Burden of Proof

It’s kind of interesting how often I run into people who have issues with the burden of proof in rational discourse. Whenever it happens, I invariably feel obligated to put my asshole hat on and call my interlocutor out on their bullshit. The burden of proof is Serious Business(™), and if you can’t follow its single edict, you’re not worthy of being considered an intellectual adult.

Prove your own claims.

That’s the burden of proof. If I say “I don’t believe you,” you are not allowed to tell me to prove you wrong. You said it, so either you prove it or you shut up about it immediately. Even if I can prove you wrong, the onus is on you to prove yourself right. If you can’t demonstrate your rightness, you’re actually just wrong. If I have to go out to find evidence that disproves your argument when you have no evidence for your argument, something is amiss, to put it lightly. (And I think you’re an idiot, even if I’m far too polite to directly tell you so.) Can’t prove a point you want to make? Then don’t try to convince anyone to believe it.

Why is this important?

Well, it’s important because Venus is made entirely out of burnt popcorn kernels. Don’t believe me? Prove me wrong.

What, you want to cite satellite data to disprove my claim? Well, that’s obviously photoshopped. Or entirely fabricated. The man doesn’t want you to know the truth, so he manufactures fake information all the time. I have access to a reliable source who’s proven the popcorn Venus theory, but I can’t reveal my source because that would put the man onto him. Or her. Whichever. And no, you can’t see the data because I burned it to prevent it from falling into the man‘s unsavory hands. He has satellites with sci-fi level spying precision (complete with CSI Enhance! software) and even minor holography. But trust me, it’s totally true. Unless you can prove me wrong…

You can’t, can you? Of course not. This is why the burden of proof is so damn important. Perhaps the most revealing example of this idea comes from a little thing called Russell’s teapot. Bertrand Russell, intellectual badass extraordinaire, used this to illustrate the importance of giving demonstrable evidence to back up the claims you make. The more extraordinary a claim is, the more evidence it requires. (If you’re not familiar with the idea of Russell’s teapot, take the time to read that article now. Don’t worry; I’ll wait for you to finish.)

If I claim “my local grocery store does not carry apples,” you might believe me if I take you there and it has no apples. Does this prove that they don’t carry apples? No, all it proves is that they don’t have apples at that very moment. If you want better evidence, I could interview the store’s employees and customers, and if a coherent, consistent answer emerges, we might be better prepared to ascertain the truthhood of this claim. Still, the danger from believing a lie like “my grocer refuses to stock apples” is very low, and this would be a fairly trivial fact that likely had no real impact on your life (although lying is generally stupid, so there is that). Thus, the evidentiary bar for this claim is not set all that high.

On the other hand, if I claim “China is a lie, and that entire country doesn’t exist,” you will instantly recognize that this is a far more implausible claim. The evidentiary bar for this claim is so high that you can’t even see it from ground level with the naked eye. You might produce your phone from your pocket and point out the Made in China sticker on the back. In order to believe that China does not exist, you might need to be taken there in person, and you still wouldn’t believe it unless instead of China, you saw an endless sea. (You’d probably still be reluctant to accept this premise even then!)

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Extraordinary lazy arguers require extraordinary dismissive reprisals. When someone unleashes an unsubstantiated utterance, I occasionally opt to unload my attempt at its undoing. This should not be necessary, however. If you’re unable or unwilling to back up factual claims, you have no business letting them leak from your brain and slip through your vocal cords. Indeed, if you can’t fulfill your burden of proof, it is highly likely that your beliefs are erroneous, and you should sit down for some meaningful self-examination.

Serious business. The burden of proof. Respect it or be horribly wrong.


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