religious claims, the claimant is expecting me to subject myself to the dictates of his religion and religious leaders. That is very important to me. What is also important to me is the impact that the actions of a religious group have on me.

  • http://exconvert.blogspot.com Kacy

    I think Greg Kokul and co. DO support a type of evidential relativism. They condemn the extraordinary claims of Joseph Smith and Scientology similarly to the way skeptics condemn the miraculous claims of Christianity. At the same time they do not apply this standard of scrutiny to their own belief system, as you so well pointed out. One wonders why the claims of the gospels but not the claims of the Book of Mormon? Ultimately, I think they accept these claims for the sheer fact that they are OLD. Newer miracles are rightly met with skepticism, but old miracles must be true based on “eye witness evidence.” But of course pagan miracles can’t be true because that sounds too extraordinary. It’s quite frustrating debating this mindset.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Ultimately, I think they accept these claims for the sheer fact that they are OLD.

      Old? Or maybe just familiar.

      I remember a William Lane Craig lecture where he defended the canonical gospels. He sketched out some of the stories in some noncanonical gospel, and the crowd chuckled at the ridiculous stories. But I wonder: Have they read their own gospel stories? They may think that a talking snake or rising from the dead are sensible, but that’s only because they’re familiar with them.