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Do ‘Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence’?


Published: 7 March 2019 (GMT+10)

When dialoguing with skeptics, one phrase you can expect to see repeated time and time again is this: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

On the surface, this may seem quite reasonable. After all, how can we make an extraordinary claim if we don’t have the proper evidence to back it up? Upon closer examination, however, this statement turns out to be a clever sleight-of-hand; what counts as ‘extraordinary’ is subjective, and entirely dependent on your starting assumptions!

By making this statement, the skeptic is, in effect, asking you to write them a blank check to be just as intractable and unmovable as their heart desires, rejecting any and all evidence that they deem not ‘extraordinary’ enough to warrant belief. I urge you: don’t be willing to write them that blank check. Instead, insist that a reasonable and fair standard of evidence be applied—the same standards that are used in other areas.

Since all evidence is interpreted from within the framework of a person’s worldview, don’t expect that when we, for example, are arguing for the reliability of Scripture, or for the evidence of God’s existence from nature, that the skeptic will suddenly ‘see the light’ just because you mention things like early independent attestation (in the case of New Testament reliability) or the incredible design in nature (in the case of God’s existence). They already have ways of looking at these things through their ‘agnostic/atheist glasses’ that render these things unremarkable, or ‘not extraordinary enough’, in their eyes. Yet at the same time, they will embrace all manner of highly extraordinary claims (like chemical evolution or ‘abiogenesis’ and undirected evolution of life from single cells up to human beings) with very weak or no evidential backing.

The ‘extraordinary claims’ maxim is a double standard. You can usually be sure that the person uttering this statement is not willing to apply it to their own claims! If you play their rigged game and it proves unfruitful—as it almost certainly will—try a different tactic instead. Expose their non-Christian worldview for the incoherent mess that it inevitably is: take the roof off!

For example, you may ask the skeptic to justify their use of reason in the first place. Since they are attempting to sit in judgment against the Christian worldview, what is it about their worldview that grants them any justification for doing so? How can they trust their ability to reason, or their own sense perception? If they are evolutionists, then they believe they are the ultimate product of random mutations filtered through the process of natural selection. But we know that natural selection only serves to favor what works for survival! ‘Truth’ is totally irrelevant to this process. So, an evolutionist skeptic has to depend on their brains and their senses to give them ‘truth’, when their own worldview provides no basis for trusting these faculties. They may believe in evolution only because they are genetically predestined to do so—not because it has any merit as objective truth. In this way, we see that evolution is self-defeating as an epistemology or theory of knowledge.

You cannot change a skeptic’s heart to make them receptive to the truth of the Gospel, but that should not stop you from making mincemeat of their hypocritical arguments when you have the chance. Depending upon the situation, I would also highly recommend that you employ these techniques in as gentle and loving a manner as you can: “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still!”

Helpful Resources

Readers’ comments

Daniel M.
Remember, that the point of engaging with a skeptic is not to "win the argument" but lose the soul! The approach I would suggest is from apologist Greg Koukl's "Tactics" book: ask pointed questions. But you also want to establish ground rules first, like asking, "if I could show you evidence for intelligent design in nature, would you be open to accepting it?"

If this is a person you are likely to interact with regularly, establish a relationship with the person that builds trust that allows a true exchange of ideas. Show that you respect them as a person, even if you disagree with them, with questions like: "that's interesting, I haven't heard that before, how did you come to that conclusion?" Ask further clarifying questions that subtly probe the weaknesses in their argument. Always let them give their explanation first - it creates an unspoken obligation for them to give you a hearing so that you can explain the evidence that you've seen that supports the existence of God and Christianity in particular.

As you do all these things, try to get an understanding of the true basis for their skepticism. Is it based on media propaganda / school indoctrination or have they really done some homework? Is the person really open to the possibility of God's existence, or is it an excuse to avoid moral accountability (be careful not to jump to conclusions). Is their skepticism based on moral or natural evils that they've experienced that have caused them to doubt God's existence? We can sympathize with such people - a good book for such a person is Lee Strobel's The Case for Faith, which deals effectively with the emotional problem of evil.

