Dr David Robert Grimes is this year’s winner of the John Maddox Prize for standing up for science. In this guest post, he argues that it’s important for us all to challenge extraordinary claims.
We often take for granted just how incredible the era we live in is. We’re the first generation in human history for whom information on any and all subjects is available quite literally at our very fingertips. This is incredibly empowering, but can sometimes be a double-edged sword…
While instantaneous access to practically the entire wealth of human knowledge is something that is now part of our lives, it is somewhat paradoxical that this same freedom of information allows falsehoods and misinformation to perpetuate further and faster than ever before.
Obviously then, sources matter when we must ascertain the veracity of any information. But evaluating sources can be a difficult task, and often impractical for an individual. Objective, well-sourced information is crucial if we are to make informed and pragmatic decisions. And evidence should be paramount in everything we do, from selecting a political candidate to support to choosing the best car to buy.
‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’
From practically every aspect of the modern world, we are accosted by a multitude of claims, promises and warnings. But it is vital to remember that without evidence, any claim is merely sound and fury. Unless supporting evidence is offered, healthy scepticism should be our default position to any claim.
Carl Sagan’s dictum that ‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’ is an excellent guiding principle in not only the scientific world, but in our everyday life too.
Continue to insist on evidence
However, while the onus for substantiating a claim almost always lies with the party asserting it, it is not uncommon for those making questionable assertions to claim it is the responsibility of others to prove them wrong, rather than for them to verify their statements. This is a rather devious tactic and it pays to be wary of this rhetorical fallacy.
It is important we don’t accept such attempts to wrangle out of providing evidence, and continue to insist on it. Asking for evidence is therefore important as it reminds those promoting their wares that the onus is on them to support their assertions.
From a consumer point of view, objective and verifiable information is of vital importance in making good decisions, and this is certainly something that the Which? Convo community has much to contribute to.
Do you challenge products that make extraordinary claims, such as the ‘drinkable sunscreen’ that Which? uncovered? What was the outcome?
This is a guest post Dr David Robert Grimes, a scientist at the University of Oxford. He was awarded the 2014 John Maddox Prize for promoting science and evidence on controversial issues, such as nuclear power and climate change. The award is named after the late Sir John Maddox, who was editor of Nature for 22 years. All views are David’s own, not necessarily those of Which?.