Balance of probabilities: Wikis


Note: Many of our articles have direct quotes from sources you can cite, within the Wikipedia article! This article doesn't yet, but we're working on it! See more info or our list of citable articles.


(Redirected to Burden of proof article)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The burden of proof (Latin: onus probandi) is the obligation to shift the assumed conclusion away from an oppositional opinion to one's own position. The burden of proof may only be fulfilled by evidence.

The burden of proof is often associated with the Latin maxim semper necessitas probandi incumbit ei qui agit, the best translation of which seems to be: "the necessity of proof always lies with the person who lays charges." This is a statement of a version of the presumption of innocence which underpins the assessment of evidence in some legal systems, and is not a general statement of when one takes on the burden of proof. The burden of proof tends to lie with anyone who is arguing against received wisdom, but does not always, as sometimes the consequences of accepting a statement or the ease of gathering evidence in its defense might alter the burden of proof its proponents shoulder. The burden may also be assigned institutionally.

He who does not carry the burden of proof carries the benefit of assumption, meaning he needs no evidence to support his claim. Fulfilling the burden of proof effectively captures the benefit of assumption, passing the burden of proof off to another party.

The burden of proof is an especially important issue in law and science.


Types of burden

There are generally two broad types of burdens:

  • A "legal burden" or a "burden of persuasion" is an obligation that remains on a single party for the duration of the claim. Once the burden has been entirely discharged to the satisfaction of the trier of fact, the party carrying the burden will succeed in its claim. For example, the presumption of innocence places a legal burden upon the prosecution to prove all elements of the offence (generally beyond a reasonable doubt) and to disprove all the defences except for affirmative defenses in which the proof of nonexistence of all affirmative defence(s) is not constitutionally required of the prosecution.[1]
  • An "evidentiary burden" or "burden of leading evidence" is an obligation that shifts between parties over the course of the hearing or trial. A party may submit evidence that the court will consider prima facie evidence of some state of affairs. This creates an evidentiary burden upon the opposing party to present evidence to refute the presumption.

Standard of proof

The "standard of proof" is the level of proof required in a legal action to discharge the burden of proof, that is to convince the court that a given proposition is true. The degree of proof required depends on the circumstances of the proposition. Typically, most countries have two levels of proof or the balance of probabilities:

  • beyond a reasonable doubt -- (highest level of proof, used mainly in criminal trials)
  • preponderance of evidence -- (lowest level of proof, used mainly in civil trials)

In addition to these, the U.S. introduced a third standard called clear and convincing evidence, which is the medium level of proof, used, for example, in cases in which the state seeks to terminate parental rights.


Standards for detentions, searches, arrests or warrants

Reasonable suspicion

Reasonable suspicion is a low standard of proof in the U.S. to determine whether a brief investigative stop or search by a police officer or any government agent is warranted. It is important to note that this stop and/or search must be brief; its thoroughness is proportional to, and limited by, the low standard of evidence. A more definite standard of proof (often probable cause) would be required to warrant a more thorough stop/search. In Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), the United States Supreme Court ruled that reasonable suspicion requires specific, articulable, and individualized suspicion that crime is afoot. A mere guess or "hunch" is not enough to constitute reasonable suspicion.

A investigatory stop is a seizure under the Fourth Amendment. The state must justify the seizure by showing that the officer conducting the stop had a reasonable articulable suspicion that criminal activity was afoot. The important point is that officers cannot deprive a citizen of his or her liberty unless the officer can point to specific facts and circumstances and inferences therefrom that would amount to a reasonable suspicion. The officer must be prepared to establish that criminal activity was a logical explanation for what he perceived. The requirement serves to prevent officers from stopping individuals based merely on hunches or unfounded suspicions. The purpose of the stop and detention is to investigate to the extent necessary to confirm or dispel the original suspicion. If the initial confrontation with the person stopped dispels suspicion of criminal activity the officer must end the detention and allow the person to go about her business. If the investigation confirms the officer's initial suspicion or reveals evidence that would justify continued detention the officer may require the person detained to remain at the scene until further investigation is complete. In some cases, the investigation may develop sufficient evidence to constitute probable cause.

