Misconceptions About Skeptics - Part III
Here is Part III of a series regarding skeptics and prevalent misconceptions regarding them. Please refer to Part I for disclaimers and definitions.
Part II covered proof and evidence, and attempted to categorize and weigh different kinds of evidence.
3. More About Proof: Who's Got the Burden?
Some responses to Part I brought up another common complaint towards skeptics regarding their seemingly ready dismissal of evidence and/or cases, and
an important point was made that ties nicely into the topic for Part III: what if a skeptic doesn't simply reject a claim regarding the Alien
Hypothesis, but actually makes his or her own claim? For example, if a photo is presented of an odd structure on the Moon, what if a skeptic dismisses
one's claim that this structure is actually intelligently created by retorting, "It's nothing but a rock."? If the skeptic offers such a "counter
claim", doesn't he or she therefore bear the same burden of proof as the believer?
The answer is yes. The key concept here is what's called burden of proof:
Outside a legal context, "burden of proof" means that someone suggesting a new theory or stating a claim must provide evidence to support it: it
is not sufficient to say "you can't disprove this." Specifically, when anyone is making a bold claim, either positive or negative, it is not
someone else's responsibility to disprove the claim, but is rather the responsibility of the person who is making the bold claim to prove it. In
short, X is not proven simply because "not X" cannot be proven (see negative proof).
Taken more generally, the standard of proof demanded to establish any particular conclusion varies with the subject under discussion. Just as there is
a difference between the standard required for a criminal conviction and in a civil case, so there are different standards of proof applied in many
other areas of life.
The less reasonable a statement seems, the more proof it requires.
The three important points here:
1. Those who present a claim, or a conclusion (e.g., "This photo is proof that aliens exist", or "This photo shows nothing but rocks") bears the
burden of proof. It is up to the claimant to back up said claim.
2. It is not up to others to disprove the presented claim (more on this in a moment).
3. The more extraordinary the claim, the more proof is required.
#2 above deserves some discussion, as I've seen this particular point confused and manipulated quite frequently on ATS. Such reasoning generally
takes the form of, "Well, you haven't offered any alternative explanation, so you can't dismiss my claim", or "You must provide evidence to
counter my evidence".
This is faulty logic because it's a clear attempt to shift the burden of proof from the claimant onto others. In fact, such logic is formally
classified as a fallacy called, surprisingly, Shifting the Burden of Proof. It's a form of another fallacy called Appeal to Ignorance, which is
essentially attempting to argue that because something hasn't been proven to be false, it must be true (or the converse).
Now let's go back to any claims presented by skeptics. If a skeptic states that a photo shows nothing but rocks, they have made a claim, and
therefore they bear a burden of proof, just as one does who states the photo shows intelligently designed structures. I've already discussed that the
skeptic's true position should be one of neutrality, so the obviously "safe" position for a skeptic to take is quite simply none at all. This means
no claim should be made by the skeptic, originally or in response to another claim, even though such claims are often sought by those employing the
fallacies listed above.
This may seem like instructions for a skeptic to avoid any responsibility, but it applies to any side of any argument, and regarding the discussions
from Part I, should also serve as a preventative measure to avoid one-liner interjections from skeptics like "It's nothing but a rock."
Finally, I don't mean to suggest that people cannot express their opinions or conjectures regarding the Alien Hypothesis without constantly throwing
burden of proof back and forth. This would obviously stall discourse and make for a pretty tedious and fruitless forum. The key here is to pay very
close attention to your words--a simple "I believe" circumvents the burden of proof issue entirely, and frankly (at least IMHO) is more honest from
the start. I believe this one thing would cut down on the number of one-liners from both sides of the issue, because personally I cringe whenever I
read such statements as "This photo clearly proves that no one can dispute alien existence", just as much as believers have expressed similar
exasperation when skeptics pop up and have nothing more to offer than "It's just a natural formation, period."
[edit on 28-8-2008 by thrashee]