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“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”

This post was written by Donald Michael Kraig
on October 24, 2011 | Comments (10)

Popularized by astronomer Carl Sagan, the actual source of the quote I used to title this post may be from Marcello Truzzi, a co-founder of the debunking group called CISCOP. The concept, however, goes back to people such as the French astronomer Pierre-Simon, marquis de Laplace —usually just called “Laplace”— (“”The weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportioned to its strangeness”) or even Scottish philosopher David Hume (“A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence”). It seems so reasonable. The question, however, is should we accept it as valid?

The people at SCEPCOP point out that no matter how reasonable it seems, the debunkers or pseudo-skeptics can use this to denounce what they don’t believe in. In their article (LINK) they provide five ways this can either be “underhandedly” used to prevent further examination of claims or reasons why it may simply not be valid at all. Take a look at the article and see what you think (and please ignore their error in numbering).

Anecdotal Evidence

What I’d like to discuss here is the concept of anecdotal evidence. As a general rule, those people who call themselves skeptics (but in reality are pseudo-skeptics or just debunkers) do not accept as valid evidence individual reports or anecdotes. For example, although there are hundreds of thousands of reports of UFOs, all of them are rejected by debunkers because they’re just anecdotes. Now, the truth is most of those anecdotes are errors, mistakes, misinterpretation of natural phenomena or in a few cases, fraud. But that’s not all of the cases. There are still many thousands of cases from expert observers that are not explained through those solutions. What do the pseudo-skeptics do? Ignore them. To debunkers they’re just anecdotal evidence and that doesn’t matter. They want something that can be examined in the laboratory, and if they can’t have it their way then it doesn’t exist.

But the truth is, science has always accepted anecdotal evidence. Much of Freud’s theories that form one of the pillars of the science of psychology were based on a few instances of working with a relatively small number of individuals. Jung, whose concepts form another pillar of psychological science, came up with many of his theories through self-analysis.

In the latest issue of Edge Science Magazine (a free PDF journal that can be downloaded at this LINK), there is a great article by Robert McLuhan (author of Randi’s Prize, an important book that reveals the damage done to real science by this supposed contest) entited “Anecdotal Evidence.” In it, he discusses the relationship of the brain and the mind. Today, most scientists blithely state that they are the same. But are they? What evidence do scientists have for this?

The usual evidence to support this thesis is the strange case of Phineas Gage. In 1848, an explosion drove an iron bar over 40 inches long and 1.25 inches in diameter through his head. The bar went behind his left eye and came out at the top of his head. Amazingly, although it destroyed most of his left frontal lobe, he not only survived the explosion and the surgery to remove the bar, he actually lived for many years.

Photograph of Phineas P. Gage (1823–1860).
In his left hand he holds the “tamping iron” that was removed from his head.

The case of Mr. Gage is trotted out to prove that the brain is the source of the mind. After the injury, Gage’s personality supposedly changed dramatically, so much so that his friends said, “he was no longer Gage.” The assumption, therefore, is that the destruction of his left frontal lobe caused the change.

However, McLuhan did some investigation and discovered that the change occurred gradually (if the mind and personality are controlled by the brain, shouldn’t it have happened immediately?) and was nowhere near as dramatic as claimed by some. In fact, two years after the accident a Harvard professor of surgery claimed Gage was completely recovered “in body and mind.”

Where the tamping iron pierced Gage’s skull.

But let’s assume that Gage’s personality did change after the accident. Look at where the bar went and how it left him. I don’t know about you, but if that happened to me it would certainly change my personality! In the year 2000 I had an NDE (the paramedics had the paddles out to get my heart working correctly, but apparently an injection got my heart going properly) and since then I find myself far calmer and more balanced. If that change happened to me, a change certainly could have happened to Gage.

In fact, if you stuck a 3.5 foot bar through my head I guarantee my personality would change!

As McLuhan states, “No conclusion can be drawn, except that in 1848 a man reacted to severe physical trauma more or less as a man living in 2009 might be expected to do.” And yet, scientists continually use this one case of anecdotal evidence to “prove” that, as McLuhan describes such theories, “the mind is what the brain does.”

