The Radford Files
Skepticism, Hume and the burden of proof
By Benjamin Radford
In his 1748 essay “Of Miracles,” philosopher David Hume advised, “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.” That is, how certain we are about something we’re told should be directly correlated with how good the evidence is for that claim.
That’s not only a basic premise of skepticism; it’s common sense. We know that gossip we hear over the back fence is probably less credible than something reported on CNN. You should demand more than rumors before you accuse your husband of infidelity, and you should demand solid evidence of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction before you spend blood and treasure invading the country to find them.
Yet when this self-evident principle is applied to paranormal topics, some people dismiss it out of hand. In a New Age book called Amazing Grace: The Nine Principles of Living in Natural Magic (April 1, 2008, North Atlantic Books), by David Wolfe and Nick Goode, the authors try to dismiss skepticism with the following argument: “The mere idea that every single ghost experience, Bigfoot sighting, UFO encounter, alien abduction, psychic occurrence of any kind, Loch Ness monster viewing, conspiracy theory, etc., is the product of a neurosis or hallucination is patently and completely ridiculous. The burden of proof is clearly on the doubter. The doubter must prove that every single paranormal experience out of thousands or even millions of such encounters in each category is a phony. That is impossible. ... If even one ghost story is true, then ghosts exist. If even one person can see into the future, then seeing into the future is possible. This is ‘Raw Logic’ and it instantly deconstructs and eliminates any fog of confusion surrounding paranormal phenomenon.”
There’s a lot of fuzzy thinking and bad logic packed into this paragraph. First, the authors use a logical fallacy called the “straw man argument” when they suggest that skeptics ("doubters”) claim that every single paranormal experience “is the product of a neurosis or hallucination.” Of course such a suggestion is patently ridiculous; I don’t know of a single skeptic who claims that all such experiences are neuroses or hallucinations.
They also commit another logical error, a false-choice fallacy, when they claim that either 1) all reports of the paranormal are the products of neuroses or hallucinations; or 2) the phenomenon is “true” and actually occurred as claimed. In fact, there’s a third choice that Wolfe and Goode ignore, and it’s the correct one: Most “unexplained phenomena” are the product of simple misunderstandings, misperceptions or errors in memory. Decades of case studies prove it.
If a friend tells you that she has a tiny, fire-breathing dragon living in her purse, you should assume that whatever you’re being told is absolutely true.
The authors then turn logic on its head by claiming that the burden of proof is on the doubter, as if it’s the skeptic’s job to somehow disprove a given paranormal claim. This is a common defense among those who are asked for evidence of their extraordinary claims, but that’s not how science works. That’s not how courts of law work (the burden of proof is not on the defendant to prove he is innocent, it is up to the court—the entity making the claim of guilt—to prove he is guilty). According to Wolfe and Goode, if a friend tells you that she has a tiny, fire-breathing dragon living in her purse, or your father says the reason he is late to your birthday party is that he was abducted by aliens on I-25, you should assume that whatever you’re being told is absolutely true, and the burden of proof is on you to disprove it!
That’s not “Raw Logic,” that’s Ill Logic. The authors are correct that if even one lake monster or ghost sighting is true (i.e., the person actually saw something unexplainable), then lake monsters and ghosts exist. But this is an obvious truism, circular logic offered up as profound insight that somehow dismisses or “deconstructs” any skeptical arguments. It does nothing of the sort, and if there is a “fog of confusion” surrounding paranormal phenomena, it is caused by fuzzy thinking, bad logic and a lack of critical thinking.
It’s very easy to make a claim about something, while thoroughly investigating that claim can be a difficult job. For example, if a person says she just saw a strange UFO light in the sky, that claim takes literally seconds to make. Investigating that sighting (assuming it’s not a hoax or prank) could take weeks or even months while other eyewitnesses are sought, wind conditions are checked, flight plans from any nearby airports are examined and so on. For this reason, among many others, the burden of proof is on the claimant. It was true back in 1748 and just as true in 2009.
Benjamin Radford has investigated mysterious and unexplained phenomena for more than a decade. He is a columnist for LiveScience.com and managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine. His latest book is Lake Monster Mysteries , available at his website: www.RadfordBooks.com.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.
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