Burden of Proof
The burden of proof is the idea that one party is responsible for proving, or disproving, a certain claim. In general the burden lies with the person making the new claim. In criminal trials, here in Canada and the US, this means it’s the prosecution (aided by the police) that must prove their case. This is essential if a person is to be presumed innocent until proven guilty as an innocent person may have no actual proof their innocence, but still be innocent. For example, if you were accused of assaulting a person a block from your home during a time that you were home alone and sleeping, you would have no way of proving that you did not wake up, walk a block and commit the crime. That is why it is up to the police to provide some evidence that you were not only there but there at the time of the crime.
The legal system is not the only place that the burden falls on the person making the claim. In the realm of science the same burden applies. If I were to develop a theory it would be my job to prove it to the rest of the world not their job to disprove it. This gives us a solid and reliable base for our knowledge to build upon.
The world of pseudoscience however, doesn’t accept this idea. They make outrageous claims and then expect us to accept them on face. It’s a common argument from psychic proponents that science can’t prove psychics don’t exist. And they are right, (just as in the case of the sleeping man) there is no such proof. But science is not making any claim so there is no burden. For some reason though, psychics don’t think they need to be the ones to provide proof. I believe that this is for two basic reasons. One they don’t really understand the idea of burden of proof, and two most of them know they can’t prove it because they are fakes.
There are other groups that also ignore the burden of proof such as the vaccine denial movement. This group makes wild claims about medicines that have undergone rigorous testing and passed several clinical trials designed specifically to catch any possibility of the drug causing harm to people. They make these claims with no evidence beyond intuition and fear and they expect us to discontinue this practice without making any proof. We know conclusively that when people choose to not vaccinate their children, children die. Now I find the issue of vaccine denial interesting because the makers of vaccines do have a burden of proof, it is their task to show us that their medicine is safe and effective. And they meet that burden. Even after passing that test they are still open to attack from new data showing that they are in error but that data must be valid and accurate.
So far there has yet to be any psychic or anti-vaxxer that can prove their point, until then all we can do is wait and see. And I’ll get my yearly flu vaccine (as well as protect my children from measles mumps and rubella) while ignoring the psychic friends network.