Creationism and the Burden of Proof

There is something that lurks within every debate about The Controversy between evolution and creationism, but which is sometimes overlooked — the question of who has the burden of proof.

You have all heard of the burden of proof. Basically, it means that whoever makes a claim has the burden of supporting that claim. Literal proof isn’t required (except for something like mathematics), but at minimum the claimant must offer credible (i.e., verifiable) evidence that supports his position. Without that, there is nothing to talk about.

So what’s the situation when one is confronted by a creationist who sneers: Evolution? Oh yeah? Prove it!

Do you have the burden of proof? And if you fail to respond with a complete, college-level course in the theory of evolution, fully supported by abundant evidence, does the creationist challenger win by default? If those were the rules of engagement in science, then any ignoramus could win any debate with anyone about anything.

We suggest that when the subject is a long-accepted scientific theory, it’s a perversion of the burden of proof to challenge the theory with nothing other than “Oh yeah?” Why do we say that? Because for something (like evolution) to have achieved the universally-recognized status of a scientific theory, it has already met that burden. The original hypothesis has been challenged and tested again and again, and it has survived such challenges. That’s why it is regarded as a theory. It also makes predictions that can be demonstrated to be true (see, e.g.: The Lessons of Tiktaalik).

We aren’t living in the years before Darwin, when evolution was nothing but a vague idea, unsupported by an organized body of evidence and a testable mechanism. We’re now living 150 years later, and the evidence for evolution is overwhelming. Thus it is the creationist who is making the claim. Specifically, his claim is that evolution is false — and it is therefore the creationist who has the burden of proof.

We’ve previously posted about the kind of evidence a creationist needs to produce. See: Where Are The Anachronistic Fossils? If such evidence is found and a better scientific explanation is provided (see Advice for Creationists), then evolution will join the list of superseded scientific theories. But not until then.

Therefore, when confronted by a creationist, don’t imagine that you are the one who must provide the evidence. That’s already been done by hundreds of thousands of scientists who have labored for generations. Library shelves groan with the weight of peer-reviewed journals describing their research, and the museums are bursting with evidence. The creationist may be unaware of this — or he may simply dismiss it — but that is his problem, not yours.

Just respond to such a challenge by saying: “If you have evidence that contradicts the theory, let’s see it. Then we’ll talk.”

Copyright © 2011. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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10 responses to “Creationism and the Burden of Proof

  1. Here’s the thing though. All of the pro-creationism/ID people THINK they have all the evidence that contradicts the theory. Then they will pull up the most esoteric bit of data and demand that you explain it away. Most people can’t do that. Even experts sometimes have difficulty doing this… which is why the Gish Gallop is such an effective debating technique.

    No, I think what you must do, is require them to IGNORE evolution. Tell them, “OK, evolution is gone. What replaces evolution? What is the evidence for it? And what good is it (in other words, what tools does it bring to the table to help us)?”

    Be sure to hammer them on every little detail. Take their comments to the next logical step, where they will usually fail very, very badly.

    And don’t forget to read up on Standards of Evidence (http://ogremk5.wordpress.com/2011/03/06/standards-of-evidence/)

    and “because Dembski says so” isn’t evidence.

  2. ogremkv says:

    Here’s the thing though. All of the pro-creationism/ID people THINK they have all the evidence that contradicts the theory.

    Yeah, but it’s always “Golly, the cell is complicated, and the DNA molecule is code — code!” That’s not evidence, it’s a declaration of ignorance. Nothing to debate.

  3. retiredsciguy

    SC says,
    “Because for something (like evolution) to have achieved the universally-recognized status of a scientific theory, it has already met that burden. The original hypothesis has been challenged and tested again and again, and it has survived such challenges. That’s why it is regarded as a theory.”

    A very good point. However, the fundamentalist creationists, such as Ham, hold that the Holy Bible is all the proof they need. They dismiss all science that contradicts their literal interpretation scripture.

    In other words, you’re preachin’ to the agnostic choir, Curmie. But — you are absolutely, elegantly correct.

  4. Yeah, but it’s always “Golly, the cell is complicated, and the DNA molecule is code — code!” That’s not evidence, it’s a declaration of ignorance. Nothing to debate.

    I don’t disagree, that’s why you have to hammer them on what their theory actually is.

    Give examples of non-intelligent agents that design things. I actually have a IDiot telling me that termites are intelligent agents, as ID defines intelligence. Once you get them to that point, everyone around you just starts laughing at them.

    They are marginalized and you win. It’s not a pretty tactic, but it works.

  5. My take on it is this: We’re not going to convince the fundamentalist creationists. We’re only going to convince those who’ve not made up their minds yet. The William Dembskis, Ken Hams, Duane Gishs, etc, well, they’re too far gone. Don’t worry about them because, even if you did, it wouldn’t do any good. Instead, I’d recommend using ogremkv’s method on those who are still straddling the fence. Let them see all the nothing that the creationists have for their arguments. And let them do it themselves. If they start with, “Well, the Bible says…” then they’re probably too far gone. Time to move on. Otherwise, who knows? Perhaps a brain will be saved.

  6. First of all you will NEVER have enough proof or evidence or logic to satisfy them. NEVER.

    That’s because creationists Don’t Care ™. They don’t give a flying fig about evidence, science or proof. They are like monkeys in a zoo who taunt you by flinging their poo.

    I agree that the “No Evolution” gambit works a treat. Debate martial arts, use the energy of the attacker against him. “You’re right,” I’ve said, “there is no evolution. So, dude, tell me how it all works” and they are totally screwed.

    No creationist understands “intelligent design” creationism. It’s like trying to understand triangular pink. Makes no sense. Creationists expect you to fight them and when you don’t it’s game over.

  7. Herbert Spencer wrote an essay in 1852 (yes, seven years before “On the Origin of Species”) which still seems an appropriate response to the “burden of proof” demand. “The Development Hypothesis” is available at Wikisource:

    The Development Hypothesis

  8. I’d like to see an example of something which is not intelligently designed. Then we would have a chance at telling the difference that intelligent design makes.

    Because the creationist may complain that the question is unfair: God created everything; how about even a hypothetical, counter-factual thing, something that an intelligent designer did not, or could not, or will not design?

    But when one brings up the subject of counter-factual things, doesn’t it turn out that all counter-factuals are intelligently designed: flying carpets, centaurs, or impossible objects. Intelligent design does not imply existence, which means that intelligent design is not sufficient to account for existence.

  9. Tom, yes. OTOH, I’ve had a challenge out for several weeks now to IDists to identify a designed sequence of DNA from a random sequence of DNA (with appropriate start and stop codons added to the beginning and end).

    That’s a perfect example that IDists must be able to distinguish. It’s so simple, I don’t know why ID proponents haven’t already done so (giggle). Both sequences will produce a protein, so the function is the same (remember the only ‘function’ of DNA is to act as an information storage system).

    Yet, somehow, no IDist has even acknowledged the test, except to say it doesn’t apply to ID, but with no reasons given… imagine that (giggle).

    That’s why all the IDists on Amazon have ‘ignored’ me. I ask questions that they can’t answer and force them to not play their cute little word games and concern troll games and conspiracy theory games. Even if ID were correct, if it can’t be used to distinguish between design and random, then it is utterly useless anyway.

  10. Any time we make a claim, we have a burden of providing evidence and reasoning to support that claim. That being the case, evolution by natural selection has already met that burden. Anyone who argues that it’s flawed must convince us with better evidence and reasoning.

    We do need to ask what principles of reasoning and the axioms that someone holds. If someone claims that the Bible is beyond question in terms of science, then those who accept the rules of genuine science have nothing to discuss.