How to Think Critically I

Extraordinary Claims

In the Popular Delusions series, I have explored just a few varieties of the vast number of nonsensical beliefs which afflict humanity. From the belief that astronomical bodies millions of light-years distant control our destiny here on Earth, to the belief that water remembers what substances were once dissolved in it, to the belief that reality is just a construct of the mind and can be altered by wishing hard enough, it seems there is no kind of absurdity a skeptic could dream up that has not already been outdone by someone who sincerely believes something even more ridiculous.

While I intend to continue cataloguing some of our species’ more prominent delusions, trying to debunk every single one would be a fool’s errand. Since there are a potentially infinite number of false claims, as opposed to a finite and very limited set of true ones, there is literally no limit to the ridiculous ideas people can and will dream up. If we are ever to establish a community of reason among humanity, we rationalists will have to do more than clearing away intellectual rubbish one piece at a time. Instead, we will have to teach and disseminate a general set of principles for critical thinking, one that will give all people a mental toolkit to recognize and reject superstitious ideas of all kinds so that they never take root. In this post series, I intend to assemble such a toolkit.

The first and most important principle of being a critical thinker is maintaining a well-honed sense of plausibility. Far too many absurd claims succeed only because many people have no mental impediment to credulously accepting almost anything they are told. The educated critical thinker, however, knows that just because a claim is made does not make it likely to be true. The quickest and most reliable way to judge the plausibility of some startling new claim is to check whether it fits in with other facts that are already known. The more numerous and the more well-established are the facts which a new claim contradicts, the stronger the evidence for that claim must be in order for it to overturn conventional wisdom and be accepted. Or, in short: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

There are several ways to conceptualize this. One could be a set of balance scales; on one side is the weight of conventional wisdom and the evidence supporting it, on the other a new and extraordinary claim and the evidence in its favor. Whichever side has the more weight and tips the balance, that is the side that we should believe. As the philosopher David Hume put it in a famous passage from his 1748 book, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), “That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish; and even in that case there is a mutual destruction of arguments, and the superior only gives us an assurance suitable to that degree of force, which remains, after deducting the inferior.” When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle.

Alternatively, we can conceive of the evidence as a web, each individual piece forming one strand that is linked together with many others. Discordant claims stretch and distort the weave, while those that accord with other evidence fit in neatly. Again, the more strongly a new claim would stretch or sever the interconnected strands of this web, the more skepticism with which it should be viewed.

Of course, just because something is an extraordinary claim does not mean it is false. Many assertions that clashed strongly with conventional wisdom turned out to be correct in the end. As Hume says, the inhabitants of a hot, tropical climate who had never seen ice or snow would justifiably find it an extraordinary claim that water can turn into a rock-hard solid. We should not rationally expect them to believe this until they have seen water freeze with their own eyes and can examine the evidence for themselves.

On the other hand, for an example of an extraordinary claim that is far more likely to be false, consider this thread from the Unexplained Mysteries forum, where several participants state their belief that TV magician Criss Angel can truly and genuinely levitate people:

As for the levitations he did…it all looked pretty clear cut to me. No strange camera angles, no tables or cables…people freaking out…plus levitating total strangers never mind himself.

It seems to me that this man is offering the proof so many are asking for. He also demonstrates telekinetic abilities. I’ve seen many on this board say “if someone has these abilities, they would be in the media, on camera proving it!”… well, here it is.

This is a perfect example of someone whom the critical thinking principles described in this post could have helped. Let me begin by listing the obvious facts: ordinary people, as a rule, cannot float up off the ground by will alone. Levitation is neither a commonplace feat nor an uncommon but known ability possessed by a minority of individuals. There is no known physiological mechanism that would enable a person to do such a thing without physical support or the application of an external propulsive force. We have studied the law of gravity in detail and found no obvious exceptions that would permit its usual operation to be suspended. And, lastly, Criss Angel is a magician, a profession whose function it is to find unusual and clever ways of deceiving people for purposes of entertainment.

