Between Scientists & Citizens

“Burden of Proof” #1: Managing our own thinking

with 7 comments

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.

Written by jeangoodwin

August 29, 2011 at 12:32 am

Posted in discourse analysis

Tagged with ,

7 Responses

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  1. Jean,

    Science has published a great deal of bad science theories and conclusions. These are used as “burdens of proof” to anyone who questions problems in their theories. No matter how bad the theory is, it will still hold up to any evidence to the contrary by way of generational tribal teaching in the individual areas.

    Much science done in labs do NOT include the size difference and speed of the planet between the equator and the poles also it misses the planet and atmosphere rotate which any particle hitting the planet has to go through a mass of moving atmospheric particles.

    Burden of proof can be lack of evidence such as volcanic activity evidence and meteor strike evidence before a billion years ago, to following the ocean salt which has been in evidence less than a billion years ago through carbon dating of the trapped microbes.
    Oceans drop the salt density as the planet slows as it is not pushed by centrifugal force and sinks to the ocean floor. Over many billion of years becoming trapped in rock formed.
    I keep wondering how round rocks were created underwater in areas that have no Glacial evidence that NEVER see surface erosion, just currents.

    Measurements of sizes and speed is not in science as it is mathematical equations that science missed.
    Same with understanding magnetics and magnetic fields. Not looking at the distance between the field nor understanding of where it gets their energy.

    Joe Lalonde

    August 29, 2011 at 6:21 am

  2. As consumers, we are skeptical all the time, as in your examples. Tooth paste purchases may not have much thought put into it but a car or a computer probably does. With science it is often the case that the findings will not affect you. i.e. there will be no personal loss or gain so being skeptical doesn’t matter much. When it comes to a weather forecast that information can be personally affecting but you also realize there is a possibility of discrepancies.

    My point is that there seems to be multiple dimensions or differing scales or variable you use to come up with a decision or even a point of view.


    August 29, 2011 at 11:28 pm

    • Hi, Kermit: I agree, that there are going to be a lot of factors involved in figuring out when to stop seeking more evidence. One of them is the impact of a bad decision on one’s interests; also the probability of being wrong without the new information; the costs of seeking more evidence; obligations one may owe to others (i.e., my doctor owes me her best judgment); ….

      I wonder what disciplines are thinking about this? Maybe psychology–like Barry Schwartz’s Paradox of Choice? Certainly philosophy, and possibly economics, too.

      At this point, though, my goal was much smaller. Imagine someone in a debate says: “I’m not going to consider any more evidence–I’m not going to read the book or listen to your arguments.” All I’m trying to establish is that saying such things is not always unreasonable. Sometimes–perhaps only very rarely, but still sometimes–it’s a perfectly reasonable thing to say.

      That raises an interesting question about communication. If you have a room full (or blog comment section full) of people who are all saying that, how do we get a debate or discussion going? How does the “burden of proof” act to manage a conversation? I want to find time to write up that idea…..soon…..


      September 1, 2011 at 6:52 pm

  3. Her some ‘go-by’ rules of thumb I use when I listen to anythign:
    – Is it historically unusual?
    – is it significant?
    – is the behavior of those promoting it similar to the ways promoters of the past behaved, and what was the outcome of that older promotion?
    – Do the people who claim to have discovered the problem also claim to have the only solution?
    – Do those promoting the cause dismiss all criticism of the cause?
    – Do those promoting the cause demand critics explain/create/write a competing theory/book/song/painting/etc.?
    -do the offered solutions actually solve anything?
    For starters.


    September 1, 2011 at 9:47 am

  4. It seems to me that much of this issue, in general not just related to climate change, is rooted in our basic unease with ambiguity and uncertainty. If we are truly honest we have to admit that, with most important subjects, we really don’t know whith that much certainty.

    I think much of the Burden of Proof issue has to do with the fact that, deep down, we know that we really don’t know. Yet, for various reasons we have had to make a decision, take a course of action. Rather than admitting that our actions were really just based on an educated guess, we tell ourselves that we “know” what the right answer is, then for sanity sake, we close off avenues for disconfirming evidence. It’s really a defense mechanism.

    John Vetterling

    September 1, 2011 at 5:24 pm

  5. I don’t really mind when someone hands me the burden of proof, because it is trivially handed back to them. “what do I have to show you to convince you?” this has the benefit of finding out if there is a shared epistemic ground or not. In many cases people cannot articulate what it would take to “prove” something to them, or more interestingly when they do articulate it you will often find that they accept many other things on less proof than they demand of you.

    Steven Mosher

    September 4, 2011 at 12:06 am

    • Yep, I think this is one right direction to proceed. Instead of always shifting the burden to others, it can be a very successful tactic to accept the burden and run with it.


      September 4, 2011 at 5:42 pm

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