Carrying the Burdens of Proof (And How Not To Prove Things)

Twice recently, on two very different topics, with two different people, I have had the same problem.  Both times, the person in question made an assertion that I then contested, only to have the person continue to assert their opinion as truth with a complete lack of evidence, expecting me to either take them at face value or do the work to disprove them.  Like "innocent until proven guilty", only it's "true until proven untrue".  I would like to take a moment to remind people that that is Not How This Thing Works.

The first instance took place here on this very blog, when I posted an email my father had sent me, and my response to it.  His initial email described Planned Parenthood as "a financial behemoth -- one engaged in an activity most Americans find troubling".  In my response, along with many many other things, I questioned whether or not one could reasonably say that "most Americans" find abortion troubling, and asked if he had proof of that claim.  His response was to ask me if I had any proof that most Americans don't find it troubling.  He took my request that he provide some kind of reasonable poll data, and quoted it right back at me, then saying: "Works both ways, and until either side can "prove" otherwise both sides are entitled to their opinions."

Um, no.  That's not how this works.  I don't have to have proof against it in order to question your assertion.  If you make (or promote) an assertion, it is incumbent upon you to prove that your assertion is true.  Not upon me to prove that it is false.  If I say something ridiculous - like, for example, "There are no Republicans with a working sense of empathy" - it would be entirely appropriate for my father to request that I prove my assertion.  It would, then, be entirely inappropriate for me to shoot back "well, why don't you prove me wrong, first?"  Ve who makes the assertion must carry the burden of proof.  People are, of course, entitled to continue having their opinions even in a complete absence of proof - witness the continuing popularity of most dogmatic religions - but they are not entitled to have those around them treat those opinions as fact in the absence of proof.  This attitude is not conducive to productive debate and discussion.

The second incidence was a discussion on Twitter, which can function in this case as a demonstration of how not to attempt to prove your point.  

After a friend made a crack about 24 being a tool of the right-wing so that they can make people believe that torture works, which I retweeted because I found it hilarious, my brother proceeded to argue with me that torture does, in fact, work.  I asked what proof he had of that, and for perhaps a half-dozen tweets in a row, no proof was offered, only variations on the assertion "You can't deny it works" over and over again.  

Me: [RT's joke about 24 making people believe torture works]
Him: Can you deny that it works? Doesn't make it right, but it works.
Me: Frankly, until *proven* otherwise, I'll err on the side of not torturing people. Got *proof*? I'll reconsider.
Him: Proof it works? There's plenty. I'm still not saying its right, but there's no denying that it does in fact work. 
Me: I've heard plenty of denying that it works, actually. So where's the proof of which you speak? I'm genuinely curious.
Him: So you're saying that people won't give up information under duress? Because even though it may be wrong, it DOES pay off.
Me: What I'm saying is, I have neither seen nor heard actual *proof* that such is the case, and until I have, I cannot support it.
Him: I don't support it either, but I'll admit it definitely results in information being given up.

I wanted to *headdesk* x1000.  Because that?  Was a totally unproven assertion - "Torture works" - simply being repeated over and over in lieu of actually being proven to be true.  Which is also not conducive to productive debate and discussion. 

So let it be known, People Who Debate Things:  
1. Simply saying something is so does not make it true.  
2. If you say something you believe to be true, it is upon you to prove the truth of your assertion, not upon your opponent to prove your assertion wrong.  
3: Since simply saying something does not make it true, repeating the same assertion over and over does not suffice as proof either.


CaitieCat said...

Well, he's right, in the sense that information is generally received from torture.

Where he's wrong is that almost none of it can be considered the least bit reliable, because a person being tortured will tell you anything they think you'd like to hear, and as anyone who's ever served in any intelligence-gathering capacity will tell you, unreliable information is worse than useless.

It makes you waste resources checking out the random appeasements of a tortured person; it allows them to direct your attention to the wrong things; it removes your ability to feel certain about anything you hear, whether confirming or denying the info you inhumanly received.

It's pointless not least because it's ineffective and potentially damaging, as much as because it's inhuman. Duh.

Good post, J. :)

Jadelyn said...

Thank you for laying that out so eloquently. I'd thought of pointing that out - I was aware of the general concept, anyway, of the unreliability of information gleaned from torture - but didn't want to try to boil it down into 160 chars. ;-)

The Ex said...

Well, I'm sure torturing the individual will almost certainly reveal only "take with a grain of salt" information, but I see a lot in movies where the villains/heroes know that and instead hold something/someone they care about over the figurative shark tank unless they spill. I don't have any hard proof, other than doing a search for the excuse "I had to! They were going to hurt [insert family member, friend, pet, most favoritest thing in the world]!" So, I don't push this as a truth, only what I'd speculate to be more effective than physical or (other) psychological tortures. Point the gun where it will be most effective. Also, read the Evil Overlord list, it covers all of this, sheesh people.

Jadelyn said...

I suppose if politicians/the military want to make like movie villains, which they already seem inclined toward...

The Ex said...

Yeah, that's kind of where I was going with that. They intend to lie about it anyways, or sweep it under the rug and wash their hands of it; why not go the whole 9 yards on it?

The Brother (Big Brother? lol) said...

Okay, that was a twitter conversation, did you seriously expect me to make a full argument in 140 characters or less? That's just ridiculous. Yes, I have sources to back me up. And I didn't see you making any effort at formulating a legitimate argument beyond repeating "no it doesn't" over and over again. We're all guilty sis, don't delude yourself with the idea that you're so much better. So here, have some more evidence- an excerpt from the Washington Post dated April 21st, 2009,

"Consider the Justice Department memo of May 30, 2005. It notes that "the CIA believes 'the intelligence acquired from these interrogations has been a key reason why al Qaeda has failed to launch a spectacular attack in the West since 11 September 2001.' . . . In particular, the CIA believes that it would have been unable to obtain critical information from numerous detainees, including [Khalid Sheik Mohammed] and Abu Zubaydah, without these enhanced techniques." The memo continues: "Before the CIA used enhanced techniques . . . KSM resisted giving any answers to questions about future attacks, simply noting, 'Soon you will find out.' " Once the techniques were applied, "interrogations have led to specific, actionable intelligence, as well as a general increase in the amount of intelligence regarding al Qaeda and its affiliates." Specifically, interrogation with enhanced techniques "led to the discovery of a KSM plot, the 'Second Wave,' 'to use East Asian operatives to crash a hijacked airliner into 'a building in Los Angeles." KSM later acknowledged before a military commission at Guantanamo Bay that the target was the Library Tower, the tallest building on the West Coast. The memo explains that "information obtained from KSM also led to the capture of Riduan bin Isomuddin, better known as Hambali, and the discovery of the Guraba Cell, a 17-member Jemmah Islamiyah cell tasked with executing the 'Second Wave.' " In other words, without enhanced interrogations, there could be a hole in the ground in Los Angeles to match the one in New York."

How about that? Oh wait, you won't accept that as being true because it's from "teh evil CIA/Military/Government". In no way do I condone torture because of its inhumane nature, but at least I'm willing to admit when a distasteful tactic proves useful.


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