Do Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence? Part 2

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In part 1 of this series, we looked at William Lane Craig’s response to the skeptical maxim, “Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence.”  Now we will review Mike Licona’s response from his book The Resurrection of Jesus

Licona reminds us that this was a statement that atheist astronomer Carl Sagan used to frequently utter.  He calls it Sagan’s Saw.  How does Sagan’s Saw stand up as a paradigm for determining the burden of proof?  Licona first looks at landing on the moon.

Landing on the moon in July 1969 was an extraordinary event.  It was extremely difficult and had never occurred previously.  Yet most people believed the reports when they watched astronauts walking on the moon on their televisions, a medium that often distorts truths and presents untruths, legends and fictions.

The moon events were extraordinary.  The reports were believed because they were thought to be credible and the authorial intent to communicate the event as it occurred was known.  In neither case was extraordinary evidence required.

Licona continues by hypothesizing his wife coming home and telling him about people she met at the grocery store.  Should Licona believe his wife?

Let us suppose that my wife returns from the grocery store and tells me that she saw and spoke with our next-door neighbor while there.  Although it is possible she is mistaken, because I know her to be an intelligent and credible witness I have every reason to believe her report without hesitation. 

Now let us suppose that when she returns from the grocery store, she tells me instead that she saw and spoke with the president of the United  States.  I may think this far out of the ordinary.   However, if after questioning her further I can have confidence that she is not joking, or put another way, if I am confident that I understand her authorial intent as being truthful, I would accept her report—and drive to the grocery store with the hopes of having a similar experience, provided that I like the incumbent president.

Her claim that she spoke with the president of the United States in the grocery story is extraordinary in a sense, whereas her claim that she spoke with our next-door neighbor is not.  The former may give me pause.  Yet I am satisfied because of my confidence that the source is credible and that its authorial intent is to describe an actual event accurately.  I would not require extraordinary evidence or even evidence in addition to her report before believing that she spoke with the president of the United States in the grocery store.  Instead, I am interested in the credibility of the report and the authorial intent.

Even though Licona’s wife meeting the president at the grocery store is extraordinary, he does not require extraordinary evidence.  He simply believes his wife’s testimony because he understands her intention to describe the event accurately. 

Stories about the next-door neighbor and the president are one thing, but what would happen if Licona’s wife told him about speaking to a person that he doubts even exists, a meeting that, in his mind, is even more extraordinary than the president?  We’ll continue to analyze Licona’s reasoning in the next part of the series.

  • Many people do in fact doubt the moon landing. There are many reasons we dismiss them as crackpots. I guess for me the reason is that an enormous level of conspiracy would be required to pull off such a deception. We have a vast amount of contemporaneous evidence for the moon landing. Television can certainly distort, but in 1969 there was no CGI or photoshop. We have inventions that sprung from the space technology – ie technology developed specifically for the moon landing. We also have all the satellite technology associated with the space race, and we have the subsequent moon landings, and also deaths such as the Challenger disaster of 1986. All of this makes a faked moon landing less likely.

    Regarding Licona’s wife, he may well believe her based on their relationship. Similar claims from a complete stranger may well be met with greater scepticism. Or indeed if Licona’s wife instead of saying she met the President that day, said she had a memory of meeting Nixon or Kennedy as a girl. Then he might not necessarily think she was lying, but may well consider it possible that she is mis-remembering – perhaps mixing up memory with a film she saw as a girl, or something someone else TOLD her happened to her. If Licona’s wife told him her father met the president, then he’s even further from being sure – she could be mis-remembering, her father could have done, Licona may be less trusting of his father in law than he is of his wife. If Licona’s wife is relying on a letter she thinks may be from her father, but which isn’t signed, and isn’t even the original, then he should be more sceptical still. And so on.

  • Licona’s evidence that the president is at the grocery store is extraordinary in the sense that he has extraordinary reason to be confident in the person making the report. If my wife or any other stranger were to tell him that the president was at the store, that would be ordinary evidence of an extraordinary claim. Licona would find it much more difficult to establish my wife’s authorial intent because he wouldn’t know anything about her sense of humor or her propensity to lie. Even if he could establish her authorial intent, he wouldn’t be able to establish her mental competency. He wouldn’t be sure that my wife was not an unusually gullible person.

    There are all sorts of reasons that a person might falsely report having met the president at the grocery store. Because Licona knows his wife so well, he may have reason to assign those alternatives a low enough probability to conclude that it was most likely that the president was actually there.

  • Boz

    This post and the previous one are using a colloquial and verbose version of Bayes’ Theorem. The issue with this is that the word ‘extraordinary’ has become fuzzy and equivocating.

    The rigirous definitions are these:

    H = Hypothesis, E = Evidence.

    ‘extraordinary claim’ = Pr(H), while ignoring the evidence.

    ‘extraordinary evidence’ = pr(E|H) / [pr(E|H)pr(H) + pr(E|~H)pr(~H)]

  • Pingback: Do Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence? Part 1 « Ratio Christi-At The Ohio State University()

  • tildeb

    It is interesting to note common intuition at play here in Licona’s example: the higher the confidence exhibited, the higher the accuracy of the testimony is assumed to be.

    But is this true?

