"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence".
This is only true when the claim really is extraordinary.
And the criterion of extraordinary ought to be that of common sense - the wisdom of the ages - extraordinary cannot be defined by whatever weird beliefs Westerners of 2011 have been filled-with.
This phrase "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence"is attributed to Carl Sagan - which is hardly any kind of recommendation for its validity in my book - but it is a common, near-universal, rhetorical move used by people to dismiss claims that they want to dismiss.
It is a standard method of 'debunking'.
Let's think of one extraordinary claim, as it is perceived to be in mainstream modern discourse: 'psychic dreams'.
I mean dreams that mean something more than having reference to personal psychology and physiology - especially dreams that foretell future events or provide knowledge of remote or inaccessible matters.
Does the claim that there really are psychic dreams count as extraordinary, such that it should not be believed without extraordinary evidence?
1. Every child apparently believes in psychic dreams. Such a belief is apparently spontaneous.
2. All of the hunter-gatherer, nomadic tribes I have ever read about seem to regard psychic dreams as not just real but very important for tribal well being - having and interpreting such dreams may be the role of the 'shaman'.
3. Educated intellectuals in, say, medieval Europe, seemed to believe in psychic dreams. For instance, Chaucer did, and wrote about little else. Langland's great poem Piers Plowman is also structured as a series of symbolic and insightful dreams.
4. JRR Tolkien, C.S Lewis and some of the Inklings believed in psychic dreams and were indeed fascinated by them - as I have documented on this blog and the Notion Club Paper's blog.
5. A lot of modern people in modern societies actually do believe in psychic dreams, as I see from a recent article by Erlendur Haraldsson in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (2011; 75: 76-90).
In Iceland 36% men and 41% women (30% of university graduates) report having had experience of psychic dreams. This proportion rose between 1974 and 2006.
In terms of attitudes, 30% Icelanders thought psychic dreams were likely, a further 26 percent thought they were certain - more than half the population.
In other countries, 40 percent of people in Virginia USA reported experiencing psychic dreams, 35% of people in the UK said they believed in psychic dreams.
So it seems that most people of most types in most places seem to believe in the reality of psychic dreams, and even in modern societies at least a quarter of people still do.
So, why are psychic dreams counted as extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence?
(In practice, to state this about psychic dreams means that there is nothing which would ever be enough to convince the skeptic of the reality of psychic dreams.)
The matter of psychic dreams is important because it shows how a common sense belief, a universal and cross-cultural human belief, and what is more a belief held by some of the most intelligent and able people in history, can be framed by mainstream modern discourse as being so utterly extraordinary that there is no point in considering the evidence of the matter since any evidence is certain to be insufficiently extraordinary.
Vast areas of basic human conviction and experience are eliminated from mainstream public discourse by this method: once a belief has been labelled extraordinary, then that belief becomes intrinsically and irrevocably absurd such that only stupid or evil people could hold it.
The knowledge and experience and wisdom of the ages - matters we all used to know as children - matters which in fact are believed by a quarter or half the population - become (sometimes quite suddenly) excluded from all serious consideration.
Yet the truly extraordinary claims - extraordinary claims made by the intellectual elite concerning matters of the greatest human import such as morality, beauty and the nature of truth; matters of vital fact - such extraordinary claims distinctive to the Leftist rulers rapidly are progress from oddball hypotheses, to careerist intellectual fashions, then to become not merely accepted in public discourse, but positively encouraged, subsidized and rewarded, then ruthlessly enforced...
This is the actual nature of skepticism in modernity.
The official skeptic makes a big display of gagging and spitting on ideas such as psychic dreams which are human universals, then effortlessly swallows great draughts of socially-approved poisonous, nihilistic drivel.