Writing Prompts: Burden of Proof & Standards of Evidence

Following on from this post (where I explored the concept of certainty), I thought it may be interesting to consider what burden of proof is, and I may well dip my paws into a couple of related ideas. On a related note, my pal Bruce Gerencser wrote a post on this subject a couple of days ago, it’s worth checking out.

Burden of Proof is a legal concept, though it can also be considered a philosophical one. In a court of law, the defendant is considered innocent until proven guilty, so the burden of proof rests with the prosecution. Basically, the ‘burden’ falls upon the accuser, so to speak, to provide evidence to back up claims. In legal cases (especially with criminal law) a lot of countries require that the prosecution proves ‘beyond reasonable doubt’.

In a philosophical sense, such as a formal (or for that matter, informal) debate, the burden of proof traditionally falls upon the person making a claim or accusation. There exist a couple of interesting concepts within this philosophical battleground. Hitchens’s razor (named after the late Christopher Hitchens) is the idea that “what may be asserted without evidence may be dismissed without evidence.” The late Carl Sagan had a similar idea, known as the Sagan Standard: “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.

It might be interesting to try and apply these concepts in any future debates and discussions I get myself into. However, the problem with any ‘one on one’ debates is that it would be dependent upon the other party and I agreeing as to standards of evidence. This could swiftly develop into a debate in its own right. This is not necessarily a problem in some cases, but in others, standards of evidence has become a fierce battleground. Many years ago, in the Star Trek vs Star Wars circles, there were some heated debates over what constituted valid sources for Star Wars, with some parties insisting only the movies counted towards the story, and therefore only the movies counted as debate sources. Other parties included the Expanded Universe material. There was a conflict there, before any debate had even begun!

There’s a lot more to all this as well. Debates around science and religion can often create consternation, before a word has been written on any actual agreed-upon debate. Standards of evidence and interpretation of evidence (to say nothing of burden of proof, which can be flung back and forth) create debates within debates. Arriving at the starting line is a challenge in itself!

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