The burden of proof when making charges


There was an interesting discussion in the comments about my dismissal as an ‘absurd’ claim the story that Hillary Clinton and key members of her Democratic party campaign were running some sort of child prostitution and sex trafficking ring out of a pizza shop, triggered by one commenter suggesting that I was dismissing the charge because I “liked” her, a claim that will cause some raised eyebrows among regular readers, some of whom have vigorously defended her from my attacks on her history and her qualities to be a president.

In the comments to that post I have responded briefly to the argument but in the book I am writing dealing with scientific logic (which is coming along nicely by the way and is the reason I have spent less time on blog posts), I deal with how in science we arrive at reasoned judgments about the truth of claims and that many of those methods we use in everyday life as well. But those living in a ‘post-truth world’ use an inverted logic of the kind made by the commenter and I thought that it worthwhile exploring this at some length.

In my original post, I said that “it seems such an absurd claim on its face that it would require a high level of evidence to substantiate it”, a statement that I thought was somewhat innocuous. The idea that an ambitious, cautious, and legalistic person like Clinton, who has been in the public eye for decades, with determined enemies who are always scouring every nook and corner of her life to discover things to discredit her and are even willing to make stuff up, would undertake such an extraordinarily risky, horrific, and criminal enterprise involving a large number of people, while simultaneously running for president, clearly merited the claim of ‘absurd’.

And yet the commenter’s views reflected the very point of my post because he made the kind of arguments that are now routinely made in this post-truth world, which consists of overturning the normal evidence-based argumentation that is necessary if we are to arrive at rational conclusions, and substituting for it a spurious logic.

First of all, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and yet this charge had no evidence at all. Furthermore, the argument consisted of this line of reasoning:

  • Some high profile celebrities and politicians have been found to be pedophiles.
  • Clinton is a high-profile politician.
  • So she could be guilty.
  • Hence the claim is not absurd.

Stated this way, the argument’s weaknesses become obvious. By this logic, the same charge of running a child prostitution/sex ring could be made against any celebrity or politician and one would have to treat the claim as plausible. Assigning guilt merely by association, based upon the fact that one is personally connected to unsavory people, is something that we frown upon. Assigning guilt purely because one is a member of a very large class of people of whom a few have been guilty of crimes goes much further and results in every single person being suspect based on nothing at all, since all of us belong to overlapping classes of people some of whom have committed crimes.

For example, my career has been that of a college teacher. Some college teachers have been found have committed various despicable acts. Suppose someone anonymously posts something on social media accusing me of having done something wrong, and the only supporting claim is that a few other college teachers have been found to have acted this way. Do I have to prove that I am innocent? The answer is surely not.

In my book, I discuss how scientific reasoning works and that it has many similarities to legal reasoning. In legal proceedings, the usual practice is to follow the principle ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat, that translates from the Latin as “the burden of proof rests upon him who affirms, not on him who denies”, provided the assertion is of a positive nature and not a negative one. So if someone is accused of committing a crime, the burden of proof is on the accuser and not the defendant. This principle is more popularly stated as that a person is presumed innocent until shown to be guilty.

This principle is considered such a fundamental aspect of a civilized society that it is enshrined in Article 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that: “Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which they have had all the guarantees necessary for their defence.” Of course, many countries that have signed on to the UDHR routinely violate this principle when it suits them, while still claiming to uphold the basic principles of human rights.

One could conceive of an alternative system in which a person is presumed guilty until proven innocent, shifting the entire burden of proof onto the defendant. There is nothing logically wrong with such a system but in practice it would be unworkable since there are many more people who are innocent of a crime than there are those who are guilty, so one would immediately start with an enormously large pool of presumed guilty people who have to prove their innocence. Furthermore it is often difficult, if not impossible, to prove innocence because it involves proving a negative. For example, if I were alone at home, it would be very difficult for me to prove that I was not robbing a nearby convenient store at that time, which is why the ‘presumed innocent until proven guilty’ standard is a better much one since it requires at least some evidence that I might be responsible. So there are good reasons for having the burden of proof be on the person who asserts a positive claim and not on the person who denies as the method of arriving at legal verdicts or ‘truths’.

