Throughout history people have made outlandish claims — whether of the supernatural, of miracles or other unworldly ‘magical’ phenomenon. However, one needs to remember that amazing claims require amazing evidence; subjective anecdotal evidence just doesn’t cut it. For supernatural claims to be taken seriously, on a scientific level, they must be supported by objective evidence. In all cases that evidence needs to be gained by demonstration or experimentation, and such tests need to be done under controlled observing conditions.

One individual who has done more than most in raising people’s collective consciousness to this is ex-magician and well known skeptic, James Randi. He has spent much of his career investigating claims of the paranormal and pseudo science by bringing to bear his considerable knowledge of how easily the general public can be misled, using simple conjuring tricks.

During a radio panel discussion in 1964 he was challenged by a parapsychologist to put his money where his mouth was and that’s exactly what he did. In response he offered to pay the sum of $10,000 to any person who could demonstrate their claimed paranormal power or pseudo scientific phenomenon, under proper observing conditions. Over the years, this sum of money increased and with the help of a generous donation it eventually reached 1 million dollars. This offer is still open but to date nobody has been able to claim the prize. Some have been found to be trying to use conjuring tricks which are easily spotted by Randi or the panel of experts. Others have been unable to demonstrate their claim as anything more than chance phenomenon, once some simple controls have been added.

The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) also takes applications to demonstrate supernatural phenomenon. Once again, nobody has ever been able to demonstrate such things under controlled conditions.

“But wait!” I hear you say. “Science cannot disprove the existence of God.”

Science may not be able to disprove the existence of God but that does not mean, by default,  God actually exists. There are hundreds of things we can’t disprove and, generally, one cannot prove a negative.

The philosopher Bertrand Russell had one of the best analogies on this very subject.

“Imagine someone asserts that there’s a china teapot in orbit around the sun. One cannot disprove the existence of the teapot because it’s too small to be spotted by our telescopes. However nobody but a lunatic would be prepared to believe in the teapot just because they can’t disprove it.”

There are any number of celestial teapots that we can’t disprove. For example consider fairies and unicorns. We can’t disprove them but we don’t believe in them — any more than we believe today in the various polytheistic gods of the past like Thor, Amon Ra, Zeus or Apollo.

There is an interesting little 4-minute video, inspired by the cosmologist Carl Sagan, called “There’s a Dragon in my Garage“.  Sagan pondered the dilemma of the dragon’s owner trying to explain to a friend that the dragon was real, in spite of his lack of evidence.  Clearly, there are religious parallels.

Never forget that the burden of proof is always on those making the amazing claim. They cannot pass this burden unless they provide credible evidence, mutually supported by other corroborating and objective evidence. Just because one may be unable to ‘disprove’ an amazing claim does not — by default — give it credibility. This was perhaps best put by the late Christopher Hitchens who said, “That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence”.

Atheism SA Inc. active atheist assoc., Adelaide South Australia, for atheists, agnostics and non-believers.