Probable cause for arrest

Probable cause is a relatively low standard of evidence, which is used in the United States to determine whether a search, or an arrest, is warranted. It is also used by grand juries to determine whether to issue an indictment. In the civil context, this standard is often used where plaintiffs are seeking a prejudgment remedy.

In the criminal context, the U.S. Supreme Court in United States v. Sokolow, 490 U.S. 1 (1989), determined that probable cause requires "a fair probability that contraband or evidence of a crime will be found" in determining whether Drug Enforcement Administration agents had a reason to execute a search. Courts vary when determining what constitutes a "fair probability," some say 30%, others 40%, others 51%.

A good illustration of this evidence/intrusiveness continuum might be a typical police/citizen interaction. Consider the following three interactions:

no level of suspicion required: a consensual encounter between officer and citizen
reasonable suspicion required: a stop initiated by the officer that would cause a reasonable person to feel that he or she is not free to leave
probable cause required: arrest.

Standards for presenting cases or defenses

Air of reality

The "air of reality" is a standard of proof used to determine whether a criminal defense may be used. The test asks whether a defense can be successful if it is assumed that all the claimed facts are to be true. In most cases, the burden of proof rests solely on the prosecution, negating the need for a defense of this kind. However, when exceptions arise and the burden of proof has been shifted to the defendant, he is required to establish a defense that bears an "air of reality." Two instances in which such a case might arise are, first, when a prima facie case has been made against the defendant or, second, when the defense mounts an affirmative defense, such as the insanity defense.

Standards for conviction

Preponderance of the evidence

Preponderance of the evidence, also known as balance of probabilities is the standard required in most civil cases. The standard is met if the proposition is more likely to be true than not true. Effectively, the standard is satisfied if there is greater than 50 percent chance that the proposition is true. Lord Denning, in Miller v. Minister of Pensions,[2] described it simply as "more probable than not." Until 1970, this was also the standard used in juvenile court in the United States.

Clear and convincing evidence

Clear and convincing evidence is the higher level of burden of persuasion sometimes employed in both civil and criminal procedure in the United States. For example, a prisoner seeking habeas corpus relief from capital punishment must prove his factual innocence by clear and convincing evidence.[3]

To prove something by "clear and convincing evidence", the party with the burden of proof must convince the trier of fact that it is substantially more likely than not that the thing is in fact true. This is a lesser requirement than "proof beyond a reasonable doubt", which requires that the trier of fact be close to certain of the truth of the matter asserted, but a stricter requirement than proof by "preponderance of the evidence," which merely requires that the matter asserted seem more likely true than not.

Beyond reasonable doubt

This is the standard required by the prosecution in most criminal cases within an adversarial system and is the highest level of burden of persuasion. This means that the proposition being presented by the government must be proven to the extent that there is no "reasonable doubt" in the mind of a reasonable person that the defendant is guilty. There can still be a doubt, but only to the extent that it would not affect a "reasonable person's" belief that the defendant is guilty. If the doubt that is raised does affect a "reasonable person's" belief that the defendant is guilty, the jury is not satisfied beyond a "reasonable doubt". The precise meaning of words such as "reasonable" and "doubt" are usually defined within jurisprudence of the applicable country.

What is the burden of proof? First, we must address the meaning of the word “burden.” Most often jurors interpret this word as meaning weight. Jurors picture the state in the person of the prosecutor with a massive object on his back attempting to carry it up some incline for some distance– defense attorneys have been heard to say that the state has a “heavy burden.” The word “burden” has nothing to do with weight, mass or any other physical properties – the word simply means responsibility. It is the state’s responsibility to prove the defendant’s guilt. It has nothing to do with the degree or intensity of proof. Who has to prove the defendant’s guilt? The State does. To what degree must guilt be proven? Beyond a reasonable doubt. What does that mean? Again the problem is with words being used in an abnormal or special way. The word “beyond” normally means farther than or more than.[4] Clearly this is not the meaning of the word in the phrase “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The state does not have to “carry its burden” beyond some point that constitutes reasonable doubt. The state certainly is not trying to prove that there is more than a reasonable doubt.[5] If anything the state’s responsibility is to prove that there is less than a reasonable doubt.[5] The word “beyond” in the phrase beyond a reasonable doubt means “to the exclusion of.”[5] That is, the state must exclude any and all reasonable doubt as to the defendant’s guilt. Simply put, the phrase means that if a juror has a reasonable doubt it is his or her duty to return a verdict of not guilty.[5] On the other hand, if a juror does not have a reasonable doubt then the state has met its burden of proof and it is the juror’s duty to return a verdict of guilty.[5]

