As a skeptic, it is important to understand the workings of science, and how and why science is a good way of investigating the nature of our universe. One of the most important parts of the process of science is the burden of proof. I am going to try to explain when the burden of proof applies to certain claims, and why it is that certain way. The burden of proof is, in science, the idea of which side of an argument needs to find evidence to prove its claim. In most circumstances, it falls on the side of the affirmative, the one trying to prove something does exist. I am going to use 3 different scientific hypotheses to demonstrate different stages of a scientific hypothesis, and how it applies to the burden of proof.
The first hypothesis I will investigate is where most scientific claims fall. It is the claim of most theists, the claim of god. Because god is unproven, and god is not a generally accepted scientific theory, the burden of proof is on the affirmative. Its the same way with all unproven claims (some will disagree there is no burden of proof on the atheists, but that’s another post). Until there is any proof for the subject, no proof is needed against the subject, and this brings me to my next claim.
Once a claim garners enough evidence and proof to become accepted by the scientific community, then the burden of proof is reversed. The scientific theories of special relativity are a good example of that. When relativity was first hypothesized, it already had good mathematical evidence to suggest it, as it was not much different from Newtonian gravity under low energy systems. However, proof was needed to separate relativity from Newtonian gravity. This first chance to prove relativity came during the first Venus transit after relativity’s hypothesizing. We all know the story, and that became the first evidence of relativity as scientific theory. Nowadays, relativity has enormous proof behind it, so the burden is on the other side now. These days, instead of scientists saying “this will be a good chance to try to provide evidence for relativity”, they now say “this experiment will be a good chance to try to disprove or revise relativity”. The burden has switched, and now the burden of proof is on the negative.
The third type of debate requires proof from both sides, but is much rarer than the other two examples. While the first two examples deal with situations where the debate is “does this exist, or does it not exist?”, the third example deals with the rarer question of “is it this way or this way?”, and the question of anthropogenic global warming is a good example. While I am on the side of most of the scientific community, the idea that global warming is mostly man-made, this question still ensues, and was more relevant a few years ago, before more evidence came to bear. This question deals with two options, Is the global warming we see caused by humans, or is it caused by natural fluctuations and other natural causes? In this case, unlike the other two, both ideas are affirmative. In the first, it was god or no god, or relativity or no relativity, now it is natural or man-made, which are both affirmative possibilities. The burden of proof was on both sides, as both sides where making claims as to how the earth was warming. Therefore, they both needed to prove their claims.
The burden of proof is a sometimes confusing and blurry concept, but is very simple at its roots. Most of the time, it falls under only one side of the argument, mostly affirmative, but occasionally is required by both sides. In the transition between the first two examples, it is important to note that both sides need to put forward evidence, and it is best to make a judgement by looking at both sides, and not by picking a side and simply saying that the other side needs more evidence, like in the case of anthropogenic global warming.