Gabby Giffords

You’ve probably heard about Gabrielle Giffords. She is the Congressional Representative from Arizona who, in January of 2011, was shot in the head. According to Dr. Peter Rhee, the trauma director at the University of Arizona, “This wasn’t a little grazing wound through the brain, this was a devastating wound that traveled the entire length of the brain on the left side.” And yet, although she is still getting therapy, in August of 2011 she was able to return to Congress to cast a vote.

Giffords greeted with applause on her return to Congress.

Although all of the books indicate this shouldn’t be happening, both the cases of Gage and Giffords indicate that although certain areas of the brain are supposed to control things, it is possible either for their to be some sort of rewiring of the brain in some unknown way or, although there is some relationship between the brain and the mind, they are not the same. In fact, it’s legitimate to say that unless the mechanism by which the brain can intelligently (and where and what is this “intelligence?”) rewire itself to allow different areas of the brain to control functions other than what is “normal” (whatever that means), then the link between the mind and brain is tenuous at best.

The Meaning for Magick

If we accept that the brain is simply a physical representation of the mind, then there is no reason that the mind cannot separate from the brain and the physical body, allowing for astral projection, astral travel, pathworking up the Tree of Life, and astral magick. Although some practitioners contend that all astral work is simply within the mind and imagination, the concept of the mind being separate from the brain and the physical body implies that there can be other planes of existence and other dimensions which, though different from the physical plane, are every bit as real as the physical plane.

This, by the way, compares to some of the latest theories in quantum physics identifies as “String Theory,” which contends there multiple dimensions ranging in number from 10 or 11 to 26! Once again, science is catching up with magick.

I discuss the importance of the concept of a non-physical astral plane for magickal work in my book, Modern Magick. I would add that if the mind and brain are related or associated but not the same, there’s no reason that the mind cannot survive the death of the body. This would allow for communicating with the deceased who have not yet reincarnated, as well as reincarnation (AKA “the magickal memory”) itself.

Thus, when looking scientifically at the mind and brain, it is just as likely to say that astral projection and reincarnation are possible as it is to say that “the mind is what the brain does.” After all, both are merely anecdotal evidence.


Reader Comments

Written By magickdoggie
on October 24th, 2011 @ 1:10 pm

Excellent article, and yes I also have had out of body experiences and know from my own personal experience that the mind, although closely connected to the brain and body, is not the same as the brain. First there was mind and then there was body.

Written By The Hawk
on October 31st, 2011 @ 6:02 pm

Based on what I have learned and been told over the years, I agree that the mind and brain are separate. Body-Brain-Mind-Spirit. Sort of a four legged stool as it were. I see the Mind as the integration of the physical with the Spirit. In conclusion: In my Mind, the Mind of course survives the Brain. Granted this is anecdotal logic, but I like it.

Written By Los
on November 9th, 2011 @ 12:35 pm

Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

There’s an old saying: “The plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘evidence’.” And the truth of this saying is trivially demonstrable: for example, one can find quite a number of anecdotal accounts of people who smoked well into their elder years and suffered few or even no ill effects on their health, who completely avoided lung cancer. But one would be an absolute fool to use these anecdotal accounts as serious evidence for anything.

The example you give in your post above is even sillier: the idea that alien spacecrafts are visiting our planet but going completely undetected except for stories told by slack-jawed yokels who apparently have fantasies of being anally probed is utterly laughable. Even you admit above that a great number of these anecdotes are mistaken or outright fabrications. So the fact that we can’t conclusively demonstrate that a handful of the anecdotes are similarly false demonstrates… *what* exactly?

There’s no compelling reason to think that any of the anecdotes are true, and the fact that most of them are false reinforces this point.

Appealing to Freud and Jung isn’t any help for your case because Freud and Jung weren’t doing hard science: they were speculating about the mind based on their case studies, and their theories have come under some pretty harsh scrutiny and criticism in recent years. That’s not to say that they were always completely wrong, but it is to say that they weren’t doing science. And that’s what’s so disingenuous about holding them up as examples of “science accepting anecdotes.”

