Lots of Sensible Stuff Is Really Really Crazy
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. It’s a sensible statement- if you’re going to have a crazy theory, and you want people to believe it, you should have something really, really good to back that up. But what consitutes an extraordinary claim?
I’ve recently been doing some thinking about some of the basic, ordinary facts about the world we live in that, on the face of it, are completely batshit insane. You know. The way that we live on a ball of rock hurtling through an unimaginably massive universe that somehow ended up in orbit around a giant ball of explosion that’s been exploding the fuck out of itself for billions of years. Oh, and the nice, solid ground that I spend my life wandering about on is actually floating on a layer of rock that has turned to sludge which every so often breaks through the surface at temperatures that would fry me in seconds and that is why people are currently spending a lot of time, eh, bored and waiting in airports. Oh, and I’m (and you are!) distantly related to both the herpes virus, and the sausages I just ate for breakfast. And the bread I ate them on. And this is without even beginning to mention the fact that space and time themselves can be squashed and stretched and all sorts. Oh, and this place where I’m sitting right now used to have frackin’ dinosaurs on it. Dinosaurs! Right here. It was covered in ‘em. Oh, and we’re all made of stardust.
Seriously, this stuff is crazy when you think about it. The fact that I, and maybe some of you, have always taken it for granted is mainly thanks to the fact that many of us were told it as kids, when we believed just about anything.
Crazy is where you’re coming from
Last week I was at work reading* ‘The Greatest Show On Earth’, Dawkins’ new-ish book on the evidence for evolution. It’s a great read, by the way. The guy next to me- let’s call him Bob, which is not his name- saw what I was reading, and mentioned that while he hadn’t read any Dawkins, he had heard good things about him. At this point I probably murmured something vaguely agreeable and hoped he’d let me read the damn thing**. I was not to be so lucky- Bob started talking about how, while evolution is totally true, like, it’s not the way They say it is. And that he knows that They are trying to mess with the timelines, dude, and hiding evidence of pre-human civilisations for, eh, some reason he didn’t mention. Fortunately, I barely had time to raise even one of my eyebrows before my phone rang and I could escape into the far more sensible world of explaining to someone that yes, they were expected to pay the entire amount on their bill.
It’s obvious to me that if anyone were to find evidence, good evidence, of entire civilisations existing before we’d gotten around to evolving our nice big brains, they would be thinking less about hiding this from everyone than about making space on the mantelpiece for their shiny new Nobel. Not to mention clearing space in their diary for the astonishingly lucrative speaking tours and TV appearances. And getting a nice new haircut for the photo that’s going to be all over the history books, forever. Sure, they’d have to go through a thorough grilling from a good chunk of their fellows, but that, of course, means many, many publications for years to come.
It’s easy for me to say this. I’ve been hanging around universities long enough to know how this stuff works. But that’s not the case for everyone.
Myths and Stories
If there’s one thing that people love, it’s a good story. When it comes to science, and the pursuit of knowledge in general, one of our favourite stories comes right from the pages of, well, all of our other stories. It is, by the way, the myth of the renegade scientist coming up with an incredible idea or insight which nobody believes, fighting the establishment, and, after years at the very least but often decades or even centuries, being vindicated. It’s an awesome story, it gets us right between the Robin Hoods and the Luke Skywalkers. Particularly when the person dies long before their ideas are accepted- oh, we love a good tragedy, with a big heap of ‘if-only’. We identify with the protagonist, we empathise with their struggles against The Man, we root for them, we cheer for their eventual vindication, and we boo the people who were ‘too closed-minded’ to let go of ideas which are patently ridiculous to our eyes. Narratives like this make sense to us. They have well-defined storylines and satisfying endings. Lucky for us, history is littered with these kind of figures. We have oodles and oodles to choose from, in any field you care to mention- start at Socrates and work your way up, you’ll find no shortage of drama and tragedy.
A short intermission
Since we’re talking about narratives, this point is where I tell you to go away from here, click on a link, and get back to me in ten minutes. I want you to read about the Monkeysphere. If you already know all about the monkeysphere- awesome! You get a super gold star. If you haven’t, then you should go and read it and you can have your super gold star when you come back.
