‘Burden of proof’ and other poor arguments

There are lots of poor arguments used in education discussions. I have recently been at the wrong end of one when a genuine disagreement with another blogger was unpleasantly conflated with trolling and abuse. This is upsetting and yet it is sadly par for the course.




I am with Paul Graham on this – if we avoid bad argument and focus instead on disagreeing with the main idea that somebody is putting forward then we would all feel a lot better. I would certainly prefer that. And it is a big improvement on endless, unresolvable discussions of ‘tone’. As Graham says, tone is, “a weak form of disagreement. It matters much more whether the author is wrong or right than what his tone is. Especially since tone is so hard to judge. Someone who has a chip on their shoulder about some topic might be offended by a tone that to other readers seemed neutral.”

I wish to particularly note a logical error that crops up every time I write about E D Hirsch and that arises for seemingly ideological reasons. His more strident critics will openly accuse him of racism but, more often, it is heavily implied. The error is the fact that these critics have never produced, as far as I am aware, any evidence of racism at all. Instead, they tend to demand that I prove that he is not a racist.

This is known as ‘shifting the burden of proof’.

In a rational argument, it is for the person making the claim to substantiate that claim. It is not for those who are sceptical to prove the claim wrong. To do so is often quite impossible. The most famous example of this kind of argument is Bertrand Russell’s teapot and it goes like this:

Simplicio: There is a teapot orbiting the Sun at some point between the Earth and Mars.

Sagredo: That seems unlikely.

Simplicio: Prove to me that it is not the case.

Sagredo: I cannot.

Simplicio: Aha! I am right!

Please try to avoid this fallacy when debating education.

And it is worth listening to Bertrand Russell himself:


2 Comments on “‘Burden of proof’ and other poor arguments”

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