And yet, that is what the people who live in a post-truth era seem to want to do, to be able to make any charge they like against anyone based not even on guilt by association but guilt by being a member of a large class of people of whom a few have been guilty, and then wait for that person to prove innocence. But when the charge is made against someone they approve of, then they shift back to the normal mode.

If an individual or institution has a history of behaving badly in some fashion, then the charge becomes more plausible. So for example, accusations of pedophilia by priests in the Catholic church or of assassinations and subverting other countries by the CIA or spying by the NSA or financial wrong doing by Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street banks carry with them some level of plausibility and cannot be dismissed out of hand, though the new accusations still need supporting evidence to be taken further. Because of their past history, those would not constitute extraordinary charges.

If the charge is made of the Democratic party exchanging access and favors in return for campaign contributions, that would not be a ridiculous charge. But the Democratic party has no history of being involved in child sex trafficking and so the pizzagate charge can be rightly described as absurd.

Comments

  1. says

    In my original post, I said that “it seems such an absurd claim on its face that it would require a high level of evidence to substantiate it”, a statement that I thought was somewhat innocuous.

    It’s not at all an innocuous statement. It’s an important meta-observation about something that is at the core of scientific reasoning, namely: there is a higher evidence requirement for claims that seem to be less likely. The more unlikely a claim, the farther it is (“likely”) from past experience – which the skeptical fans of Bayes’ Theorem* have weaponized – this applies to probabalistic reasoning in general. Where it all falls down, of course, is that the past does not easily predict the future! The fact that some politicians have been pedophiles doesn’t mean that the same percentage, going forward, will be, or that any particular politician will be. We simply don’t know – which is why we ask for evidence.

    (* I think too much attention gets paid to pseudoscientific Bayesian calculations, but Bayes Theorem has a lot to say about our understanding of the future in terms of the past, for some set of futures and some set of pasts)

  2. Holms says

    If an individual or institution has a history of behaving badly in some fashion, then the charge becomes more plausible. So for example, accusations of pedophilia by priests in the Catholic church or of assassinations and subverting other countries by the CIA or spying by the NSA or financial wrong doing by Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street banks…

    Ooh, I think I can come up with another example for your list. Let’s say there is a far right media machine with a history of slandering rival politicians, and it comes up with an unevidenced and extreme accusation against a disliked politician during her bid for presidency against a candidate they prefer. That strikes me as being safe to dismiss as a lie.

  3. hyphenman says

    Good morning Mano,

    The timing of your post is spot on given Scott Adams’ latest installment.

    Adams’ central thesis is that the vast majority of what individuals perceive as reality is an illusion. He writes:

    My worldview is that the human brain did not evolve to understand reality on any deep level because we don’t need that ability to survive and reproduce. If your illusion keeps you alive, it’s good enough.

    He does not dismiss science or the scientific method, but in his worldview, those play only a very minor role in our day-to-day society, especially in how we interact with each other.

    He is boosted in his continuing dialogue on persuasion, illusion and reality by his very early—August 2015—prediction that Donald Trump would win the White house in November 2016. Adams’ saw something that the rest of the nation took a very long time to come to grips with: that we would elect a man to our highest office who had never held any elected position, and do so at a cost far below that of any of his opponents.

    We cannot afford to dismiss out of hand the events transpiring in our country (and the world).

    Do all you can to make today the best day you can,

    Jeff Hess
    Have Coffee Will Write

  4. Mano Singham says

    Jeff,

    I think he is right that we do not need to think scientifically for basic survival, at least in the short term. Evolution is not bad on long term advantages but on immediate needs. There is evidence to suggest that we have evolved to be pattern-seeking individuals, who immediately jump to generalizations based on a few instances, and that we also are quick to see some conscious agency as behind the actions of anything. These provide much greater short-term survival benefits.

