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Friday, April 15, 2011

Can't Prove a Negative...

In one of the replies to my previous post, I was asked by a conspiracy theorists where is my evidence that the Israeli mossad was not involved in 9/11. The mistake in thinking here -- very common among conspiracy theorists, including tax protestors -- is that they don't have to prove the mossad was involved in 9/11, it's enough for others to fail to prove it wasn't, in order for their view to be taken seriously.

This mistake is known as 'proving a negative'. It is by definition impossible to prove something does not exist. It is always possible there is some place you haven't looked. I can't prove dragons and fairies don't exist somehow, somewhere (perhaps on some other planet, or in a parallel universe). But that's no reason to take seriously the claim that they do.

Sorry, folks, it doesn't work that way. Carl Sagan said it best: 'extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence'. You make the positive claim, you provide the evidence. Nobody has any requirement to prove you are wrong; you have to prove you are right.

If you claim dragons and fairies exist, or that the mossad is behind 9/11, or that the income tax is a gigantic fraud by tens of thousands of people, it's not for me to prove these things are false and that no fairies, mossad conspiracy, or massive government fraud that has been going on for 100+ years. It's for you to prove these thing do exist. There is no point taking your claim seriously, otherwise.

The reason conspiracy theorists, from 9/11 "truthers" to tax deniers, constantly demand that someone prove to them 9/11 was not a conspiracy, or that the income tax is real, instread of defending their position by providing evidence it is correct, is simple: they can't do the latter, and thus presume that 'attack is the best defense'.

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5 Comments:

At June 12, 2011 at 12:37 PM , Blogger Natalie said...

Great post overall!

I only take issue with one statement - your quote from Carl Sagan: 'Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.'

No, they don't.

Extraordinary claims require some legitimate, reliable, verifiable evidence, but there's no need for that evidence to be extraordinary.

To wit: If I claimed that my long-departed Aunt Flora had risen from the dead, well that would be an extraordinary claim. But basic ordinary evidence is all that would be necessary to prove it.

I'd have to prove she actually died, of course. And it would help if I had corroborating evidence that she'd been buried/cremated/dropped in the ocean/whatever. Finally, I'd simply have to prove that the person now sitting in my living room is indeed Aunt Flora, whom we could all see is really alive by using perfectly ordinary evidence.

See? No extraordinary evidence required. The same is true for proving the existence of fairies and dragons. We don't need extraordinary evidence. We merely need ordinary, legitimate, reliable and verifiable evidence. The evidence standard here is not 'extraordinary,' it's 'legitimate, reliable and verifiable.'

So, why would Carl Sagan make that statement: 'extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence'? It's because Sagan refused to acknowledge ordinary evidence for the existence of God. He used this misleading statement to raise the required standard of evidence so high that no one could overcome it.

 
At June 13, 2011 at 11:39 AM , Blogger Avital Pilpel said...

I see your point -- and in a sense I agree -- but you're missing something.

In your example, there are quite a few other possiblities: e.g., that your aunt had not in fact died, or that the person pretending to be her is an impostor. Both claims, while not routine, are at least significantly more likely than a person returning from the dead. People after all faked their death, or pretended to be other people. There are, however, no verifiable cases of returning from the dead.

So to take the "she came back to life" seriously, more than ordinary evidence is required. In this case, e.g., an investigation of the funeral records, perhaps opening the grave to see if it is empty but previously occupied; DNA tests of the person in question; etc. If all of those *do* turn out OK for the "she came back from the dead" hypothesis, then it can be taken seriously.

This is what Sagan means with "extraordinary evidence" in this context. It doesn't mean *supernatural* or *impossible to achieve* evidence.

 
At July 22, 2011 at 12:39 PM , Blogger prof_5string said...

Actually, some negatives can be proved. It's easily shown, for example, that "the larget prime number" doesn't exist, or that "a rational number that when squared equals 2" doesn't exist. Anything that has a contradiction built into its definition (e.g., a 4-sided triangle) can be shown to not exist.

 
At November 29, 2011 at 9:10 AM , Blogger 84 said...

including tax deniers in this makes no sense.

the claim there is that there is no ratified law to legally bind americans to pay income tax.

yes you must, the IRS says (an institution registered in puertorico)

ok, tax denier says. "produce the legal basis"

"no". "just pay" the IRS says.

how this is remotely applicable to theological questions or dragons or mossad is beyond me, the comparison could not have been poorer.

legal standard is that the accuser proves the accused wrong. The accused asking the IRS to provide proof for its claims, is law 101.

as far as the mossad goes, the question there is how much circumstantial evidence = burdon of proof.. tricky question. again, legal standards can be applied.

problem there is that legal standards and 9/11,.. just never even exist in the same text.
unless of course that text laments the lack of it, or complete disregard for it.

 
At December 27, 2011 at 1:31 PM , Blogger . said...

Problem is that it's also an extraordinary claim that an international conspiracy operated from the other side of the world, fooling FBI, CIA and the air defenses. The supposed hijackers didn't even caused an hijacker alarm on the planes.

The burden of proof lies on the person who makes a claim and wants to act upon it, in this case it is the governments job to provide evidence. After more than 10 years we're still waiting.

 

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