Sunday, February 11, 2024

Conspiracy Theories and the Burden of Proof

Recently, media personality and former licensed psychologist Dr. Phil (Phillip Calvin McGraw) propounded a conspiracy theory about Chinese immigrants:
“If they’re working in farming, if they’re working in industry, I promise you they are expected to do certain things. Are they spying? Are they sending seeds back from farming to China? Are they getting plans from industries they’re working on?”
Dr. Phil was off track. The person who wants to challenge existing policies or beliefs carries the burden of proof. Critical thinking fails when public figures, or the public at large, ignores that long-tested standard of argumentation. When reason collapses, so does the republican system of government. In 2024, our leaders face a constant battle to disprove bizarre conspiracy theories—when there is no reason to believe the conspiracy theory to start with. And questions are not proof! 

Notice that Dr. Phil only asked questions. He proved nothing. That is how conspiracy theories hatch from their rotten eggs. Questions and conjectures never prove anything. Never have, never will. They’re just questions. If you make a point, prove it! Burden of proof is the most basic principle of dialectic, without which critical thinking falls to pieces.


The burden of proof must overcome presumption. When we presume that existing policies and beliefs are correct, that doesn’t mean that they are. It only means that to expect the present system to defend itself against every wild accusation leads to chaos. Society would collapse in confusion. Analagously, in a United States law court, the court presumes that the defendant is innocent. That doesn’t mean that there is any evidence that the defendant is innocent! It just means that to draw random people into court and require them to prove that they never committed this or that crime would surely cause injustice. Can you, dear reader, prove with evidence that you were not the masked bandit who robbed a liquor store on January 8, 2013, at 7:50 PM? Probably not. However, fortunately for all of us, the court presumes that you are innocent.

Likewise, we presume that only living people cast ballots. We presume that the people who count election ballots under supervision, following the provisions of law, will count them accurately. Does that mean that the ballots are absolutely accurate? Of course not. Instead, it means that people who challenge the ballots have the burden of proof. Let’s turn to that key idea.

Burden of Proof

In Elements of Rhetoric, Bishop Richard Whately showed us how to adapt the idea of burden of proof from common law courts.

In public policy, burden of proof has two contexts. First, anyone who challenges existing policies and beliefs has the burden to prove that those policies and beliefs are wrong. When, and only when, appropriate and solid evidence has been produced, yes, someone needs to defend the present policies and beliefs. The second is that a person who makes a factual claim has the burden to prove it. You can’t just say, “I think that the Mafia killed John Kennedy, and you need to prove that I am wrong.” That unwisely shifts the burden of proof. Likewise, you can’t just ask, “are the migrants actually Chinese spies?” Questions prove nothing.

So, did dead people vote in 2020? Good question, what is the proof? Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani commented, after Donald Trump lost in Michigan in 2020: “we’re going to be looking at dead persons’ ballots, which may actually be very, very substantial.”

Does that prove anything? No, of course not. It’s random speculation, akin to a question. Giuliani did not say that he could prove that dead people voted. He said that he was going to look at it. He also said that it “may” be substantial. In other words, he tried to reverse the burden of proof, when he, in fact, had no proof to offer. Questions and conjectures prove nothing. Not ever.

In any case, when asked the Trump campaign to prove that dead people voted, they revealed only one case of a single dead person who voted (for Trump!)

Indeed, was generous. After all, Giuliani had never accepted his burden of proof, and there was, under the rules of dialectic, no need whatsoever even to respond to his question. A sufficient response would be to say, “prove it!” If someone says that mail-in ballots were forged and that the proof is coming soon,” the first response is to say, “you have not fulfilled your burden of proof. I’ll wait until you show evidence, and then I’ll respond.”

Fact-checking organizations like and perform a noble, thankless service and I wish people would pay more attention to them. Unfortunately, however, fact-checkers by their very nature accept the conspiracy theorists’ reversal of presumption. It is not the fact checkers job to prove that conspiracy theories are wrong. It is the conspiracy theorists’ job to prove their claims. If we fact-check an unproven claim, sometimes all we accomplish is to reset the debate on the ground that liars and scoundrels have chosen for themselves. Actually, all a fact checker should need to say is, “Dr. Phil asked whether Chinese spies are crossing the border, but he provided no evidence that they are.” Or, “Donald Trump claims that there was a ballot dump in Pennsylvania, but he never proved it.” Wait for the burden of proof; if the proof never comes, then, well, case closed. And insist that the case is closed. Poof.

Conspiracy Theories

People do ask many questions these days. Are there questions about the 2020 election? Were mail-in ballots cast fraudulently? Did dead people vote? Are immigrants crossing the southern border to spy for China? Or, going back, can Barack Obama prove that he was born in the United States?

As Professor David Zarefsky pointed out in 1993, conspiracy theories are as old as American politics itself. Conspiracy theorists (like Rudy Giuliani or Dr. Phil) often claim that their opponents have secret agendas. Can conspiracy theorists prove their conspiracies? Usually not! Conspiracies are secret! Still, without evidence, a conspiracy theory is just wild speculation.

Indeed, Zarefsky points out that conspiracy theorists throughout history routinely try to shift the burden of proof. They want us to believe things that they cannot prove. That road leads to madness.


Some conspiracy theories turn out to be true; most do not. The difference is evidence. Sadly, conspiracy theorists succeed when the public, failing to recognize the obligation to prove a point, accepts dubious, unproven claims. Critical thinking is absent. That is why, to have a healthy republic, listeners must grasp how to evaluate the different disputes that people contend. 

Burden of proof and presumption are not factual claims. They are part of the procedure of dialogue and debate that help us think critically. If we ignore the rules of debate, we mire ourselves in a swamp of confusion and disorder. So, a person who debates public policy must offer evidence.

Or, follow this ancient idea: an argument has only two parts—state your case and prove it. Everything else is decoration.


Richard Whately
Research Note:

Whately explains burden of proof in his wonderful 1828 book, Elements of Rhetoric. Any present-day argumentation and debate textbook will give a brief, easy to understand explanation. For example, Austin Freeley’s superb book is widely assigned in college debate courses.

Personal Note:

There is nothing wrong with saying that you do not know something. Are Chinese spies crossing the border? I do not know. I will await evidence.

By the way, do schools do an adequate job of teaching critical thinking? I'm just asking a question, not making a claim--what do you think? 

by William D. Harpine

Copyright © 2024, William D Harpine

Image of Richard Whately, public domain in the United States, published before 1928, via Wikimedia

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