“Burden of Proof” #1: Managing our own thinking
In the discussion over at Climate Etc. a couple of weeks ago, there was a particularly clear instance of a move I see a lot–in the blogosphere, and in regular arguments:
I think most people who like science and are interested in climate science would welcome more “skeptic” arguments that meet the above criteria. It is a relief, even when disagreeing, to have some sort of a common language and set of expectations. Without that, argument is pointless, or to put it another way: The first thing you need to prove to me is that your ignorance is something that concerns me.
That’s exactly what I decline to do. The hockey stick needs no defense. Rather, you need to find some cogent explanation of why your ignorance of paleoclimate concerns me.
The writer here asserts that his position “needs no defense”; it’s up to his opponents to produce reasons–or in other words, they have the burden of proof.
Of course, both sides can make this move. Another writer comes back later in the discussion to assert that it’s the “hockey stick” [graph] that needs the defense:
There is no basis for discussion about AGW that starts with “the Hockey Stick is correct and unassailable”.
The true statment is “the Hockey Stick is part of a very large con game and until the AGW side acknowledges that and apologizes, nothing they say should be believed.” [Later:] AGW is discredited until it confesses its fraud.
And this argumentative move–”MY position stands until YOU meet your burden of proof”–isn’t just confined to the climate debate. Should genetically modified crops be presumed to be safe, until there is definitive evidence that they are harmful? Or by the precautionary principle should this kind of new technology be considered dangerous, until it is shown to be safe?
To straighten out what’s happening in these moves, I want to distinguish between (a) the way people are using “burden of proof” to manage their own, personal thinking, and (b) the way they are using it to manage the debate they are having with other people. For more on (a), proceed below; (b) will follow in the next post.
It would not be reasonable to be too reasonable
I like to think of myself as a reasonable person–someone who searches out good information, evidence and expert opinion, considers it carefully, and reaches a sound judgment. But I’m also a person living in 24-hour days, 365-day years, and only perhaps 80-90 of those (trusting the actuaries on that). So at some point far, far short of having all the evidence about most subjects, I have to stop thinking about them.
For example, there are a half a dozen different toothpastes available at my local store. I suppose they have some meaningful differences that I could find–if I investigated. Or perhaps they’re all basically the same–but I’d have to investigate to find out whether that was the case. I’m not going to investigate, however; absent some fairly conspicuous new consideration (e.g., something that looks like a big sale, or some new advice from my dentist) I’m just going to buy the same brand as usual.
Or consider donating to charities–that’s a more significant choice. I have put some time into investigating some charities, trying to determine whether they’re doing things I think are important, and are doing them efficiently. The phone bank person who calls trying to persuade me to consider a new option is basically out of luck. It could be that the charity she’s working for does much better than the one’s I’ve chosen, but unfortunately, I’m not even going to listen to her arguments. I’m confident my choices are good enough, and I have better things to do with my time than to donate it to a salesperson. In fact, I don’t even have to explain to her the reason why I’m not going to listen to more reasons.
Not listening to reason about climate change
The controversy over climate change has been going on for two decades now; it sprawls over dozens of academic fields, and has produced an inconceivably large heap of arguments. (There are 60K+ words just in the blog discussion linked above.) Given the size of the controversy and the limits of human reason, every one of us is going to reach a point when we’re going to have to “say when.” As one participant in the discussion put it:
If I had multiple lives, I might spend one of them doing the same. Unfortunately, I have no inclination to do so, any more than I have the desire (or time) to learn biology so that I can argue about evolution “inteligently.”. . . I will certainly not learn a new topic just to defend a much broader theory from point-scoring attacks that are not directed toward advancing science. It is a useless endeavor, and life affords only so much time.
“Burden of Proof” #1: Managing our own thinking
Since thinking takes up limited resources, we need to think about our thinking. One of the tools we use to do this is something like the “burden of proof”. At some point, after we’ve reached a considered decision, we tell ourselves that we’re not going to think about that any more, until some fairly significant consideration becomes obvious. The burden of proof is on the other side.
Like all reasoning, reasoning-about-reasoning can go wrong. A close-minded person turns her brain off too soon; her opposite–the excessively open-minded person–continues to gather evidence and weigh options when he should have gone on to something else.
How do we tell how much is enough? That would be a good question to ask a philosopher. I’m a communication person, however, and I’m more interested in another use for “burden of proof”–the way we use it to manage not our own personal thinking, but our debates with those who disagree. As soon as I can dig out of some other work, I’ll post some thoughts about that.