  5. says

    Accusations and claims deserve as much effort as their believability and credibility. If it’s implausible, it doesn’t have to be taken seriously.

    Think of it in weather terms. If I lied and told you it rained here today, you would probably believe me. If I said it rained black mud, you would be skeptical but could check a weather or news site for a volcano eruption, which again, could be true. But if I told you it rained frogs or tin cans, you’d tell me to get lost without even trying to verify it.

  6. sonofrojblake says

    Thanks for the summary, jws1. It certainly helped. Except I’m also criticised at #8 for NOT commenting, so it seems I lose either way. The combination would come across as bullying behaviour if I gave a monkey’s what any of you people think.

    Another weakness of Bayesian reasoning here is – who gets to judge likelihood? Mano judges the claim “absurd”, which leads to a requirement for a high standard of evidence, and justifies that judgement.

    My ONLY point was that such a claim is not a priori absurd, which was what was implied. I pointed out that there was no positive evidence in the form of, say, any witness or victim testimony, just accusations.

    the same charge of running a child prostitution/sex ring could be made against any celebrity or politician and one would have to treat the claim as plausible

    Whereas it’s better if, say, the police or any other authority simply decide that there are some people who it’s simply absurd to suspect based on… their career? That sounds much safer.

    The idea that an ambitious, cautious, and legalistic person […]who has been in the public eye for decades, with determined enemies who are always scouring every nook and corner of her life to discover things to discredit her and are even willing to make stuff up, would undertake such an extraordinarily risky, horrific, and criminal enterprise involving a large number of people, while simultaneously running for president, clearly merited the claim of ‘absurd’.

    Perhaps, if you choose those descriptors. The idea that an enormously rich, detestably arrogant and extremely well-connected person in the upper echelons of the government would have the confidence to believe themselves above the law and above suspicion and untouchable in any case were anyone to make any accusations against them, and would thus have the hubris to commit horrible crimes – how does that sound? It describes Clinton just as well. It describes historical cases in practically every country where there’s a functioning government.

    There then follows a lengthy discussion of what happens in courts of law and the legal system generally. And yet, when another FtB contributor saw fit a while back to accuse a well-known person of rape, anyone who here suggested that he be presumed innocent was lambasted. Time and time again “this isn’t a court” was trotted out as justification for making the reasonable assumption that the allegations against said person were true, and that he therefore be presumed guilty. Time and again the very idea that victims might approach the police and give their testimony to the “proper” authorities was treated as tantamount to revictimising them. Double standard much?

    I repeat – I think there is nothing to the pizzagate allegations. My point of disagreement is only this: the reason I discount the allegations is a paucity of evidence, not any a priori assumption that the idea that they might be true is absurd.

  7. John Morales says

    sonofrojblake:

    … if I gave a monkey’s what any of you people think.

    Tsk. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be commenting here.

  8. Holms says

    Except I’m also criticised at #8 for NOT commenting, so it seems I lose either way.

    …But that comment wasn’t a criticism. Here’s one:

    Another weakness of Bayesian reasoning here is – who gets to judge likelihood? Mano judges the claim “absurd”, which leads to a requirement for a high standard of evidence, and justifies that judgement.

    My ONLY point was that such a claim is not a priori absurd, which was what was implied.

    The word you are looking for is inferred. If we look at the text of that post, we come across this early sentence: “Just stating this [the ‘pizzagate’ allegation] will raise the eyebrows of even a marginally rational person, because it seems such an absurd claim on its face that it would require a high level of evidence to substantiate it.” Note that the sentence that introduced the word ‘absurd’ to the piece also mentioned the possibility of evidence in support of that claim, with the caveat that such evidence would need to be of a high standard.

    This therefore is not an a priori dismissal, but a demand for evidence.

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