✍️ Burden of proof is a philosophical concept that refers to the obligation to provide supporting evidence for a claim. It plays an important role in a variety of argumentation contexts, and it’s a key principle to making valid statements; all logical arguments need to have sufficient evidence to back up their conclusions.
Burden of proof fallacy (or shifting the burden of proof) is a logical fallacy that occurs when one abuses their burden of proof by attempting to shift it to someone else.
Who Has The Burden Of Proof?
In general, the person or party making an argument has the burden of proof to justify it (whether they argue that something is true or false). This applies, in particular, to situations where someone challenges a prevailing status quo or a well-established idea.
In a debate, the burden of proof typically lies with the person making a claim; the opposing side doesn’t have a burden of proof until evidence has been provided for the original argument. However, once the evidence has been provided, it’s up to the opposing side to show if the evidence is insufficient. If the opposing side argues that your claim is invalid, then, in turn, the burden of proof is on them to justify the disagreement.
As Christopher Hitchens famously stated:
What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.Christopher Hitchens.
✍️ Note that when someone makes an assumption, they don’t have a burden of proof. Only assuming that something may be true for the sake of the argument doesn’t have to be justified.
Burden of Proof Fallacy
The fallacy of shifting the burden of proof occurs when someone making a claim does not respect their obligation to provide the needed evidence for it but instead attempts to shift the burden to their opponent.
For example, when someone makes a claim that God is real, instead of showing why they believe they are correct, they shift their burden of proof to their opponent by asserting that it’s their responsibility to disprove it.
As such, this fallacious line of reasoning is commonly involved with claims that are unfalsifiable, that is, claims that are not possible to disprove. Many religious and supernatural claims that cannot be scientifically proven are examples of unfalsifiable propositions.
To better understand this logical fallacy, here are a few examples in various situations.
👻 Example 1
Jack: “I’m certain that ghosts do exist.”
Sarah: “What makes you so certain?”
Jack: “Well, can you prove that they don’t exist?”
Sarah: “I guess I can’t.”
Jack: “Then you have to accept that I’m right.”
Jack challenges Sarah to disprove his claim without offering any justification for it himself. In other words, he shifts his burden of proof to Sarah.
In this example, Jack also commits the logical fallacy of appeal to ignorance, which is closely related to the burden of proof fallacy and often appears together with it.
🎅 Example 2
Fred: “Santa Claus is not a real person, only children believe that he is.”
Nick: “I believe he is real. Can you prove that he isn’t?”
Fred: “Do I really have to prove it to you?”
In a case like this, the burden of proof is seen to lie with Nick: his assertion of Santa Claus being real is against common knowledge and should be justified first.
📰 Example 3
Mike: “I think celebrity X is having an affair.”
Delilah: “Are you sure?”
Mike: “Yeah, I read it in the Daily Gossip.”
People sometimes evade their burden of proof by attributing their claim to a secondary source. And, although it can be acceptable to refer to a secondary source’s opinion, it often leads to a weak argument if it is been used as the main evidence for a claim, especially if it’s done in order to avoid the burden of proof.