“What is a reasonable doubt?” Jury instructions typically say that a reasonable doubt is a doubt based on reason and common sense and typically use phrases such as “fully satisfied” or “entirely convinced” in an effort to quantify the standard of proof.[6] These efforts tend to create more problems than they solve. For example, take the phrases “fully satisfied” and “entirely convinced.” A person is satisfied when she is content, pleased, happy, comfortable or at ease. The fellow leans back in his chair after a meal, pats his stomach and says, “that was one satisfying meal.” Is that what the state must do - offer sufficient proof that a juror is content, happy, pleased or comfortable with her verdict. Absolutely not. A juror is not required to be pleased with the verdict or happy with the verdict. The state is not required to produce sufficient evidence to eliminate all reasonable doubt AND to please the juror or to eliminate all reservations about whether the juror has done the right thing. “Satisfied” in the phrase “fully satisfied” simply means convinced.[7]. Likewise the modifiers "entirely" and "fully" do not mean that you have to be 100 percent certain of the defendant’s guilt. The standard of proof is not absolute certainty. A juror is "fully satisfied" or "entirely convinced" when the state had eliminated all reasonable doubt.

Jury instructions often state that a reasonable doubt can arise from the "lack or insufficiency of the evidence." This phrase is rich with possibilities for concocting doubt – Where are the fingerprints? Where is the DNA evidence? Where are the other officers who assisted with the arrest? These arguments invite, actually require that the jury engage in speculation – something a jury is specifically instructed not to do. An example, a person enters a store. The clerk who is talking to her friend on the telephone sees the man. She tells her friend that the man appeared to be casing the place and asks her friend to call the police. A few minutes later the man leaves the store, walks to his car, opens the trunk, and retrieves a ski-mask and a shotgun. The man dons the mask, re-enters the store and tells the clerk to give it up. The clerk does as she is told and put the contents of the till into a bag which she hands to the man. The man then leaves the store. As he is running to his car the police arrive. The man flees from the scene with the police officers in hot pursuit. As he runs the man tosses the bag, gun and mask. He is caught shortly thereafter, returned to the store and is positively identified by the clerk as the man who cased the store and then robbed her. The bag is retrieved and the money in the bag exactly matches to the penny the amount taken from the register. At the trial, the defense attorney asks the lead investigator whether hair samples were taken from the mask and submitted to the lab for analysis. The investigator says no. During closing arguments the defense attorney conveniently ignores all the evidence of guilt and pounds away at the sloppy investigation and argues that had the hair analysis could have provided the jury with "irrefutable evidence" of the defendant's guilt or innocence. Is the absence of the hair evidence what the phrase “lack or insufficiency of the evidence” refers to. No. The phrase refers to the convincing force of the evidence presented. The presence or absence of reasonable doubt is to be determined by the evidence presented at trial not what might have been presented. There is a standard objection- Calls for speculation – that is exactly what the defense attorney is asking the jury to do, to speculate. Not simple speculation but a series of "what ifs." What if a hair sample had been found, what if the hair sample had been sent to the lab for DNA analysis, what if he DNA profile had not “matched” the defendant’s. What if + what if + what if = reasonable doubt. Remember that the state’s duty is to eliminate any reasonable doubt, any logical explanation that arises from the evidence. The defense's argument is not a proper argument. It is a “tool of logical inversion”[8] All the evidence would compel one to say the defendant is guilty. However, the defendant wants the jurors to think, "but still there is that missing hair analysis evidence. I wonder what that would have shown?" A jury properly draw conclusion based on the evidence and inferences drawn from the evidence. The strength of the conclusions is based on the persuasive force of the evidence. With one exception, "Lack or insufficiency" refers to the convincing force of the evidence presented.