Given all these widely agreed-upon and uncontested facts, what should we conclude when presented with one single photo, or even video, of a person apparently levitating off the ground? Should we take the one over the many, throwing aside a huge quantity of evidence we thought we had about the way the universe works, and conclude that this single observation establishes an entirely new paradigm? Or is it a far more rational conclusion that one puzzling observation is not enough to outweigh the vast quantity of evidence attesting to the fact that people cannot levitate, and that Criss Angel has come up with a way to trick people into believing he has accomplished something he has not in fact accomplished, even if we cannot state with confidence precisely what the trick is?

The participants on the UM board have done the former, a clear demonstration of irrational thinking. To rewrite one’s entire worldview every time an apparently discordant piece of evidence comes alone is not just terminally credulous, it would leave one unable to function in the world. How could a person choose any action if they were completely revising the base of their knowledge every time they turned around?

This is not to say that extraordinary claims can never be proven. As with the ice example, applicability of past experience should be the default assumption, but it should not be the final conclusion. Claims that violate or apparently violate laws of nature should be viewed with skepticism at first, but they should be tested rather than rejected outright. And if repeated evidence showed that people could indeed levitate without support – evidence obtained under reliable, controlled conditions, when tricks and cheating could be conclusively ruled out – then we would have to conclude that we had learned something new about the way the universe works. In the meantime, our provisional conclusion should be that this extraordinary claim is, at best, not proved.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    I remember you promising a series on critical thinking and I’ve been looking forward to it. The importance of critical thinking and our efforts to educate people with the associated skills, cannot be overstated.

    I very much like the thought experiment about ice and the tropical island inhabitants. It’s a very good way of making that point.

  • MKateS

    I do appreciate your shouldering part of the burden of teaching critical thinking. However, without an educational system which,nation-wide, accepts the necessity of developing this skill, I fear your efforts will be for naught. Also, it appears to me that many claims, such as the levitation one, are accepted by people because they want to believe in this nonsense. Again,the primary position of critical thinking skills in an advanced and peaceable society has never been emphasized to them.

  • Vicki Baker

    You might want to check out the “Habits of Mind” curriculum developed by Ted Sizer of the Coalition for Essential Schools:

    http://www.essentialschools.org/pub/ces_docs/about/phil/habits.html

  • anti-nonsense

    This looks like it will be a great series.

    Schools really should teach more critical thinking skills, it’s kind of necessary in the information age with all kinds of people trying to convince us that they know something we should believe.

    And I agree with MKateS that a lot of people believe the nonsense because they WANT to believe it, it’s very hard to separate something that is true from something you WANT to be true. I think everybody does that kind of thing sometimes.

  • anti-nonsense

    This looks like it will be a great series.

    Schools really should teach more critical thinking skills, it’s kind of necessary in the information age with all kinds of people trying to convince us that they know something we should believe.

    And I agree with MKateS that a lot of people believe the nonsense because they WANT to believe it, it’s very hard to separate something that is true from something you WANT to be true. I think everybody does that kind of thing sometimes.

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    Critical Thinking should DEFINITELY be taught in schools. It may be the only way to combat religious indoctrination at home.

    In the UK, we could create a handy slot in the time table by scrapping Religious Education!

  • Alex Weaver

    I may or may not have made a request for “printer-friendly” versions of these essays on the site, with just the text of the essay and some sort of unmistakable heading, without the sidebar and response-related menu items and with the option, perhaps, to show or hide comments. This would be quite useful to me, since I often want to show these essays to people who are reluctant to sit down in front of a computer and read at length unless required to for school or work, and when I attempt to print them the printer uses about 3 extra pages printing the sidebars separately. If I haven’t made it yet, I shall make it now.

    In other news, good essay.

  • anti-nonsense

    Well you *could* cut and paste the text into a word processor and print it from there….

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    Anti-nonsense beat me to it. I frequently copy material from the internet into Microsoft Word and print it from there.

  • Bechamel

    Or, you could highlight the relevant text, bring up the print menu, and choose “Selection”.

