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The reversed responsibility response – switching the burden of proof

December 4, 2012
I know that this tactic is a red flag because no-one can prove that is isn’t.

How to recognise this tactic

This tactic is usually used by someone who’s made a claim and then been asked for evidence to support it. Their response is to demand that you show that the claim is wrong and if you can’t, to insist that this means their claim is true.


Why is it that few people seem to have problems with the burden of proof when it comes to the innocence or guilt of a murder suspect, but then cannot apply the same exact logic to more esoteric issues, such as the existence of ghosts, gods, and the like?

Massimo Pigliucci, Italian – American philosopher, 2010

Why do people use this tactic?

People use this tactic to avoid supplying supporting evidence – usually because there is none. In attempting to distract you from this lack of evidence, they try to convince you that the responsibility of supplying evidence lies with you.

What’s wrong with this tactic

When anyone makes a claim that a certain entity or relationship exists, they have the responsibility of supplying supporting evidence. Without such evidence, the claim is worthless. The fact that you know of no falsifying evidence is irrelevant. Those who claim that an entity or relationship does not exist do not need to supply evidence.

In science, the default position about any relationship is that it does not exist. This position is called the “null hypothesis“. For a claim to be accepted, the proposer must present sufficient real-world evidence for the null hypothesis to be rejected.

What to do when confronted by this tactic

Don’t be tempted to take on the task of falsifying the perpetrator’s claim. And don’t succumb to the pressure to accept it as true if you don’t have the evidence to refute it. Insist that they must provide supporting evidence from real-world tests.

Variations and related tactics

Reversing the burden of proof is a form of the argument from ignorance fallacy, in which it is argued that a claim must be taken as true if it hasn’t been shown to be false.

Examples

  • The Waubra Foundation is an Australian organisation that claims wind turbines cause health problems. Here‘s a letter from the foundation’s CEO in which an attempt is made to switch the burden of proof:

    I would be obliged if you will direct me to the population studies or even small case control studies, which have been performed in the vicinity of large operating wind turbines, confirming that there are no adverse health effects for any of the residents from these wind turbines, including sleep deprivation, stress related illnesses, and symptoms of vestibular dysfunction.

    The letter is directed to Simon Chapman, who responds here.

  • A classical case of reversing the burden of proof is that of the theist who argues that gods must exist because non-theists have no evidence that they do not exist. Here’s an excellent video from QualiaSoup exploring that issue:
  • The fable of Russell’s Teapot is a well-known illustration of the fallacy of switching the burden of proof. It was coined by the philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell in a 1952 essay:

    If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.

  • Climate scientists who claim that global warming is being caused by human emissions of greenhouse gases bear the responsibility of producing supporting evidence for this claim. They do not attempt to switch the burden to those who deny those claims. Multiple independent lines of evidence (here) have been found to support claims of human-caused global warming.
You can add to the list of examples by leaving a comment.

Massimo Pigliucci’s quote is from The delicate issue of the burden of proof on Rationally Speaking.

This is one of ScienceOrNot’s Science red flags. See them all here.
10 Comments
  1. Sven Malmsteen permalink

    Science does not address the God issue AT ALL. It falls way outside of the considerable limitations of science.

    • I think you’ll find that science has no interest in addressing the god issue, Sven.

    • Nonsense. The moment someone claimed to have knowledge of a god, the “god issue” became subject to scientific inquiry. If science cannot investigate the matter, then the people who claim to have knowledge of god are doing little more than talking out their arseholes.

  2. Sven Malmsteen permalink

    Science is not the only reliable method of knowing something. You ASSUME science is.

    I cannot use the scientific method ( no such singular method even exists) to “prove” what I dreamed about last night. Although I know I DID dream and remember it wellWHAT I dreamed about.

    You worship and glorify Science as you God. South Park did a funny episode about this.

    • Sven, I’ve approved your comment on the basis that it may have some tenuous relevance to the topic of this post (viz switching the burden of proof). I can’t see it myself, but you may be able to enlighten me. If you wish to pursue this line of argument, there are other posts that are more relevant.

  3. MiketheScribe permalink

    I think the late great Christopher Hitchens summed this up most succinctly: “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.”

    People believe all sorts of nonsense, with no evidence to back it up (or rather, nothing that would stand up as evidence). The problem comes when they cling desperately to these beliefs in the face of all logic and evidence. At the best, they get brushed off as harmless cranks, but at worst, they found movements, gather significant followings, and people die.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. The reversed responsibility response | Psycho Tricks
  2. Bad science checklist for GMO opponents | Skeptical Raptor's Blog
  3. The anti-GMO bad science checklist

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