The exception is the missing witness rule, which states: "The failure to call a witness raises a presumption of inference that the testimony of such person would be unfavorable to the party failing to call him, but there is no such presumption or inference where the witness is not available, or where his testimony is unimportant or cumulative, or where he is equally available to both sides."[9]

"The reasonable-doubt standard plays a vital role in the American scheme of criminal procedure. It is a prime instrument for reducing the risk of convictions resting on factual error. The standard provides concrete substance for the presumption of innocence — that bedrock "axiomatic and elementary" principle whose "enforcement lies at the foundation of the administration of our criminal law."[10] . Proof beyond a reasonable doubt did not become the accepted standard in criminal cases until the middle of the nineteenth century.[11] Proof beyond a reasonable doubt was not the standard by which guilt was determined when the Bill of Rights was drafted in 1789.[5] This may explain the absence of the phrase in the constitution. Nor was it an element of due process.

However juries in criminal courts in England are no longer customarily directed to consider whether there is a "reasonable doubt" about a defendant's guilt. Indeed a recent conviction was appealed after the judge had said to the jury "You must be satisfied of guilt beyond all reasonable doubt." The conviction was upheld but the Appeal Court made clear their unhappiness with the judge's remark, indicating that the judge should instead have said to the jury simply that before they can return a verdict of guilty, they "must be sure that the defendant is guilty". R v Majid [2009] EWCA Crim 2563 (12 October 2009).

Quantifying reasonable doubt

One of the earliest attempts to quantify reasonable doubt was a 1971 article by Rita Simon and Linda Mahan, "Quantifying Burdens of Proof—A View from the Bench, the Jury, and the Classroom." [12] In a later analysis of the question ("Distributions of Interest for Quantifying Reasonable Doubt and Their Applications," 2006[13]) , three students at Valparaiso University presented a trial to groups of students. Half of the students decided the guilt or innocence of the defendant. The other half recorded their perceived likelihood, given as a percentage, that the defendant committed the crime. They then matched the highest likelihoods of guilt with the guilty verdicts and the lowest likelihoods of guilt with the innocent verdicts. From this, the researchers gauged that the cutoff for reasonable doubt fell somewhere between the highest likelihood of guilt matched to an innocent verdict and the lowest likelihood of guilt matched to a guilty verdict. From these samples, they concluded that the standard was between 0.70 and 0.74.

The majority of law theorists believe that reasonable doubt cannot be quantified. It is more a qualitative than a quantitative concept. As Rembar notes, "Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is a quantum without a number."[14]

Non-legal standards

Beyond the shadow of a doubt

Beyond the shadow of a doubt is the most strict standard of proof. It requires that there be no doubt as to the issue. Widely considered an impossible standard, a situation stemming from the nature of knowledge itself, it is valuable to mention only as a comment on the fact that evidence in a court never need reach this level. This phrase, has, nonetheless, come to be associated with the law in popular culture.


Criminal law

In the West, criminal cases usually place the burden of proof on the prosecutor (expressed in the Latin brocard ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non que negat, "the burden of proof rests on who asserts, not on who denies"). This principle is known as the presumption of innocence, and is summed up with "innocent until proven guilty," but is not upheld in all legal systems or jurisdictions. Where it is upheld, the accused will be found not guilty if this burden of proof is not sufficiently shown by the prosecution.

The presumption of innocence means three things:

  1. With respect to the critical facts of a case the defendant has no burden of proof whatsover.
  2. The state must prove the critical facts of the case to the appropriate level of certainty.
  3. The jury is not to draw any inferences adverse to the defendant from the fact that he has been charged with a crime and is present in court represented by counsel to face the charges against him.

The presumption of innocence does not mean that the jury or anyone else must pretend or assume that the defendant is in fact innocent of the charges. Nothing the jury does can alter the fact that the defendant did or did not commit the offense. There is no intermediate state.

For example, if the defendant (D) is charged with murder, the prosecutor (P) bears the burden of proof to show the jury that D did murder someone.

