Onus of the Burden of Proof

Home » Onus of the Burden of Proof

When it comes to intellectual argument and debate, there’s a philosophical concept known as the “Burden of Proof” that should (when observed properly) direct the debate at hand.  Argument is truth-seeking and is concerned with leading us to hold true and accurate beliefs/assumptions – and therefore rejecting false beliefs.

Lazy thinking and sloppy argumentative technique usually rule the day however. If you have any concern for Proper Thinking you’ll want to understand this often-misapplied concept.

Accompanying this idea is a logical fallacy known as “Shifting of the Burden of Proof.” I’ll get to that momentarily, but let’s first understand what the basic concept conveys.

Burden of Proof

Burden of Proof (Latin: onus probandi) is pretty straight-forward:

The person making an assertion (a positive claim or proposition; or that something exists) has the burden to prove that claim as true. It’s the logical responsibility to provide sufficient supporting evidence for any arguments they make. Good reasoners and thinkers should always be able to provide reasons for their assertions.

Claims without proof or evidence provide nothing towards securing a picture of truth and reality – which we as rational and reasoning human beings should always be pursuing. Not all claims can be true. We should be focusing on the activities and arguments that get us to real truth (reality). Anything else is embracing irrationality.

There are some elements of this philosophical concept that should probably be questioned and assessed for their validity:

  • What exactly is a positive claim (assertion)?
  • Can a negative claim be re-phrased to be a positive claim (or appear to be)?
  • Should paradigm science and academic orthodoxy be exempt from this logical concept?

Fallacy - Shifting the Burden of Proof

As part of the logical responsibility for Burden of Proof lies a logical fallacy known as the Shifting of the Burden of Proof (argumentum ad ignorantium).

This fallacy occurs when a person attempts to shift their responsibility of providing proof of their claim over to their opponent (the one questioning the assertion being made). They demand their opponent prove the opposite of the claim. The burden would be placed on the wrong side.

They may attempt to shift this burden because of the difficulty of proving their claim/assertion, or simply because of sloppy, lazy thinking. The claimant must provide evidence; they are responsible for proving their own assertions.

A person can’t make a claim and then shout to their opponent that it’s the opponent’s duty to prove them wrong. That’s lazy, uncritical, and irrational thinking. It’s the claimant’s duty to prove their own assertion – not their opponent. Period.

Proving a Negative?

Dovetailing directly into this fallacy of Shifting of the Burden of Proof is something commonly referred to as Proving a Negative.

Can you prove a negative? What exactly does that mean?

Frequently, in lazy argumentation, a claimant (where the burden of proof actually resides) demands their opponent prove something doesn’t exist. Can anyone prove nonexistence?

In order to prove something doesn’t exist would (in most cases) involve complete omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence. In other words, you’d have to be a god. The claim that something doesn’t exist is therefore logically untenable.  It’s not possible to know everything in the universe.

The person making a negative claim cannot logically prove nonexistence for all the reasons given. We can only make a best guess since we can’t be everywhere and know everything.

Therefore, we cannot prove that something doesn’t exist (ghosts, unicorns, afterlife, god(s), multi-dimensions, UFOs, aliens, etc.)

What exactly is a “positive” claim?

In many instances a negative claim can be turned around to become a positive claim – – so who really owns the Burden? For example:

  • Atheism:  God doesn’t exist (negative assertion) vs. God is myth (positive assertion)
  • Afterlife:  There is no afterlife (negative assertion) vs. Death is the end of being (positive assertion)
  • A box (something finite):  The box does not contain insects (negative assertion) vs. The box contains something other than insects (positive assertion)

This fine line can be confusing and cause difficulty in rationally getting to a clearer picture of truth.

In our third example above (something finite) we can definitely prove a negative – or positive; just open the box and observe.

But with something outside our ability to test (intangible and abstract) – such as existence of a god or life after death – we are left without a physical method to prove nor disprove.

Logically, rationally . . . we need to start with the assertion of facts and evidence – not the absence of evidence. If there is no evidence, how can we possibly (and reasonably) talk about it?

Hitchen’s Razor: “What may by asserted without evidence, may be dismissed without evidence.

The Inherent Problem with the Burden of Proof: Should "Established" Science & Orthodoxy Get a Free Pass?

As I’ve stated in previous articles, I abhor dogma. Religious dogma, Cultural dogma, Political dogma, Scientific dogma. Academic dogma.

What’s “dogma?”  Essentially any ideology that stands as unassailable, unquestionable, so-called “settled.”

Please. Don’t tell me what to think. Tell me how to think.

Most of you probably feel that my classification of consensus thought as “dogma” as being extreme. However, when freethinking, independent-minded, questioning individuals are denied the ability to logically challenge so-called “consensus” (evidence be damned) there’s a definite problem with pursuit of real truth – in any and all fields.

Some of the sources I reviewed for this article (particularly the orthodox skeptics and “thinkers” such as Michael Shermer) want to apply the Burdon of Proof in a skewed way when it comes to “established” science. (ref Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions)  Here’s their mindset:

  • When a claim challenges a status quo (“modern” theories; scientism; paradigm; “established” theory) then the burden of proof rests with the challenger. The paradigm owners and social narrative assertions and presumptions should be considered “privileged.”  [What/who constitutes a “privileged” presumption? Who decides this? What if evidence exists against this “privileged” presumption – do the paradigm owners not have to address that evidence?]
  • Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence (ECREE) – the so-called Sagan Standard. An unlikely claim requires greater than standard proof.  [Hmm. Who/how is a claim defined as “unlikely?” News flash:  Paradigms are broken via “unlikely” claims.]

One of the better articles on Burden Of Proof argues against this free pass for established theories – and instead lobbies for “Truth-Directed Practices”:

“In truth-directed practices, we claim, unequal allocations of the BOP are almost always illegitimate. In science, for instance, we say that a good scientist: ” . . . . should be open to the possibility of evidence that conflicts with her view and should  be prepared to respond to apparent conflicting evidence by investigating whether the evidence holds up under scrutiny and modifying the view if it does. Giving a scientific theory the status of a default position – assuming it to be true till the evidence for some competing view becomes overwhelming – seems to be one way of departing from this ideal. The default view is not held to the same standards of evidence as views that oppose it.”

The author(s) also provide an example from medical science to prove their point. I’m sure there are countless others. In fact, just read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn and you’ll find a large set of examples wherein orthodox science stuck their ground for decades in the face of overwhelming evidence against their “established” theories. Their free pass of BOP stalled true scientific progress.

What Should Our Take-Aways Be?

> > > Always assume the Burden Of Proof when making an assertion. Be prepared with evidence to support your claim.

> > > Don’t believe that the priests of “established” science should be allowed a free pass for supporting their claims. Present your solid evidence that opposes their dogma.

If you don’t have the evidence and can’t justify the research to get it, then move on. You shouldn’t be making assertions without evidence.

Truth is neither intrinsic (dogma), nor subjective (preference), nor relative (to dogma or preference). Truth is objective.

Not only is this an abused concept in mundane social media, but even in scientific circles where defendants of the orthodox paradigm aren’t even expected to defend their claims of “settled science.” They can just ignore and make ad-hominum attacks against those who question their claims. They are, after all, at the top of their ivory tower of paradigmatic, orthodox, “normal” science (ref, Kuhn).

There is no such thing as “settled science.” If you’re told that by anyone in the scientific dogmatic priesthood, don’t believe it. It’s a cop-out for true accountability.

Question Everything my friends!

Featured Image by:  Tumisu from Pixabay