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Who bears the burden of proof?

The concept of burden of proof is an important one in law, science, and rational discourse. Essentially, it refers to the obligation of a party in an argument or dispute to provide sufficient warrant or justification for their position. But who exactly bears this burden in different contexts? And what counts as meeting the burden? Let’s examine these questions further.

Legal burden of proof

In legal settings, the burden of proof often lies with the prosecution or plaintiff – the party bringing a case against another. They must provide adequate evidence to substantiate their claims. Different standards exist in criminal and civil procedures.

Criminal cases

In criminal law, the prosecution bears the burden of proving the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This very high standard reflects the severity of criminal penalties and the preference to avoid wrongful convictions. Reasonable doubt means the evidence presented leaves no reasonable doubt in the jury’s mind that the defendant committed the crime. The defendant is considered innocent until proven guilty.

Civil cases

For civil cases, the plaintiff bears the burden of proving their case by a preponderance of the evidence, rather than beyond reasonable doubt. This means the plaintiff must show it is more likely than not that their claim is valid. The defendant will win if the evidence appears equally balanced or preponderates against the plaintiff.

Scientific burden of proof

In science, the burden of proof typically falls to the party making a claim or asserting a new theory that challenges the status quo. They must provide sufficient empirical evidence and analysis for others in the field to assess their position.

For example, if a researcher claims to have discovered a new subatomic particle, the burden is on them to experimentally demonstrate its existence and properties through rigorous data collection and statistical analysis. Other scientists will evaluate whether the evidence substantiates the claims to a reasonable degree of certainty.

The burden does sometimes shift, however. After evidence substantiates a new discovery or framework, it becomes accepted as the default or null position. Future competing claims would then bear the burden to falsify or overturn the established position. For instance, the burden is now on anyone who denies that climate change is happening to provide evidence refuting the scientific consensus.

Statistical standards

In statistical analysis, common standards for burden of proof include:

Null hypothesis statistical testing The null hypothesis (commonly the status quo position) is assumed valid until the presented evidence shows a statistically significant probability of rejecting it, such as less than 5% or 1% chance of error.
Frequentist statistics Results must have a probability of occurring by chance of less than 5% to be considered statistically significant evidence.
Bayesian statistics The plausibility of hypotheses are assessed using Bayesian reasoning to update beliefs based on new evidence.

Philosophical burden of proof

In philosophical discourse, a few principles often apply regarding burden of proof, though exceptions exist:

Making claims

The burden of proof falls on the party putting forward a claim. They must provide adequate reasons and evidence to warrant accepting their claim as true or plausible. Extraordinary claims without evidence can be dismissed without evidence (Hitchen’s razor).

Positive claims

The burden lies on those asserting a positive claim – one stating something exists or is true. For example, “God exists” or “Free will exists.” The burden is not on others to disprove the claim.

Negative claims

Proving a negative claim is often impossible, so the burden typically falls on those asserting something does not exist or is false. For instance, someone claiming “God does not exist” or “Free will does not exist” should substantiate their stance.

Shifting of burden

In some instances, the burden shifts between parties once adequate reasons or evidence is given. For example, if compelling evidence demonstrates God’s existence, the burden may shift to skeptics to rebut that evidence.

Meeting the burden

What constitutes meeting the burden of proof differs based on the field and context. However, common requirements include:

Sufficient evidence

Enough evidence must be provided to warrant rational belief in the claim. The precise standard varies – from beyond reasonable doubt to a preponderance of evidence.

Reliable methodology

The evidence should be collected and analyzed using methods deemed valid and reliable by the appropriate standards of the field. For instance, legal evidence must follow court procedures, and scientific evidence must use rigorous, systematic methodologies.

Responding to critiques

The party bearing the burden is responsible for addressing any serious objections or critiques raised against their reasoning or evidence. They may need to reconsider, strengthen, or refine their position to meet doubts raised by others.

Alternative explanations

It must be shown that the proposed claim or explanation is more strongly warranted based on the evidence than alternatives put forward. The evidence should not fit competing claims equally well.

Shifting burden of proof

While the burden of proof tends to fall first on the party proposing a change from the current consensus view, it is also possible for the burden to shift between parties over time. Here are some reasons how:

New evidence emerges

If significant new evidence arises that the previous position fails to adequately explain, the burden may shift to defenders of that position to update their view or provide an alternative interpretation of the new evidence.

Prior reasoning flawed

Someone may demonstrate the previous arguments, assumptions, or methodology underlying a claim were severely flawed or illegitimate. This casts the position into doubt, shifting the burden to supporters to put forward new, more rigorous reasoning.

Explaining inconsistencies

When substantial credible facts or observations emerge that contradict predictions made by an established theory or claim, the burden often shifts to explain these inconsistencies and restore coherence.

Alternative view gains traction

As a competing view gains more evidentiary support, adherence from the expert community, and explanatory success over time, it can eventually supplant the previously dominant position as the new default view, shifting the burden.

Fallacies Shifting Burden

Unfortunately, those engaged in debate don’t always adhere to legitimate rules for allocating burden of proof. Here are some fallacies or misconceptions that improperly attempt to shift burden:

Ad Ignorantiam

Arguing a claim is true simply because it hasn’t been proven false, or that something should be considered false since it has not been proven true. The burden lies with proving claims true or false, not on others to disprove.

Argument from Incredulity

Asserting that a concept must be untrue because one personally finds it difficult to understand or believe. But subjective incredulity is not evidence of implausibility.

Shifting the Burden of Refutation

Insisting opponents must refute an argument, rather than needing to prove it soundly using evidence and valid logic according to accepted burden and standards of proof.

Argumentum ad Populum

Claiming a view is correct because it’s popularly held. Consensus alone does not satisfy burden of proof unless based on substantive evidentiary support.

Burden of Proof Reversal

Attempting to flip the burden onto others to disprove a claim, instead of taking responsibility to justify the claim.


While the precise burden of proof varies across fields, the overarching principles place responsibility with parties to substantiate their claims. Though standards differ, quality of evidence, responding to critiques, and comparative explanatory power fundamentally matter. Whether in law, science, or philosophy, ensuring discussions adhere to fair and reasoned rules for allocating burden facilitates constructive debate and sound conclusions. The burden shifts when substantial new evidence calls a standing claim into question. Yet fallacies can improperly attempt to transfer burden – which must be identified to keep discourse ethical and rational. With diligence, parties can better meet their evidentiary burdens.