  • Burden of proof: P
    • Burden of production: P has to show some evidence that D had committed murder. The United States Supreme Court has ruled that the Constitution requires enough evidence to justify a rational trier of fact to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. If the judge rules that such burden has been met, then of course it is up to the jury itself to decide if they are, in fact, convinced of guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.[15] If the judge finds there is not enough evidence under the standard, the case must be dismissed (or a subsequent guilty verdict must be vacated and the charges dismissed).
      • e.g. witness, forensic evidence, autopsy report
      • Failure to meet the burden: the issue will be decided as a matter of law (the judge makes the decision), in this case, D is presumed innocent
    • Burden of persuasion: if at the close of evidence, the jury cannot decide if P has established with relevant level of certainty that D had committed murder, the jury must find D not guilty of the crime of murder
      • Measure of proof: P has to prove every element of the offence beyond a reasonable doubt, but not necessarily prove every single fact beyond a reasonable doubt.

In other countries, criminal law reverses the burden of proof, and there is a presumption of guilt.

However, in England and Wales, the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980, s.101 stipulates that where a defendant relies on some "exception, exemption, proviso, excuse or qualification" in his defence, the legal burden of proof as to that exception falls on the defendant, though only on the balance of probabilities. For example, a person charged with being drunk in charge of a motor vehicle can raise the defence that there was no likelihood of his driving while drunk.[16] The prosecution have the legal burden of proof beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant exceeded the legal limit of alcohol and was in control of a motor vehicle. Possession of the keys is usually sufficient to prove control, even if the defendant is not in the vehicle and is perhaps in a nearby bar. That being proved, the defendant has the legal burden of proof on the balance of probabilities that he was not likely to drive.[17]

Similar rules exist in trial on indictment. Some defences impose an evidential burden on the defendant which, if met, imposes a legal burden on the prosecution. For example, if a person charged with murder pleads the right of self-defense, the defendant must satisfy the evidential burden that there are some facts suggesting self-defence. The legal burden will then fall on the prosecution to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant was not acting in self-defence.[17]

In 2002, such practice in England and Wales was challenged as contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), art.6(2) guaranteeing right to a fair trial. The House of Lords held that such burdens were not contrary to the ECHR:[17][18]

  • A mere evidential burden did not contravene art.6(2);
  • A legal/ persuasive burden did not necessarily contravene art.6(2) so long as confined within reasonable limits, considering the questions:
    • What must the prosecution prove to transfer burden to the defendant?
    • Is the defendant required to prove something difficult or easily within his access?
    • What is threat to society that the provision is designed to combat?

Civil law

In civil law cases, the "burden of proof" requires the plaintiff to convince the trier of fact (whether judge or jury) of the plaintiff's entitlement to the relief sought. This means that the plaintiff must prove each element of the claim, or cause of action, in order to recover.

The burden of proof must be distinguished from the "burden of going forward," which simply refers to the sequence of proof, as between the plaintiff and defendant. The two concepts are often confused.

Decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court

In Keyes v. Sch. Dist. No. 1, 413 U.S. 189 (1973), the United States Supreme Court stated: “There are no hard-and-fast standards governing the allocation of the burden of proof in every situation. The issue, rather, ‘is merely a question of policy and fairness based on experience in the different situations.’” For support, the Court cited 9 John H. Wigmore, Evidence § 2486, at 275 (3d ed. 1940). In Keyes, the Supreme Court held that if “school authorities have been found to have practiced purposeful segregation in part of a school system,” the burden of persuasion shifts to the school to prove that it did not engage in such discrimination in other segregated schools in the same system.

In Director, Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs v. Greenwich Collieries, 512 U.S. 267 (1994), the Supreme Court explained that burden of proof is ambiguous because it has historically referred to two distinct burdens: the burden of persuasion, and the burden of production.

The Supreme Court discussed how courts should allocate the burden of proof (i.e., the burden of persuasion) in Schaffer ex rel. Schaffer v. Weast, 546 U.S. 49 (2005). The Supreme Court explained that if a statute is silent about the burden of persuasion, the court will “begin with the ordinary default rule that plaintiffs bear the risk of failing to prove their claims.” In support of this proposition, the Court cited 2 J. Strong, McCormick on Evidence § 337, 412 (5th ed. 1999), which states:

The burdens of pleading and proof with regard to most facts have been and should be assigned to the plaintiff who generally seeks to change the present state of affairs and who therefore naturally should be expected to bear the risk of failure of proof or persuasion.