  • Bechamel

    Or, you could highlight the relevant text, bring up the print menu, and choose “Selection”.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    I’ll see what I can do about implementing a printer-friendly mode.

  • John P

    Good idea. I personally print these often, but using Firefox, I use Print Preview first, then print only those pages that I want. Usually the last 4 pages can be skipped, as they are the Recent Posts, Blogroll, etc.

  • James Bradbury

    It’s possible to specify a print stylesheet when designing a page which will should automatically be used whenever someone presses print. In theory it could specify a very minimalist banner, no comments and no sidebar.

    I’ll put it on my to-do list. :)

  • James Bradbury

    It’s possible to specify a print stylesheet when designing a page which will should automatically be used whenever someone presses print. In theory it could specify a very minimalist banner, no comments and no sidebar.

    I’ll put it on my to-do list. :)

  • http://blog.dmcleish.id.au Shishberg

    Token on-topic comment: Yeah, a print-only stylesheet would be great.

    And now the diversion… I tend to think that, for some people at least, the reason it’s so hard to get out of superstition isn’t that they lack critical thinking skills, but that their body of prior knowledge is skewed towards facts that support the wrong conclusions. As you said:

    The quickest and most reliable way to judge the plausibility of some startling new claim is to check whether it fits in with other facts that are already known. The more numerous and the more well-established are the facts which a new claim contradicts, the stronger the evidence for that claim must be in order for it to overturn conventional wisdom and be accepted.

    This approach fails if someone already has a body of beliefs – from their point of view, accepted facts – that don’t match reality. In that case, the quick plausibility test will lead to a growing body of beliefs that support their superstition, and suspicion of any evidence against them. I think this is what happens in most people who are raised in a religion – the existing body of “facts” are presented before they reach the point of being able to evaluate them critically.

    For example, for someone who was brought up as a Christian, there’s an existing body of “facts”: Jesus was raised from the dead, prayer works, my dead relatives are in a Better Place, etc. If someone claims that there’s no such thing as god, it conflicts with a huge body of pre-existing knowledge, and will be rejected as nonsense. The only way to get that idea past the nonsense filter is to start questioning the accepted collection of “facts” one by one, which is a big task.

    At least, that was my experience.

  • http://blog.dmcleish.id.au Shishberg

    Token on-topic comment: Yeah, a print-only stylesheet would be great.

    And now the diversion… I tend to think that, for some people at least, the reason it’s so hard to get out of superstition isn’t that they lack critical thinking skills, but that their body of prior knowledge is skewed towards facts that support the wrong conclusions. As you said:

    The quickest and most reliable way to judge the plausibility of some startling new claim is to check whether it fits in with other facts that are already known. The more numerous and the more well-established are the facts which a new claim contradicts, the stronger the evidence for that claim must be in order for it to overturn conventional wisdom and be accepted.

    This approach fails if someone already has a body of beliefs – from their point of view, accepted facts – that don’t match reality. In that case, the quick plausibility test will lead to a growing body of beliefs that support their superstition, and suspicion of any evidence against them. I think this is what happens in most people who are raised in a religion – the existing body of “facts” are presented before they reach the point of being able to evaluate them critically.

    For example, for someone who was brought up as a Christian, there’s an existing body of “facts”: Jesus was raised from the dead, prayer works, my dead relatives are in a Better Place, etc. If someone claims that there’s no such thing as god, it conflicts with a huge body of pre-existing knowledge, and will be rejected as nonsense. The only way to get that idea past the nonsense filter is to start questioning the accepted collection of “facts” one by one, which is a big task.

    At least, that was my experience.

  • Polly

    @Shishberg:
    You hit the nail on the head. If I do say so myself, my critical thinking skills were not impaired (beyond the norm for the USA) as a fundie. I simply had never encountered any reasons to doubt my preexisting set of “facts”: that all the Gospels were written by eye-witnesses or dictated by them. And, that all the early eye-witnesses died horrible deaths because of their testimony about a risen JC, blah, blah, blah. Once these “facts” became open, wide-open, to doubt, the structure began to crumble. My belief in the entirety of the Bible branched out from the resurrection of JC. So, OT atrocities had to be accepted depsite being completely irreconcilable with morality.

