Saturday, September 12, 2009

Shifted Burden of Proof

I’ve been having a little struggle at work. A local government is insisting that there’s a piece of equipment in a ditch that belongs to us that we need to move. Well we are not in the business of placing this particular type of equipment and so I politely told her that it was not ours. To which she responded, “Well somebody must have put it there!” I agree 100%. Somebody must have put it there. I gave her a few suggestions as to who else may have done it but she wouldn’t let it drop so easily. She didn’t seem to want to hang up until I solved her problem for her. I was as polite as possible but just ended up telling her that I had no idea whose it was but it wasn’t ours.
I’m not sure what you’d call it, a logical fallacy, a debating tactic or just a rhetorical device. But what she was attempting to do is to shift the burden of proof. I see this technique used all the time. You see in any discussion the burden of proof lies with the person who has the most extreme claim. For instance if I claim that grass is green and you were to claim that grass is really blue but there is a yellow haze that always hovers directly between the viewer and the grass that just makes it appear green, your claim is clearly the more extreme. Your claim may in fact be correct, but it just requires more proof than my claim. If I challenged your claim you couldn’t counter by just asking me to prove that the yellow haze doesn’t exist. That would be shifting the burden of proof. In my real life situation it shouldn’t be my job to prove that the equipment isn’t ours. That burden still lies with this government organization to prove that it is ours. It’s almost as if I was presumed guilty until I could prove my innocence.
My situation at work is a minor issue and I don’t expect it to go any further, but I see the same tactics invoked in political discussions all the time. One side will come up with an extremely farfetched scenario and expect the other side to take the Herculean task of proving that their opponent is wrong. But the burden should remain with the person making the extreme claim not the accused.
A key example of this is the whole “birthers” phenomenon. These people have found a few inconsistencies with Obama’s early life history and from that have deduced that there is a conspiracy involving all levels of government, doctors and two local newspapers to conceal his birth location all the way back to the day he was born. They would also have us believe that even Hillary Clinton knows these details but didn’t bring them up during the primaries even though it would mean that she would have had a much better shot at the Presidency with him discredited and out of the way. It is my opinion taht the “birthers” and those that believe this idea are trying to shift the burden of proof. They want the President to go out of the way to deny and prove that their claims are false. Nope. That’s not how it works. They have the more extreme claim. It is up to them to make their case and present their evidence.
Now I didn’t vote for Obama and I’m not particularly enamored with some of his policies so far. But if anybody wants me to believe that he was born in Kenya it’s their job to prove it to me. Before you ask, yes, UI have seen the DVD "A question of Eligibility" and I see nothing in there strong enough to counter the evidnece that he was born in Hawaii, but all that is irrelavent. It’s not Obama’s job to disprove your conspiracy theory. And likewise if this local government official wants me to remove this equipment from the ditch it’s up to them to prove to me that it is ours. It’s not my job to prove it isn’t ours.

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