At the same time, the Supreme Court also recognized “The ordinary default rule, of course, admits of exceptions.” “For example, the burden of persuasion as to certain elements of a plaintiff's claim may be shifted to defendants, when such elements can fairly be characterized as affirmative defenses or exemptions. See, e.g., FTC v. Morton Salt Co., 334 U.S. 37, 44-45 (1948). Under some circumstances this Court has even placed the burden of persuasion over an entire claim on the defendant. See Alaska Dept. of Environmental Conservation v. EPA, 540 U.S. 461 (2004).” Nonetheless, “[a]bsent some reason to believe that Congress intended otherwise, therefore, [the Supreme Court] will conclude that the burden of persuasion lies where it usually falls, upon the party seeking relief.”

Burden of proof in epistemology and scientific methodology

The fallacy of demanding negative 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, and especially a positive claim, 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 argument from ignorance).


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. Some considerations follow.

  • How neatly does the claim fit into the current body of scientific knowledge?
  • How coherent and complete is/are the mechanism(s) offered as the cause(s) of the effect being claimed?
  • How independent is the claim of other suspect or controversial claims?

It is important to note the distinctions between various types of claims.

Statement Burden of Proof
Elvis is alive. --------------------------------------------------------------------------
Elvis is probably alive. ----------------------------------------------------
Elvis is possibly alive. --------------------------------
I don't know whether Elvis is alive.  
Elvis is possibly not alive. --
Elvis is probably not alive. ----
Elvis is not alive. ------

Note first that the person with no belief has no burden of proof.

Next, note that negative and positive claims are not always symmetrical in respect to initial burden of proof.

Unless attenuated by conventional knowledge which has been presumably derived from evidence, raw positive claims (e.g., "Life on other planets does exist.") have the initial burden of proof. When we say "positive claim" we are normally talking about a claim that would extend ontology. "Fairies exist" and "fairies are imaginary" are both syntactically positive statements, but only "fairies exist" is ontologically positive, so it is this statement that has the inherent heavier burden of proof.

Conventional knowledge is an important consideration in determining burden of proof. In the Elvis example, convention assumes that Elvis is not alive due to lines of evidence. Therefore the burden of proof falls much more heavily on the one suggesting that Elvis is, in fact, alive. Note that not all conventional knowledge is equal. Urban myths and various other superstitions for which the evidence is suspect, despite their popularity, have not the strength of mainstream science.

Examples in science

As a general rule, the less coherent and less embedded within conventional knowledge a claim appears, the heavier the burden of proof lies on the person asserting the claim. The scientific consensus on cold fusion is a good example. The majority of physicists believe cold fusion is not possible, since it would force the alteration or abandonment of a great many other tested and generally accepted theories about nuclear physics.

Examples in metaphysics

As introduced in 4.2, in cases where the referent of a positive claim is of an uncommon or immaterial nature, or is unaccompanied by an explanation of causal mechanisms, a default to belief in the claim is not warranted. The proper default is skepticism. Here the burden of proof lies with the person making the positive claim, not with the skeptic. If one man claims Thor is real, and another claims Thor is not real, they do not share equal burden of proof. The burden of proof falls upon the person making the positive claim to the degree that the claim falls outside the corpus of scientific knowledge.

If a claim contains an absurd or illogical concept such as the claim of a square circle, the entire claim can be dismissed on the grounds of incoherence without invoking burden of proof.

Value of Burden of Proof

The primary value of the burden of proof lies in the principle of ontological parsimony and the economics of epistemology. The number of logically possible entities is infinite. Human cognition and longevity are less than infinite. If we were to default to a tentative acceptance of every logical claim that came our way, we would quickly find ourselves with a bloated and unwieldy ontology.

Scientists, in addition to limits to cognition and longevity, must deal with limited funds and resources. When forming hypotheses, they default to the heuristic of methodological naturalism, a tool of science that is based on induction. Immaterial causes and effects are usually not added to the list of possible causes and effects, not because they are logically impossible, but because induction has taught us not to expect immaterial causes and effects, and ignoring these is efficient.

