The Sagan standard is the aphorism that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" (sometimes shortened to ECREE).[1] It is named for science communicator Carl Sagan, who used the phrase in his 1979 book Broca's Brain and the 1980 television program Cosmos. The standard has been described as fundamental to the scientific method and is regarded as encapsulating the basic principles of scientific skepticism.

Sagan is pictured besides a Viking lander mockup
Carl Sagan popularized the eponymous standard.

The Sagan standard is similar to Occam's razor in that both heuristics prefer simpler explanations of a phenomenon to more complicated ones. In application, there is some ambiguity regarding when evidence is deemed sufficiently "extraordinary". The Sagan standard is often invoked to challenge data and scientific findings, or to criticize psuedoscientific claims. Some critics have argued that the standard could suppress innovation and affirm confirmation biases.

Similar statements were previously made by figures such as Thomas Jefferson in 1808, Pierre-Simon Laplace in 1814, and Théodore Flournoy in 1899. The formulation "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof" was used just a year prior to Sagan, by scientific skeptic Marcello Truzzi. It has also been argued that philosopher David Hume first fully characterized the principles of the Sagan standard in his 1748 essay "Of Miracles".

Application Edit

An interesting debate has gone on within the [Federal Communications Commission] between those who think that all doctrines that smell of pseudoscience should be combated and those who believe that each issue should be judged on its own merits, but that the burden of proof should fall squarely on those who make the proposals. I find myself very much in the latter camp. I believe that the extraordinary should certainly be pursued. But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Carl Sagan in his 1979 book Broca's Brain[2]

The Sagan standard,[3][4][5] according to psychologist Patrizio Tressoldi, "is at the heart of the scientific method, and a model for critical thinking, rational thought and skepticism everywhere".[6] It has also been described it as a "fundamental principle of scientific skepticism".[7] The phrase is often used in the context of paranormal and other pseudoscientific claims.[8][9][10] It is also frequently invoked in scientific literature to challenge research proposals, like a new species of Amazonian tapir,[7] biparental inheritance of mitochondrial DNA,[11] or a Holocene "mega-tsunami".[12]

The standard is related to Occam's razor as, according to such a heuristic, simpler explanations are preferred to more complicated ones. Only in situations where extraordinary evidence exists would an extraordinary claim be the simplest explanation.[8] A routinized form of this appears in hypothesis testing where the hypothesis that there is no evidence for the proposed phenomenon, what is known as the "null hypothesis", is preferred. The formal argument involves assigning a stronger Bayesian prior to the acceptance of the null hypothesis as opposed to its rejection.[13]

Analysis and criticism Edit

Science communicator Carl Sagan did not describe any concrete or quantitative parameters as to what constitutes "extraordinary evidence", which raises the issue of whether the standard can be applied objectively.[6][14][15] Academic David Deming notes that it would be "impossible to base all rational thought and scientific methodology on an aphorism whose meaning is entirely subjective". He instead argues that "extraordinary evidence" should be regarded as a sufficient amount of evidence rather than evidence deemed of extraordinary quality.[14] Tressoldi noted that the threshold of evidence is typically decided through consensus.[6] This problem is less apparent in clinical medicine and psychology where statistical results can establish the strength of evidence.[6]

Deming also noted that the standard can "suppress innovation and maintain orthodoxy".[16] It has been asserted that most scientific discoveries that spurred paradigm shifts were initially deemed "extraordinary" and would not have been so widely accepted if extraordinary evidence were required.[17][18] Psychologist Richard Shiffrin has argued that the standard should not be used to bar research from publication but to ascertain what is the best explanation for a phenomenon.[19] Uniform rejection of extraordinary claims could affirm confirmation biases in subfields.[18] Conversely, mathematical psychologist Eric-Jan Wagenmakers stated that extraordinary claims are often false and their publication "pollutes the literature".[20]

Cognitive scientist and AI researcher Ben Goertzel believes that the phrase is utilized as a "rhetorical meme" without critical thought.[10] Philosopher Theodore Schick argued that "extraordinary claims do not require extraordinary evidence" if it is the most adequate explanation.[10]

Origin and precursors Edit

Philosopher David Hume may have been the first to fully describe the principles of the Sagan standard.

Sagan popularized the aphorism in his 1979 book Broca's Brain,[2][14] and in his 1980 television show Cosmos in reference to claims about extraterrestrials visiting Earth.[21] Sagan had first stated the eponymous standard in a 1977 interview with The Washington Post.[22] However, scientific skeptic Marcello Truzzi used the formulation "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof" in an article published by Parapsychology Review in 1975,[22] as well as in a Zetetic Scholar article in 1978.[23] Two 1978 articles quoted physicist Philip Abelson—then the editor of the journal Science—using the same phrasing as Truzzi.[24][25]

In his 1748 essay "Of Miracles", philosopher David Hume wrote that if "the fact ... partakes of the extraordinary and the marvelous ... the evidence ... received a diminution, greater or less, in proportion as the fact is more or less unusual". Deming concluded that this was the first complete elucidation of the standard. Unlike Sagan, Hume defined the nature of "extraordinary": he wrote that it was a large magnitude of evidence.[26]

Others had also put forward very similar ideas. Quote Investigator cites similar statements from Benjamin Bayly (in 1708), Arthur Ashley Sykes (1740), Beilby Porteus (1800), Elihu Palmer (1804), and William Craig Brownlee (1824), all of whom used it in the context of the extraordinary claims of Christian theology and the putative extraordinary evidence supplied by the Bible.[22] The French scholar Pierre-Simon Laplace, in essays (1810 and 1814) on the stability of the Solar System, wrote that "the weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportioned to its strangeness".[6][22] Thomas Jefferson in an 1808 letter expresses contemporary skepticism of meteorites thus: "A thousand phenomena present themselves daily which we cannot explain, but where facts are suggested, bearing no analogy with the laws of nature as yet known to us, their verity needs proofs proportioned to their difficulty."[27][28]

See also Edit

References Edit

Citations Edit

Works cited Edit

Books Edit

  • Broderick D.; Goertzel B., eds. (2015). Evidence for Psi: Thirteen Empirical Research Reports. McFarland. ISBN 9780786478286.
  • Kaufman, Marc (2012). First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Hunt for Life Beyond Earth (Reprint ed.). Simon and Schuster. ISBN 9781439109014.
  • Kiely, John; Pickering, Craig; Halperin, Israel (2019). "Comment on "Biological Background of Block Periodized Endurance Training: A Review"". Sports Medicine. 49: 1475–1477.
  • Matthews, Paul (2010). Sample Size Calculations: Practical Methods for Engineers and Scientists. Mathews Malnar and Bailey. ISBN 978-0615324616.
  • Sagan, Carl (1979). Broca's Brain: The Romance of Science. Hodder and Stoughton. ISBN 9780394501697.
  • Smith, Jonathan C. (2011). Pseudoscience and Extraordinary Claims of the Paranormal: A Critical Thinker's Toolkit. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 9781444358940.

Journal articles Edit

Other media Edit