Further, the claim that “minds are what brains do” isn’t based on a handful of anecdotal reports about brain injuries, as your article suggests. Evidence comes from experimental data, for example, experiments in which the stimulation of the brain causes changes in consciousness.

There is every reason to suspect that brains are entirely natural and that the mind is the product of the entirely natural function of the brain. There is, conversely, no reason to suspect that the mind is some kind of ooky-spooky supernatural force that the brain somehow taps into. This idea is not only unsupported – as we have no examples of any mind existing without a brain – it flies in the face of everything we’ve discovered about biology: that organs, including the brain, are natural developments that evolved over time, due to natural stimuli of the environment, to perform natural functions.

If your idea is correct, if the mind is somehow separate from the brain, then you’d have to account for the fact that one organ evolved not to do something completely natural – as every other organ does – but evolved to tap into some supernatural force. It’s hard to see how evolution, driven by natural, physical stimuli, could ever possibly produce an organ that connects people to the super-natural.

Love is the law, love under will.

Written By Donald Michael Kraig
on November 9th, 2011 @ 1:15 pm

Thank you for your comment, LOS, however we’ll have to agree to disagree. I think it’s fair for me to describe why.

First, I find your outright rejection of anecdotal evidence, rather than true refutation, simplistic. I realize there’s not a lot of space, here, but rather than try to cover a variety of points you could have presented a refutation for any single one. Your smoking example doesn’t look at evidence but at superficial appearances and far too small of a sample. This attempt to shrink the sample until it fits a predetermined result has been the bane of the works of debunkers and pseudo-skeptics. Your attribution of UFO sightings to “slack-jawed yokels” ignores the thousands of sightings by trained observers and professional pilots. I don’t think your attempt to insult these people and equate them with the untrained and ignorant is a reasonable argument, it is simply an attempt to make them look silly and discount their trained observations. I find your equating the experiences of thousand of observers with people who claim personal experience with aliens is sad, but it is often the approach of those who do not wish to actually deal with evidence.

In my post I never said anything about “alien spacecrafts” visiting our planet. Your outright misrepresentation of my statements is another technique often practiced by debunkers.

If I lived in New York City and someone said, “Run! There’s an elephant stampede!” I’d tend to doubt that anecdotal evidence. But if a thousand people gave the same story, maybe they aren’t seeing elephants, but I’d still run rather than be trampled by whatever it is they’re calling elephants.

Like it or not, psychology is considered a science, and two of the most important movers in that science were Freud and Jung. Discounting their impact on other sciences and the world by saying that psychology isn’t a “hard science” is another typical debunking method known as “moving the goalposts.” You don’t like their information and work so you don’t refute, you simply deny. This isn’t scientific method. It’s not science. And I would contend it’s not even real skepticism.

You’ve indicated you believe that “stimulation of the brain causes changes in consciousness” which sounds scientific but it is so self-evident that I don’t know why you have brought it up. If someone steps on your toe signals are sent to the brain and experienced as pain, a change in consciousness. Another technique of debunkers is to make something that is self-evident into a big scientific revelation when it is not.

In sum, you’ve made several claims where you simply deny rather than present any actual refutation. That is your choice, and the choice of many debunkers and pseudo-psychics. Respectfully, mocking, as you have attempted, is not science. Rejection rather than refutation is not science.

However, what I really find interesting is your use of surrounding statements indicating you claim to be a Thelemite. While I take you at your word, I find your claim interesting because many Thelemites consider one of Crowley’s drawings, that of LAM, to be of an extraterrestrial and Crowley often trusted anecdotal evidence (divinations) to make decisions, and he considered himself great at psychology. In your short response to my post you have thus attacked both Crowley and many fellow Thelemites. I would, therefore, say that people shouldn’t judge Thelema or Thelemites based on your positions.

Written By Los
on November 9th, 2011 @ 3:18 pm

If it’s alright with you, then, I’ll confine this post to a single point.