    Another innoculation against new data that hinders believers is the “strong delusion” that’s prevalant in the “World.” If a fact contradicts the scriptures it must be the result of a conspiracy masterminded by Satan using human dupes, the “worldly.”
    I felt the weight and force of several Bible verses counteracting my attempts at self-education on the origins of Chrisitanity very, very strongly. I kept asking myself if I was being tricked by these “scholars.”
    But, logic kept telling me that it was those verses that were tricking me, that it was the Bible that was making bold assertions without proof and asking me to suspend reason, which is a necessary precursor to being deceived.
    The phrase “clever sounding arguments” from a verse warning about going astray passed through my mind often. As did, “thinking themselves wise, they became fools instead” and “always seeking wisdom but never finding the Truth” and a bunch of others. Oh yeah and the always popular, “the fool says in his heart, there is no God”

    And then there’s the unpardonable sin, which many believe is rejecting JC after having had a “taste of the glory of the Son” and then rejecting him thus, “crucifying him all over again and trampling the Holy blood underfoot.”
    Heavy words! I am hellbound without hope of clemency!

    Needless to say I’m not worried.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    This approach fails if someone already has a body of beliefs – from their point of view, accepted facts – that don’t match reality. In that case, the quick plausibility test will lead to a growing body of beliefs that support their superstition, and suspicion of any evidence against them.

    I was wondering when someone was going to bring this up. :)

    Yes, if a person is already committed to a set of non-evidence-based beliefs, the critical thinking method described in this post will lead to incorrect conclusions. The problem is that those preexisting irrational beliefs got in “under the gate”, so to speak. Those beliefs were not originally formed using the method described in this post, and that will contaminate their belief pool and bias future judgments by skewing their notions of what is extraordinary. For this method to work, it has to be used consistently, and all a person’s beliefs have to be formed in this way.

    So what’s to be done about the person who holds some evidence-based beliefs and some that are not, and wants to tell the two apart so that they can eliminate the latter? Well, that will just have to be the topic of a future post.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    This approach fails if someone already has a body of beliefs – from their point of view, accepted facts – that don’t match reality. In that case, the quick plausibility test will lead to a growing body of beliefs that support their superstition, and suspicion of any evidence against them.

    I was wondering when someone was going to bring this up. :)

    Yes, if a person is already committed to a set of non-evidence-based beliefs, the critical thinking method described in this post will lead to incorrect conclusions. The problem is that those preexisting irrational beliefs got in “under the gate”, so to speak. Those beliefs were not originally formed using the method described in this post, and that will contaminate their belief pool and bias future judgments by skewing their notions of what is extraordinary. For this method to work, it has to be used consistently, and all a person’s beliefs have to be formed in this way.

    So what’s to be done about the person who holds some evidence-based beliefs and some that are not, and wants to tell the two apart so that they can eliminate the latter? Well, that will just have to be the topic of a future post.

  • Polly

    In auditing terminology, there was a breakdown in the control process. Beliefs that have “slipped in under the gate” can only be found using “detection” procedures one by one and then remediated.
    This is a difficult thing. It involves a continuous process of evaluating one’s assumptions to see if anything was accepted without applying scrutiny. Presuppositions are not limited to issues of faith. I have a few issues that I should probably re-visit, just to make sure I’m up to speed.
    I look forward to that post.

  • Polly

    In auditing terminology, there was a breakdown in the control process. Beliefs that have “slipped in under the gate” can only be found using “detection” procedures one by one and then remediated.
    This is a difficult thing. It involves a continuous process of evaluating one’s assumptions to see if anything was accepted without applying scrutiny. Presuppositions are not limited to issues of faith. I have a few issues that I should probably re-visit, just to make sure I’m up to speed.
    I look forward to that post.