Burden of proof is also an important concept in the public arena of ideas. Why does it seem nonsensical for a Thor believer, for example, to demand evidence the non-existence of Thor? Why do we shrug off demands that we must either demonstrate that fairies do not exist, or seriously entertain them as a possibility? We understand that the best way to assure ontological parsimony is to have the side making the positive claim provide the positive evidence.

Criticisms of the Burden of Proof

Some claim that the Burden of Proof is improper as a weapon in rhetoric, and does not lead to truth. A lack of evidence for a position does not justify the opposing position. The Burden of Proof has been described by some as a "Get-out-of-jail-free" card, absolving the card-holder of all obligations to prove their own position. This is a inappropriate use of the Burden, as it avoids the issue and neglects to address the logical possibility of the opposing argument. In the example above involving Thor, a true skeptic would not reject the logical possibility that Thor is real unless the definition of Thor is shown to be logically incoherent. A lack of evidence on the side that "has the burden" to provide evidence is not justification for the complete rejection of that ideology by the skeptic - because that would constitute an unsubstantiated faith placed in the counter-argument. Skepticism often invokes a methodology of "choosing disbelief" rather than open-mindedness. What remains is to determine the value of degrees and modes of skepticism and open-mindedness as evidenced by precedent in achievements in science, medicine and other fields of knowledge. A mind too narrow cannot produce the creativity and innovation that have been pivotal to many human advances. A mind too open is prey to all new claims that fall within the realm of logical possibility.

As is the case with most metaphysical matters, believers rely on probabilities and induction as an integral component in their belief, and their lack of any empirical evidence may be fundamental to their philosophy. Ideologies, however, vastly differ in the size of their unsubstantiated ontics. Some may claim a large list of interdependent entities for which there is no evidence, while other may simply claim that those entities do not exist. It is in this that the burden of proof becomes useful. As there are an infinity of possible logical entities that can be posited, the burden of proof rests on those making the positive claims. As human cognition and longevity have limits, the burden of proof allows us to consider first claims that fall within or tangent to the current body of scientific evidence.

Some claim that a lack of proof would indeed be consistent with their ideology. This may be true, but the number of possible ideologies of this sort is infinite, and few proponents of such ideologies give competing ideologies of the same evidential class the same epistemological status.

Once criticism has been that, demanding that any side be burdened with more evidence than the other is in itself a fallacy. The Elvis example above shows the weakness of this position. This argument suggests that the burden is empirically and logically unfair. Which side the burden should be placed on is arbitrary and debatable even before its placed, it is claimed. Which side is the more skeptical, doubtful, and which side is the most reasonable are oftentimes a matter of opinion and is presupposed by the side that places the initial burden, who places the burden on their opposition - this is claimed to be a bias, having a loose connection with begging the question or circularity fallacy. In the act of placing the burden, the truth is presupposed; a bias is built into the question and its empirical approach. It is claimed that a nonpartisan approach to truth should place equal parts burden on both sides. Presuming that any one side is more reasonable posits its correctness beforehand, and is the result of nothing more than a deluded confidence in ones preexisting belief-to-an-end. For the skeptic, it is claimed, which side deserves the Burden should be a matter to be debated and proved in its own right. The strength of this argument can be assessed by considering this notion in the context of the Elvis example above.

Some claim that the only value of the burden of proof is within the legal system. From an ethical standpoint and only an ethical standpoint, the burden of proof may be employed in the court of law without fallacy. The intention is to preserve the greater moral right by not punishing the innocent. By falsely punishing the innocent by finding him guilty, the truly guilty has escaped the clutches of justice which undermines the notion of justice entirely. Given the risk between allowing the guilty free and punishing the innocent, it makes rational ethical sense to place the burden on the accuser, allowing the accused the default verdict of innocence. The fact that the innocent may on occasion be found guilty and the guilty may on occasion be found innocent is demonstrable proof that the burden does not lead to a truth, but to merely a more proper course of action. This is the Burden's only saving grace some claim. Many scientists claim that the burden of proof allows them to consider only probable causes and effects rather than the infinite number of logically possible causes and effects that might be offered by various ideologues. It is in essence a triage that ranks causes and effects according to their likelihood, thus focusing their resources.