The literal, broadest definition of UFO – an “unidentified flying object” – is anything a person sees in the sky and cannot identify. By this definition, most people, including me, have seen countless UFOs in their lives: any time a person looks up at the sky and isn’t sure exactly what he’s looking at, he’s seen a UFO. Under this definition, UFOs absolutely do exist, and there are legitimate UFO-sightings. They are commonplace.

However, this definition of UFO is generally not the definition that skeptics take issue with.

If all you’re claiming is that people, including experts, aren’t always immediately able to identify what they see in the sky, you’ll get pretty much no argument because that’s awfully close to being self-evident and not even worth mentioning. I was assuming – and maybe it was a dangerous assumption – that by “UFO” you were specifically referring to the claim that alien spacecrafts are visiting the earth.

If you’d like to go on record as saying that you don’t think alien spacecrafts are visiting the earth – because there is insufficient evidence to accept such a claim – please do confirm this, and I will happily withdraw my criticism of your post on this point.

If, however, you *do* think that alien spacecrafts are visiting the earth – or if you think it’s any more likely than any other ridiculous claim – then I’ll continue to explore this point with you.

After all, anecdotal accounts can tell us that a bunch of people have seen unknown things and they don’t know what they were…but no amount of anecdotal testimony can confirm the claim “alien spaceships are visiting the earth.”

It’s similar to, say, the supposed “miracle of the sun” in Fatima, where somewhere around 100,000 people claimed to have seen the sun dancing around in the sky. Their testimony can tell us that they saw something, for sure, but no amount of anecdotal testimony can confirm that the sun actually moved or that “God” was doing it as a miracle – which people do claim about that event.

Anecdotal testimony, no matter how much of it you have, can’t confirm such extraordinary claims.

93, 93/93

Written By Donald Michael Kraig
on November 9th, 2011 @ 4:10 pm

I will absolutely go on record as saying that I believe the evidence indicating that alien spacecrafts are visiting the Earth is currently neither proven nor unproven. I will also absolutely go on record as saying that current attitudes and approaches by debunkers masquerading as skeptics prevent many scientists from researching the subject further for fear of their reputations and careers. The current actions of debunkers are making the science into more of a political playground than ever before.

You are correct that any object in the sky that is unidentified to an observer is a UFO. However, what you aren’t saying is that thousands of observers including professional pilots, astronauts, and military personnel who have been specifically trained in observing and identifying flying objects have also seen UFOs that do not fit any known aircraft shapes nor do they move according to known flight patterns.

Your example of the Miracle at Fatima would be appropriate except for a couple of things: first, it doesn’t identify what they saw and second, it didn’t take place over a period of more than 100 years. Many books have been written to try and explain what might have happened at Fatima (including ones using the “soft science” of psychology that you previously denounced) and this can be done because it happened at only one time. Still, it’s only guesses as to what did happen. If it had happened to thousands of people then and continued to happen to thousands of people today, the situation would be completely different. And that is what’s happening with UFOs.

Further, your limitations as to what UFOs might be is quite dated. Modern theories include everything from time travelers from our future to entities coming from other dimensions (the existence of other dimensions is part of modern quantum physics, although the number of dimensions is still hotly debated). Your conception that UFOs can only be ships run by aliens from other worlds (at least that’s all you have presented) is only one among many theories.

Respectfully, the problem with your denunciation is that you seem to have begun by assuming a particular mind-set of what can and cannot be. Your admirable defense of your position is not based on science so much as what appears to be a de-fact religion–what I call scientism. You will defend it with as much vigor as a fundamentalist defends creationism and using the same type of arguments.

What I stand for is science and research. Period. Not the type of science debunkers want where predetermined and limiting concepts determine what “should” be studied. During WWII the Nazis didn’t want to look at the ideas of the Jewish Einstein, slowing down their development of an atomic bomb. If they had not limited their research based on predetermined beliefs, the results of that war might have been far different.

Herbert Spencer wrote, “There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance—that principle is contempt prior to Investigation.” It is with him that I thoroughly agree.

Written By Los
on November 9th, 2011 @ 4:38 pm

You write: “I will absolutely go on record as saying that I believe the evidence indicating that alien spacecrafts are visiting the Earth is currently neither proven nor unproven.”

