Frequently Asked Questions
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1. Why are you hosting this Campaign?
There are several purposes of this Campaign, but mainly it’s about opening up a conversation, both on the specific Extraordinary Claims here represented, as well as on the more abstract concepts of faith, science and evidence, and the ways in which we make decisions on what to believe and how those decisions have consequences on how we behave.
We believe that the scientific method has bettered our world. We believe that that’s in large part due to science’s call for evidence, experimentation and the holding of rigorous standards of proof. We believe through such a process, we’ve come to understand our world better and in so doing bettered the human condition. There seems no reason to make exceptions or immunize certain claims for similar skeptical scrutiny. If such claims prove themselves, they may also spark amazing progress.
The Atheist Bus Campaign succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams in leading to productive dialogue and debate, despite critics who claimed it never would. With this new Extraordinary Claims Campaign being far broader in scope, we look forward to broadening that debate.
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2. Why do Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence?
Marcello Truzzi (1935 – 2003), a leading investigator of paranormal and pseudoscientific claims, wrote “And when such claims are extraordinary, that is, revolutionary in their implications for established scientific generalizations already accumulated and verified, we must demand extraordinary proof.” (Editorial in The Zetetic (Vol. 1, No. 1, Fall/Winter 1976, p 4)). This referred back to the statement by French mathematician and astronomer Pierre-Simon, Marquis de Laplace (1749 – 1827) “The weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportioned to its strangeness.” In other words, it’s sensible to demand that the more a new claim is at odds with well established facts of the universe, the more extraordinary should be the evidence for its veracity. Telekinesis, for example, is entirely inconsistent with huge portions of physics, while homeopathy is entirely inconsistent with huge portions of chemistry. The sciences of physics and chemistry, which are built on hundreds of experiments, replicated hundreds of times in hundreds of different labs, would have to be totally overturned for these new claims to be correct.
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3. What is Extraordinary Evidence?
Evidence should be proportional to the claim being made. For mundane claims that do not radically alter our understanding of the world as built up from hundreds of consistent tests and pieces of data over many centuries, less evidence is required. It’s the difference between saying “I have a pet dog” (mundane claim that doesn’t require a lot of evidence to believe) vs “I have a pet dragon” (extraordinary claim that requires extraordinary evidence)
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4. Don’t You Believe in Anything? It’s sad you don’t believe in heaven, an afterlife, etc
Firstly, the point of the Campaign is not to explore what we want to believe, but what is actually true, to the best of our current knowledge. The world has progressed in large part thanks to our ability to collectively engage in rigorous scrutiny of most Extraordinary Claims, such that our resources are expended only on those that have some evidence in their favour. Whether or not we would desire for there to be an afterlife, ESP powers or UFOs, is not the point. We strongly feel society would benefit from skeptical, critical and rational inquiry in all areas of life.
Extraordinary claims like Evolutionary Science or Quantum Mechanics, counter-intuitive though they are in many ways, once buttressed by Extraodinary Evidence, have then been used to make remarkable progress in many areas. Thanks to a deep understanding of evolution we now have vaccination. Thanks to an amazing array of data in Quantum Mechanics, our society has witnessed the computer and information revolutions. Perhaps needless to say, we do think that both Evolutionary Science and Quantum Mechanics, for example, do offer correct descriptions and models for how the world works. In a crude sense, we “believe” in them, although it’s a belief in what our best evidence tells us is so, rather than a believe in spite of or against all evidence.
For more comments in this area, see Are there any Extraodinary Claims for which Extraordinary Evidence has been Discovered?
6. Why Are Religious Claims a Target for the Extraordinary Claims Campaign?
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7. Shouldn’t people be allowed to make up their mind? Why are we attacking people’s personal beliefs? Where’s the harm in these beliefs anyway?
The fact is beliefs inform behaviour, and many of the beliefs in this Campaign lead to some very negative behaviours. In the religious domain, these might include the stifling indoctrination of children in a narrow religious worldview, the aggressive and sometimes violent manifestations of religious devotion self-immunized from critical reflection, or the abuses of human rights that might flow from a literal reading of certain “divinely inspired” scriptures. Recently, an Ipsos-Reid poll showed that in asking 18,000 people in 23 different countries their views on religion, 52% agreed with the statement that “religious beliefs promote intolerance, exacerbate ethnic divisions and impede social progress.” In Canada only 36% thought religion was a force for good. Clearly, a lot of people are troubled by where religious beliefs often lead.
In the domain of alternative medicine, products and practices that are based on principles totally counter to what we know about biology, chemistry and physiology, pose a real and immediate physical danger to the public, and, by choosing alternative therapies and putting off conventional medicine that has generally been shown effective in double blind studies, one may delay life saving treatment.
In many of the other areas, including psychics, astrology, bigfoot and UFOs, the direct harm is admittedly less severe, but the potential for being the victim of fraud and being swindled out of large sums of money is real. Also consider the emotional suffering often created by supposed psychics who claim knowledge from loved ones beyond death or the ability to help solve crimes, only to fail spectacularly to live up to such promises.
The great website What’s the Harm? does a fantastic job of answering this question with respect to many of the specific claims detailed on this website
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8. Do you leave room for faith?
If faith is belief in something despite evidence and sometimes in the face of contrary evidence, we do not think faith is a good enough reason to formulate a belief. For one thing, from an outsider’s perspective, how would one choose whether to have faith in the God and religion of Islam or the God and religion of Christianity – not to mention the countless other metaphysical and religious beliefs that are on offer such as the Flying Spaghetti Monster – considering they all seem to have precisely the same amount of evidence in their favour.
Secondly, believers in religion, in alternative medical claims, in parapsychological claims (eg. psychics and mediums), or in many of the other areas treated in this Campaign will often call on science or physical facts to support their beliefs. Once that door is opened, one can not in the face of skeptical scrutiny of the evidence presented, then fall back on faith.
9. Do we really expect our short entries on the website or our ads to change people’s minds?
The website and ads are meant to encourage critical thinking about all claims and to open a conversation such that we can explore each claim much deeper. The Centre for Inquiry’s educational programs across Canada related to this Campaign will focus in depth on a variety of the most important and popular claims. We strongly encourage other organizations to partner with us on co-hosting events, debates and panel discussions, in order to gain a diversity of perspectives on the issues.
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10. How do you respond to people who think this campaign is offensive? Why can’t you just tolerate and respect people that disagree with you?
It’s a false and dangerous interpretation of the meaning of tolerance and respect that it entails granting validity to a claim with which one disagrees. Respect belongs only to people, and we totally grant each person’s right to believe whatever they wish. But respect doesn’t belong to religions, political or economic systems, or any other set of ideas. To many atheists and skeptics (and lots of others) who engage in the public dialogue on religion, alternative medicine, pseudoscience and the like, respecting a person with which one is in disagreement entails engaging with their views seriously, and that often means challenging them. The opposite, a superficial respect reflected in mere silence in the face of an idea one sees as ridiculous or even harmful while internally dismissing the person making it, is petty and shallow. Our hope is that when viewed in this way, no one would opt for such a meaningless kind of respect
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11. How can I help with the campaign?
The best way to help us achieve our goal is to donate to the campaign or join the Centre for Inquiry Canada, the hosts of this and many other educational and outreach campaigns. Secondly, we encourage comments on the entries for each claim. If you’d like to get involved in helping to run the Extraordinary Claims Campaign, in other activities of the Centre for Inquiry Canada or if you’d like to work with us to host a debate, panel discussion or other event, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org