Historically speaking, the burden has been intended for use in the search for justice. It hasn't been used in the search for scientific truth, as truth isn't the necessary outcome of the burdens employment. Nevertheless, the burden has always been placed on the side of the "accuser". In unbiased science there is no accuser. There are merely hypotheses. Therefore some say that science ought to remain nonpartisan in its pursuits for truth, and not direct their studies along certain paths and agendas. However, as mentioned above, the burden of proof provides a triage that allows for the optimal allocation of resources. Some suggest that preferring an active disbelief in an opposing idea over a passive non-belief is improper. However, as mentioned previously, a true practice of this would result in a vastly bloated ontology comprising unsubstantiated logical possibilities. So while claiming it is always more rational to remain open-minded until conclusive evidence justifies otherwise, cognitively entertaining the logical existence of all the gods that have ever been proposed while waiting around for evidence of their non-existence is not easily and often done, even by those offering this criticism of the burden of proof. Another consideration is the impediment to the inception and incubation of modern science and medicine resulting from the social default to immaterial ontologies and their corollaries such as geocentrism.

Another criticism is derived from an appeal to historical longevity and pervasiveness. As it pertains to some metaphysical ideas such as Christianity, its important to take note of history. Christianity is a widespread religion with a majority of the population who believe. In fact, it spans into history and culture far and wide, for many centuries. Relative to Christianity, some claim that atheism is a relatively new perspective and philosophy, having fairly recent roots and a minority of believers. The association and affiliation of atheism to science is even newer, as science itself is only several centuries old. From this perspective it stands to reason, that atheism is indeed the accuser against Christianity and therefore suffers the Burden of Proof. Whereas defaulting to Christianity may be seen as an appeal to tradition, defaulting to atheism is equally an appeal to novelty as well as a fallacious employment of the burden of proof; and such an unjustified employment of the burden of proof is a bias favoring atheism over theism though neither side has been proven or dis-proven to any extent. A rebuttal to this criticism of burden of proof is in the consideration of the previous practice of "bleeding" patients with leeches to extract "bad blood". Is the burden of proof inapplicable here? Do both side start out with equal burden of proof? Or does the side that makes the positive claim have the onus? What are the advantages to this assignment of burden of proof? These considerations over this example can then be applied to the historical longevity and pervasiveness of various other ideologies.

See also


  1. ^ Patterson v. New York, 432 U.S. 197 (1977)
  2. ^ Miller v. Minister of Pensions [1947] 2 All ER 372
  3. ^ Calderon v. Thompson, 523 U.S. 538 (1998). The petitioner, Thomas M. Thompson, a convicted rapist/murderer, was executed on July 14, 1998.
  4. ^ See Bugliosi, Till Death Us Do Part (Norton 1979)
  5. ^ a b c d e f Id.
  6. ^ See, Jackson v Virginia, 443 US 307, 61 L Ed 2d 560, 99 S Ct 2781(1979) See, e.g. N.C.P.I.--Crim. 101.10 BURDEN OF PROOF AND REASONABLE DOUBT.
  7. ^
  8. ^ Jamie Whyte, Crimes Against Logic, page 45
  9. ^ Briscoe v. State, 40 Md. App. 120, 388 A.2d 153 (1978).
  10. ^ In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358 (1970)citing Coffin v. United States,156 U.S. 432, 453 (1895)
  11. ^ Rembar, The Law of the Land (Simon and Schuster 1980) page 413
  12. ^ Simon, Rita James, and Mahan, Linda. "Quantifying Burdens of Proof—A View from the Bench, the Jury, and the Classroom." Law and Society Review 5 (1971): 319–330.
  13. ^ "Distributions of Interest for Quantifying Reasonable Doubt and Their Applications" (PDF). Retrieved 2007-01-14.  
  14. ^ Id. at 412.
  15. ^ Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (1979).
  16. ^ Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988, s.5(2)
  17. ^ a b c Herring, J. (2004). Criminal Law: Text, Cases, and Materials. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 58–64. ISBN 0-19-876578-9.  
  18. ^ R v. DPP, Ex Parte Kebeline [1999] UKHL 43


External links


Got something to say? Make a comment.
Your name
Your email address