So, then, you would not describe yourself as a believer of the claim “alien spacecrafts are visiting the earth.” Nor, I take it, would you describe yourself as a believer of the claim “UFOs are time travelers” or any similar explanation.

Belief is binary: one is either a believer in a claim (that is, one accepts the claim based on evidence) or one is in a position of non-belief (which is the default position until evidence compels one to move from the default position of non-belief to a position of belief). Please note that being in the position of non-belief does not mean that one believes the claim is absolutely false or impossible: it simply means that one has not been convinced yet.

One might very well say that the evidence doesn’t point strongly one way or the other – and thus say that one does not know whether the claim is true – but *belief* (the accepting of a claim as true) can never be in an intermediary position. One has either been convinced to move out of the default position of non-belief, by evidence, or one remains (for the time being) in the default position of non-belief.

Skepticism involves not-accepting claims – that is, remaining in the default position of non-belief, remaining a non-believer – until one deems the evidence is sufficient.

Nothing you mention in your response above, as I assume you are aware, comes anywhere close to demonstrating that alien spacecrafts are visiting the earth or that time-travelers are buzzing the earth or any other similar claim. As such, the rational position is to remain in the default position of non-belief until evidence becomes compelling.

If you have no objections, I’d like to move on to the next point.

Written By Los
on November 9th, 2011 @ 4:44 pm

Alas, there is no edit feature here. I meant to add a sentence after the following: “As such, the rational position is to remain in the default position of non-belief until evidence becomes compelling.”

The added sentence is: “No amount of anecdotes, by themselves, would be sufficient to move one out of a position of non-belief on the issue of alien spacecrafts.”

And that’s really the point I was making: The plural of anecdote is not evidence. Anecdotes can tell you that people have seen something, but anecdotes cannot provide evidentiary support for any of these explanations one would assert for the phenomena.

Some other kind of evidence is necessary for an individual to move from the default position (non-belief) to a position of belief.

Written By Donald Michael Kraig
on November 9th, 2011 @ 4:59 pm

Belief is not binary. That, again, is a dated concept superseded by modern concepts of science and philosophy known as “fuzzy logic” which allows for X not being limited to A or not-A. Instead, X might be A, B or C.

What I am is a true skeptic. I neither believe nor disbelieve until evidence indicates a particular truth which may be something other than what the believer and disbelievers hold so dear. I want to go where the science leads, not begin with a philosophy and then attempt to support that philosophy even if it ignores evidence that might refute it.

Respectfully, your definition of skepticism is incomplete. You define it as being in “the default position of non-belief.” There is no such thing. Holding that position means you believe in something else. For example, concerning your limited definition of UFOs, your position is that they do not exist. That’s a belief. I have no doubt that you can pull up evidence to support your belief system. Similarly, people who believe UFOs exist can pull up evidence to support their belief system. I would contend that I hold the position of a true skeptic. It’s not a position of belief or disbelief, it’s a position of “I don’t know but I want to find out.”

While you and I find this discussion of the nature of skepticism interesting, it has, unfortunately, drifted from the focus of the original blog post. I’d like to thank you for your input. If you’d like to discuss McLuhan’s article in “Edge Science Magazine,” that would be appropriate there or, possibly here.

Written By Donald Michael Kraig
on November 9th, 2011 @ 7:49 pm

As a true skeptic I do not have a position of non-belief, I hold the position of openness, waiting for clarity.
Further, I respectfully partially disagree with what I perceive is your claim that no amount of anecdotes, by themselves, is evidence. One person sees something that occurs and shares it. Another does the same thing. A third does the same thing. That, I’m sure you will agree, forms three anecdotes. However, the repetition of experiments is the basis of the so-called scientific method. Where I would agree with you is that beyond anecdotes it is valuable also to be able to show cause and effect.
So the anecdotes, IMO, should lead to further research. When pseudo-skeptics and debunkers simply mock and discount them, they are going contrary to real scientific inquiry and the scientific method.

By the way, for people who have been following this discussion and are interested in what Los has to share, I would urge you to visit his blog at this LINK

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