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{Published in the Colorado Springs Gazette, May 25, 2011}

It’s been a good news cycle for critical thinkers. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and over the past few weeks we’ve been blessed with three of them:

1) The world will end on May 21st, 2) Prayers in the name of a deceased religious leader can cure Parkinson’s, and 3) Osama bin Laden is dead.

How these claims were treated says a lot about how we know what we know. Why do we believe the things we do? What counts as evidence? What would make us change our minds? Exploring these claims can help answer these questions.

Evangelist Harold Camping predicted the end of the world on May 21. Secularists and believers alike reviled him and his followers as kooks. I say: Give the man credit. He had the guts to make a testable prediction. Turns out the world didn’t end. He was wrong.

There’s nothing wrong with being wrong. Being wrong is an opportunity to learn, to improve yourself, to discover more about the world. What’s frustrating is how many times Camping had been wrong before, and yet people still believed him. In fact, last I checked, people have been wrong about every prediction of the Apocalypse ever made. Yet people still believe in them, convinced they are doing the right thing.

Why? What’s good about that kind of belief? What is ennobling, or positive, or life-enhancing about that level of self-deception? As far as I can tell, nothing at all.

The Pope’s claim about a miraculous cure of Parkinson’s is more interesting. A French nun with Parkinson’s claimed to be cured two months after praying to Pope John Paul II. This claim was judged authentic because it had “no scientific explanation”.

No scientific explanation? Says who? Degenerative and incurable diseases go into remission all the time, whether prayed for or no. Must we also accept the miraculous prayers of Muslim clergy, whose testimony meets exactly the same standard? How about the miraculous healing powers of Joseph Smith? Why must everything that we currently don’t understand be evidence of supernatural forces? Why do people think what is currently unexplained is forever unexplainable?

It is to the church’s credit that it wants claims of miracles to be checked. But that is not enough. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The overwhelming body of evidence that humanity has painstakingly amassed says that prayer has no effect on medical outcomes. This puts a higher burden of proof on those who would say otherwise.

That doesn’t mean that the nun who reported her cure is lying. Nor does it mean the church officials who investigated the claim are not intelligent, thoughtful people. It just means that they aren’t thinking critically. Which means their beliefs are likely to be wrong.

Finally, we come to bin Laden’s death. This claim is something we desperately want to believe, which means that we need to be especially careful. Being careful means asking for evidence, which our government claims to have.

A hardcore skeptic might ask to see the evidence. Personally, I’d love to see the entire DNA forensic report online. But barring that, I would argue at a minimum the government’s claim shifts the burden of proof onto those who believe bin Laden is alive. That’s not as good as published DNA analysis and a YouTube video. But it helps. A lot.

It’s clear that all involved in reporting Bin Laden’s death knew that the American public wouldn’t merely accept their claim at face value. That’s a good thing.

Some people will not be convinced by any evidence, as the various bizarre theories now floating around Pakistan show. That’s not the point. The point is that America is a country where, at least sometimes, evidence and critical thinking, as opposed to credulous belief and arguments from authority, can inform our politics.

As long as that remains true, there is hope for our country.

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