Done? Lovely. Apologies for not explaining that myself, but it’s already been done so well.
And that had what to do with everything?
It’s all about the idea of Real People, the ones I know, versus Them. ‘They’ can be any giant, faceless group of people who are In On It, who have an Agenda and who Don’t Want Us To Know The Truth. The Establishment is a big one, by the way. Generally, though, as long as someone’s capitalising a ‘They’, you can be reasonably sure they’re talking about something way outside their monkeysphere. And we are really, really vulnerable to being manipulated when people have us by the, eh, monkeyspheres. Think of the arguments made by creationists, anti-vaccination activists, anti-gay groups- a common thread is that They are trying to pull the wool over Our eyes, to further Their agenda and take power away from Us. And We are, well, the people you know and love. Your kid with autism, your uncle left by his wife who was having an affair with another woman, all the people from your church/mosque/synagogue/temple who were so welcoming when you moved into this town, and who really went out of their way to be there for you and help you through that hard time you had. Those are real people, having real difficulties and issues, who really care about each other and want to help each other through things. They, on the other hand, are people you’ve never met, representatives of institutions you’ve never seen, and They are going around talking as if you’re stupid if you don’t agree that most of the things you take for granted are completely wrong. Also, they believe in ridiculous things- like that animals somehow change into other animals (wtf?!), that the universe is billions of years old (wtf?!), even that you can’t trust the evidence of your very eyes. And did I mention that they think you’re stupid?
In addition to this, we have the fact that many of the explanations that we have found for just about everything in the universe don’t fit into any narrative. They can be intellectually satisfying and beautifully elegant, but they can often be emotionally lacking. When we ask a question like “why are we here?”, then the answer “we are one of the products of billions of years of natural selection, which is still going on, and whose only point is that it continues, and which has been putting every bit as much time into the herpes virus***”, just doesn’t get to many of us the same way that mythic narratives can. When a parent has a kid with autism, it’s a lot more satisfying to be able to blame Big Pharma (which has, in any case, a history of dodgy behaviour), than to accept that we just plain don’t know the answer, but we’re working on it.
Can we get back to the point? This was supposed to be about extraordinary claims- it says so, right there up on the top of the page.
Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten the point. I just needed to take a roundabout way to get there. The point that I want to make is that yes, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Which claims are extraordinary, though, depends almost entirely on where you’re coming from. If people that you know and trust, people who have shown themselves to be good and kind and caring people, tell you that a thing is true, then you’re likely to believe them. Or at least, to want to. Especially if their answers are emotionally satisfying and help in making sense of nonsensical events. Especially if the alternatives are things which seem ridiculous, counter-intuitive, or require months or years of study to even begin to grasp. Especially if those who advocate these ridiculous-seeming claims aren’t people you know and trust, but are complete strangers, representatives of institutions far outside your monkeysphere. It’s a tough thing to get past, to counter, argue with, or even to discuss. The major point I want to get across, though, is this: Many of the things we**** know to be true are, on the face of it, completely batsh*t insane. If you’re trying to argue them to people, you’d better remember that and take it into account. Also, when you’re on the side of established fact, you’re always going to be against every person who not only has a crazy idea with little/no good evidence for it, but who also has the narrative power of Joan of Arc, Robin Hood and Luke Skywalker all rolled into one. And while hopefully you won’t end up there, you’re starting off as, of not Darth Vader, at the very least a stormtrooper. Good luck!
By the way…
Yeah, here’s where I put a bit of moralising in. Things like this are why openness and being ‘out’ are so, so important. If you’re going to be arguing for something truly extraordinary, it helps to be a bit more girl/guy next door than One Of Them.
*I answer phones for money. The phone wasn’t ringing. Hence, book!
** I’d say this makes me misanthropic, but don’t we all sometimes wish people would leave us alone at least until the end of the chapter?
***Apologies for anthropomorphising. Also, for repeated mentions of the herpes virus. For one thing, it’s not like there’s just one of them, so that’s entirely inaccurate.
****Ooh er. I said ‘we’. Ye’re all in my monkeysphere now lads.