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.