    “Though confidence–accuracy correlations are sometimes relatively high, most research yields relatively low correlations.” (Source, pg 65)

    Can the facts of some testimonial about an extraordinary event (an event that is reported to be contrary to laws of chemistry, physics, and biology as we know it to be) stand on their own merit for our serious consideration or are we allowing our intuition about associating confidence with accuracy to lead us astray?

  • From
    the blog entry:

    Licona: However, if after questioning her further….

    how Dr. Licona directly employs the very principle he decries? When his wife relates seeing the next-door
    neighbor, Dr. Licona believes it without any thought. When his wife makes the far less ordinary claim—the
    more “extra-ordinary”—of seeing the President, he demands more and greater
    evidence….dare I say, “extra-ordinary”?

  • Pingback: Do Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence? Part 3 | Tough Questions Answered()

  • KC

    The moon landing may have been an extraordinary unprecedented events but it differs from say the claim of Christ’s rise from the grave in that its promoters did not rely on any sort of supenatural explanation. While the details are complex the theory is relatively simple–a space craft must break free from Earth’s gravity, travel millions of kilometers across space in a vehicle designed to protect frail humans from the hostile environment of space, land on the moon, take off from the moon and escape its gravity and return to earth. No god involved.

  • KC

    Another factor supporting the moon landing is that to fake such a landing would be an “incredible” (I wont say “extraordinary”) undertaking. Certainly a conspiracy of much greater scope than faking Christ’s empty grave.

  • Andrew Ryan

    “its promoters did not rely on any sort of supenatural explanation”
    Isn’t an explanation that relies purely on natural phenomena less of a stretch to believe than one that requires the supernatural? If someone claims that Obama is faking his birth certificate you may think “that’s a big conspiracy”. If someone claims Obama is actually a ghost, that may be a smaller conspiracy, but does that make it a more credible claim?
    “Certainly a conspiracy of much greater scope than faking Christ’s empty grave.”
    You seem to be wanting it both ways. Either there’s a lot of evidence for the empty tomb, in which case a big conspiracy would be required; or very little conspiracy is required because there wasn’t that much evidence for the empty tomb in the first place.

  • KC

    I’m not quite sure I follow.
    “Isn’t an explanation that relies purely on natural phenomena less of a stretch to believe than one that requires the supernatural?”
    Absolutely. Thats what I was trying to say. Did that no come across?
    “You seem to be wanting it both ways. Either there’s a lot of evidence for the empty tomb, in which case a big conspiracy would be required; or very little conspiracy is required because there wasn’t that much evidence for the empty tomb in the first place.”
    I wasnt saying that the amount of evidence of a conspiracy is directly proportional to the size of a conspiracy. I start from the proposition that a larger scale conspiracy (like 9/11 was an inside job or the moon landing was fake) is inherently more difficult to keep secret than a small conspiracy (like me and a couple of my buddies grabbing some shovels and moving Jesus’ body). The former conspiracy requires hundreds if not thousands of people to play a role and then keep their mouth shut about it. The law of large numbers suggests that in a large group of people the probability that one or more of them has loose lips approaches one. The latter conspiracy would only require a couple people to keep their mouths shut (much more likely).
    So if someone could prove to me that Christs body wasnt in his grave (and for the sake of argument I’ll accept that his grave was actually found empty), even in the absence of evidence of any conspiracy, the possibility that there was a conspiracy to remove it is high because of two reasons 1) the alternative involves the supernatural that I am inherently skeptical of and 2) such a conspiracy would be simple to be kept hidden by the sands of time.
    In the case of the moon landing or 9/11 the alternative to the conspiracy theories isnt the supernatural. It is the official story–ie that the moon landing actually occured and 9/11 was carried out by Al Qaeda. The conspiracy theories are improbable because they would by necessity be large scale conspiracies which are inherently difficult to keep secret.
    The evidence for one or the other conspiracies is important but less so than it might otherwise be were all things equal. Im aware that there is some ‘evidence’ of a 9/11 conspiracy and little/no evidence of a conspiracy to move Jesus’ body. However the former conspiracy is still much more difficult to accept in light of the reasons I’ve set out above.

  • Andrew Ryan

    “Absolutely. Thats what I was trying to say. Did that no come across?”

    So a conspiracy to fake the moon landings is easier to believe than someone rising from the dead.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Perhaps we are on the same page, sorry.

  • KC

    As someone who is inherently skeptical of supernatural claims a yes conspiracy to fake the moon landing is more plausible than the believe that someone rose from the dead.
    One thing I do agree with the apologists on is that those of us who advocate the extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence are setting up a near impossible standard for theists to meet. That I’ll concede. For me if there are two possible explanations for a phenomenom–one that relies on the supernatural and one that is consistent with the laws of nature as we understand them–I will prefer the explanation that is consistent with the laws of nature, not matter how improbable.
    Why? Because the improbable happen. Thats why we say “improbable” rather than “impossible”. People win the lottery and get struck by lightning. We encounter bizarre coincidences from time to time that seem highly improbable–like when my wife happened to work at a store with another girl who used to live in my childhood home 5,000 km away.

    It is “improbable” IMHO that someone would be able to successfully pull off a conspiracy theory whereby the moon landing was faked without being discovered for the reasons I expressed in my previous post. But it is not impossible in accordance with the ordinary laws of nature like rising from the dead.