Extraordinary claim? Check. Extraordinary evidence? Umm…

The late Carl Sagan popularized the phrase “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” (I mistakenly thought it was the late atheist warmonger Christopher Hitchens-you learn something new every day). Central to critical thinking and skepticism, the phrase is often uttered in skeptic, atheist, and rationalist circles.  “God exists”, “aliens visited ancient civilizations and erected massive structures”, “Bigfoot is real”, and “psychics can commune with the dead” are just some of the extraordinary claims the phrase is applied to. Believers in psychic powers, aliens, or gods often have little to no evidence to back up their claims (and when they do provide what they think of as evidence, it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny), let alone the extraordinary evidence necessary to convince others that [for example] human beings can communicate with the dead. Obviously the popular phrase doesn’t apply to all claims.  When I tell readers that I ordered a deep-dish pepperoni and Italian sausage pizza from Domino’s Pizza earlier, that’s not an extraordinary claim. Why? Domino’s Pizza exists.  That can be confirmed by millions of other people. You can visit their stores. You can view their online site. Phone numbers and addresses exist for their locations. The names of franchise owners can be found. Articles discussing their products can be Googled. You can actually call them up, order food, and have it delivered to your door.  All of that is evidence that Domino’s Pizza exists. Contrast that with the lack of evidence to support the claim that

  • the positions of the planets and stars affect the personalities of human beings
  • Uri Gellar can bend spoons with the power of his mind
  • any deity exists-be it Odin, Zeus, Hephaestus, Isis, Osiris, Quetzalcoatl, Allah, or Yahweh

Nor is there, to the best of my knowledge, any evidence to support the claim that airplanes existed in India 7,000 years ago:

Aeroplanes existed in 7,000 years ago and they travelled from one country to another and from one planet to another, the Indian Science was told today in a controversial lecture that examined ancient aviation technology in the Vedas.

The hosting of the lecture, presented by Captain Anand J Bodas, a retired principal of a pilot training facility, had recently attracted criticism from some scientists who said it undermined the primacy of empirical evidence on which the 102-year-old Congress was founded.

The lecture was presented on the second day of the Congress under the aegis of University as part of a symposium on ‘Ancient Sciences through Sanskrit’.

Drawing upon the ancient Vedic texts to support the claim that there was flying technology in ancient India, Bodas said, “There is a reference of ancient aviation in the Rigveda.”

He said Maharishi Bharadwaj spoke 7,000 years ago of “the existence of aeroplanes which travel from one country to another, from one continent to another and from one planet to another. He mentioned 97 reference books for aviation.”

“History merely notes that the Wright brothers first flew in 1904,” he said.

Bharadwaj, who authored the book Vimana Samhita, had written about various types of metal alloys used to build an aeroplane, Bodas said, adding, “Now we have to import aeroplane alloys. The young generation should study the alloys mentioned in his book and make them here,”

He also spoke of the “huge” aeroplanes which flew in ancient India. “The basic structure was of 60 by 60 feet and in some cases, over 200 feet. They were jumbo planes,” he said.

“The ancient planes had 40 small engines. Today’s aviation does not know even of flexible exhaust system,” he said.

The ancient Indian radar system was called ‘rooparkanrahasya’. “In this system, the shape of the aeroplane was presented to the observer, instead of the mere blimp that is seen on modern radar systems,” he said.

Bharadwaj’s book mentioned a diet of pilots. It contained of milk of buffalo, cow and sheep for specific periods, Bodas said.

The pilot’s dress cloth came from vegetation grown underwater, he said.

An online petition by a scientist at the NASA research centre had demanded that the scheduled lecture be cancelled as it mixes mythology with science.

The comments by Bodas came a day after Union Minister for Science and Technology Harsh Vardhan told the Congress that Algebra and the Pythagoras’ theorem both originated in India but the credit for these has gone to people from other countries.

Incidentally, these 7K-year-old airplanes must have been far more advanced than the airliners of today, as there is no plane I know of that can achieve the speed necessary to escape the pull of Earth’s gravity*, let alone the speeds necessary for interplanetary travel.

*escape velocity, roughly 25,000 mph

Extraordinary claim? Check. Extraordinary evidence? Umm…