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Prove it! The Burden of Proof Game in Science vs. Pseudoscience Disputes


The concept of burden of proof is used in a wide range of discourses, from philosophy to law, science, skepticism, and even in everyday reasoning. This paper provides an analysis of the proper deployment of burden of proof, focusing in particular on skeptical discussions of pseudoscience and the paranormal, where burden of proof assignments are most poignant and relatively clear-cut. We argue that burden of proof is often misapplied or used as a mere rhetorical gambit, with little appreciation of the underlying principles. The paper elaborates on an important distinction between evidential and prudential varieties of burdens of proof, which is cashed out in terms of Bayesian probabilities and error management theory. Finally, we explore the relationship between burden of proof and several (alleged) informal logical fallacies. This allows us to get a firmer grip on the concept and its applications in different domains, and also to clear up some confusions with regard to when exactly some fallacies (ad hominem, ad ignorantiam, and petitio principii) may or may not occur.

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  1. 1.

    If the expert view is silent on some issue, arguably the BoP rests on whomever is making a new or interesting claim. Probably this is where the (misguided) idea stems from that the BoP is always on those who are making the "positive" claim, see How to Assign Burden of Proof section.

  2. 2.

    This, of course, most emphatically does not mean that the public at large has in fact been convinced of the truth of AGW. But equating the two conditions would be to confuse the public as it actually is with an ideally unbiased group of epistemic observers.

  3. 3.

    We distinguish here between Duhem’s and Quine’s theses, as opposed to treating them as one aggregate, as it is often done. There are very good historical and conceptual reasons to do so, as articulated in Ariew (1984).

  4. 4.

    The reader will notice the similarity between our argument and Hume’s famous critique of miracles. This point was explored in detail by Owen (1987) and Sobel (1987), and we will return to it toward the end of the paper.

  5. 5.

    Others versions of parsimony concern the syntactic of mathematical simplicity of a theory, which is more complicated.

  6. 6.

    As we pointed out above, any negative claim can of course be translated into a positive one: any existential claim can be translated into a negative universal, and vice versa (∃xAx is logically equivalent to ~∀x ~ Ax, and ~∃xAx is logically equivalent to ∀x ~ Ax). The claim that qi energy exists is obviously a positive claim in that, it posits the existence of a biological entity/force.

  7. 7.

    Instead of taking up the BoP when it is their turn to do so, creationists often try to shift a heavier burden back on evolutionists. For example, when biologists have pointed out possible intermediate forms leading up to some piece of functional complexity, which creationists had challenged them to do in the first place, the latter shifted the burden to the actual evolutionary history. The move is disingenuous, because ID arguments, such as “irreducible complexity” and “complex specified information,” had been touted as objections in principle against the power of evolution by natural selection. See Boudry et al. (2010).

  8. 8.

    Ufologists typically resort to invoking large-scale cover-ups to explain away this dearth of evidence—involving various governments, the Illuminati, the aliens themselves, or all of them together—but such explanations are blatantly ad hoc (Boudry and Braeckman 2011).

  9. 9.

    The first modern flying saucers were reported by American private pilot Kenneth Arnold on 24 June 1947, over Mount Rainier in Washington State.


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Correspondence to Massimo Pigliucci.

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Pigliucci, M., Boudry, M. Prove it! The Burden of Proof Game in Science vs. Pseudoscience Disputes. Philosophia 42, 487–502 (2014).

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  • Burden of proof
  • Pseudoscience
  • Logical fallacies
  • Bayesian theory