Finally, as you engage, pray for the Spirit's wisdom, words, and love for the person you are conversing with.
Jerome B.
What I would like to do but haven't done yet is to turn it against them. Ex. What is extraordinary? Unusual or remarkable. It is more usual to suggest the universe came from God and more unusual to suggest something other than Him. Therefore if it is not God they are required to provide extraordinary evidence. Also the claim itself is extraordinary and therefore requires extraordinary evidence.
Joshua U.
The tag line “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” is very old. Dating at least to the time Christ walked among us! Remember... the Pharisees asked for “a sign” —- in the very midst of Jesus’ miracle working ministry! As He said: “a wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign...”
Mike D.
Ill add this story too that you reminded me of. I once had a Twitter follower send me a link that was suppose to destroy the ID argument. Interestingly enough it was a man arguing that since there were so many different models of cars it proved evolution & destroyed ID. I tweeted back to her asking if she was sure that was her best argument to me. She replied yes. I then replied. Thanks for proving my points. Everyone of those cars took an Intelligent Designer. They could never have occurred by Random trial & error. & esp w/o any ID feedback giving feedback on whether it was on the right track track. I said to her. My example to you is this. Evolution is like this. Mother Nature which obviously has no reasoning thinking brain. It decides that My Rushmore needs faces on it of Key people. So it unites all the forces of nature to form those faces. Then it decides like magic to use faith & the supernatural to change those inanimate objects to living faces, although the rest of the body isn't formed yet. I asked. Go ahead & sell me how that's possible. You must believe so since that's basically like evolution.

Of course it took a few tweets to do this. After my last question to her. She never replied & blocked me. Again they showed they can't handle the truth when exposed to the fallacy & illogic & non sense of what they have been "BRAINWASHED" to believe. Truly sad! Even worse imho is Christians that have compromised to that view & worse defend it selling out Jesus Thee Creator God who in bodily form is the Word of God. John 1 & Rev 19:13.
Gian Carlo B.
Simply ask them this:
"What extraordinary evidence can you offer that demonstrates that extraordinary claims must be extraordinary to prove the extraordinary?"
Or "Do you have objective evidence of a philosophical criteria, verified by scholars and philosopher's; that can measure extraordinariness as an evidential criteria that proves the extraordinary and what examples of history can you point to that proves extraordinary claims were proven by means of said extraordinary evidences and how exactly was the extraordinariness criteria fulfilled?"

If they are _incapable_, I repeat, _incapable_, of producing an iota of an example or objective measure of extraordinariness in _any_ evidence throughout history in the history of science, you have _absolutely no obligation_ whatsoever to take them seriously, and you can even ridicule them until they stop playing this super low IQ tactic. I tried this once against an internet atheist and he just trampled himself in his knots and literally shutdown his cognitive faculties. This means Carl Sagan's and David Hume's maxim is nothing more than emotional contempt to claims that conflict with their worldviews and wave out imaginary criteria with no objective basis in reality and the responsible assessment of evidence. Heck, John Earman in his book _Humes Abject Failure_ showed that David's Maxim fails even in the scientific enterprise when carried out to it's final consequences.
Rolf B.
As a general rule it is much easier to expose the flaws in a poor argument than to prove the soundness of one's own position.
So rather than trying to 'prove' the soundness of biblical creation I now try to change the conversation into me asking the other person why they believe in evolution - what proof can they offer to support their evolutionary ideas.
Paul Price
Yes, and you can take it even further than that: if evolution is true, what makes them think they have the ability to judge truth from falsehood to begin with? Would you trust a brain that is the product of randomness and natural selection, or a finely designed one? If our brains are not the product of God, then we cannot have confidence in anything at all.
Mike D.
This is so true. What's so hypocritical about their MACRO evolution is they claim they don't use FAITH or SUPERNATURAL! When in fact they use Massive amounts of both. It breaks so many laws of science that evolution has to have created that it takes so much FAITH & SUPERNATURAL for Macro evolution to overcome to be possible besides the impossible mathematical odds against it too!

Be careful when you expose this to them. I did to a young man yrs ago. It got him so upset & baffled he actually hit me & ran off. I still suffer from it. I pray at least the thoughts have stuck with him & are working on him to this day.

Fortunately that's the only time That's happened that way when I expose that to them. But it is hard for them to get their head around it due to extreme brainwashing they've been through in school. Plus people today are not taught & many have lost the ability to do critical analysis. Its hard finding honest academic people today. BTW if you can find it. Read in Physics Today June 2000 article Dr Mano Singham how he admits as a College Prof how he uses Brainwashing etc techniques teaching evolution.
John M.
I agree totally with the arguments made in this article. Cheers and keep up the excellent work. It may never be realised until the return of the Messiah, just how valuable your efforts to hold the line have been, especially in this modern western secularised world in which we now live.
Dan B.
All very good points. I also like to complement ECDEE with EEDEC - extraordinary effects demand extraordinary causes!

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