  • http://www.asktheatheists.com bitbutter

    Yes, if a person is already committed to a set of non-evidence-based beliefs, the critical thinking method described in this post will lead to incorrect conclusions. The problem is that those preexisting irrational beliefs got in “under the gate”, so to speak. Those beliefs were not originally formed using the method described in this post, and that will contaminate their belief pool and bias future judgments by skewing their notions of what is extraordinary. For this method to work, it has to be used consistently, and all a person’s beliefs have to be formed in this way.

    I believe that the part i emboldened does not usually describe how the theist comes to hold his set of beliefs. I’ve come to believe that it is possible to accept christianity without ever irrationally preferring a more extraordinary claim over a less amazing one.

    This is made possible by the fact that rational assessment is a less powerful tool for keeping out false beliefs if a person’s belief set is small. Further: it’s arguable that most of us start out with a belief that our guardians are trustworthy (for good evolutionary reasons). These two things combined allow the rational acceptance of god claims by children.

    I made an animated video about it here: http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=LAUU9xG6OLQ

    (‘belief audit’ is an excellent phrase!)

  • bipolar2

    ** reason doesn’t work against fideism **

    For 2,000 years one hallmark of xianity has remained its hatred of natural science and skeptical philosophy. The Stoics and Epicureans of Athens laughed at Paul of Tarsus when he spoke to them. Paul’s anti-intellectual rejoinder is still holy writ:

    20-Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21-For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22-Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23-but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles . . . . 1Cor1 20-23 NIV

    In short, Paul and his fellow revenge seekers created a god sharing their nihilistic valuations.

    27-But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28-He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are . . . . 1Cor1:26-28 NIV

    Xianity still appeals to those who believe themselves mistreated. To those in whom resentment surges. To those who must punish their guilty selves. To those who must blame others.

    Xianity is practical nihilism. Directed inward, hatred of self. Directed outward, hatred of others and the world.

    Psychologically I don’t see much difference between the Taliban in Afghanistan and bible-worshipers (fundies) spread like pond scum across the US. Without a vigorously enforced secular state, you and I would burn at the stake or receive a bullet in the head for disbelief.

    For all true believers, this is their doctrine: “those not with us are against us” Luke 11:23 NIV

    Their fideistic hatred is not some peripheral ideological stance — it is the dark heart and sick soul of Paul’s life-negating world view, tarted up as a religion of “love”.

    bipolar2
    © 2008

  • bipolar2

    ** reason doesn’t work against fideism **

    For 2,000 years one hallmark of xianity has remained its hatred of natural science and skeptical philosophy. The Stoics and Epicureans of Athens laughed at Paul of Tarsus when he spoke to them. Paul’s anti-intellectual rejoinder is still holy writ:

    20-Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21-For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22-Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23-but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles . . . . 1Cor1 20-23 NIV

    In short, Paul and his fellow revenge seekers created a god sharing their nihilistic valuations.

    27-But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28-He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are . . . . 1Cor1:26-28 NIV

    Xianity still appeals to those who believe themselves mistreated. To those in whom resentment surges. To those who must punish their guilty selves. To those who must blame others.

    Xianity is practical nihilism. Directed inward, hatred of self. Directed outward, hatred of others and the world.

    Psychologically I don’t see much difference between the Taliban in Afghanistan and bible-worshipers (fundies) spread like pond scum across the US. Without a vigorously enforced secular state, you and I would burn at the stake or receive a bullet in the head for disbelief.

    For all true believers, this is their doctrine: “those not with us are against us” Luke 11:23 NIV

    Their fideistic hatred is not some peripheral ideological stance — it is the dark heart and sick soul of Paul’s life-negating world view, tarted up as a religion of “love”.

    bipolar2
    © 2008

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    bipolar,
    It starts even before Paul. The “sin” of Adam and Eve was eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The inescapable conclusion is the knowledge is a bad thing, that god wants us to be ignorant savages.

  • http://ultimatecloser.blogspot.com Jay Athanatos

    I absolutely love the fact that I stumbled on your site and I have found the posting loaded with quality content! I hope to utilize some of these concepts in thinking in my own ventures.


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