The burden of proof is usually, and I argue wrongly, framed as a responsibility that falls on a participant in a discussion because of something they said. The burden is imagined to be a responsibility to provide argument in favour of a claim that they made or implied.

Here’s what has to say.

The burden of proof lies with someone who is making a claim, and is not upon anyone else to disprove. The inability, or disinclination, to disprove a claim does not render that claim valid, nor give it any credence whatsoever.

But I hope to show this isn't correct; the burden of proof never comes from something a person says, and there isn't a 'The burden of proof', singular.

What is it then?

I'm claiming that:

A person has a burden of proof when–and only when–they want to persuade another.

Which implies that both parties in a discussion can have a burden of proof at the same time; and that a burden of proof can lie with a person who has not made a positive claim, but wants to persuade someone who has, that they're mistaken.

I take on the burden of persuading you I'm right about the burden of proof

If we use burden of proof to mean what I say it means, it's not a very useful phrase. It doesn't make sense to haughtily tell someone the burden of proof is on them. You already know if they want to persuade you about something–if they do they'll already be trying to, already shouldering the burden. And if they're not trying to persuade you then you have to assume they're not interested in doing so, and they have no burden.

But is this a new problem? I don't think so. I think the meaning that ascribes to burden of proof is just as useless, but more harmful.


If I'm in a conversation with someone, and a claim comes up that we disagree about, there are two possibilities:

  1. I'm sufficiently motivated to try and persuade the other party that my opinion is correct.
  2. I'm not sufficiently motivated to do that.

In the case of 1 I'm already trying to persuade the other; there's no need for either of us to talk about the burden of proof. In the case of 2 the other party can complain that the burden of proof is on me all they like. It doesn't matter. I'm not going to be moved to plead my case to them because I don't care about persuading this person.

In neither possible case is the legacy meaning of burden of proof helpful.


On top of being useless,'s definition misleads people into believing they have grounds to demand that another present a case to them against their wishes. This leads to all kinds of entitled misbehaviour.

I believe the uselessness, plus the harm to clear thinking, disqualify the legacy meaning of burden of proof.

In the wild

Some examples of people using the phrase from Twitter.

The burden of proof should be on religious organizations to prove that they are tax exempt by not being involved in politics.

A clearer way of saying the same would be:

Authorities should require evidence from religious organisations that they are not involved in politics before granting them tax exemption.

But proving a negative is famously problematic.

first you need to prove that God exists. The burden of proof lies on you for making a claim that something is real.

A functionally equivalent and less antagonistic response would be:

I don't believe that God exists. Do you want to try to persuade me?

no one ever clearly defines what “Russian Asset” means. It’s meant to create public stigma about the accused while removing the burden of proof from the accuser

An accusation doesn't automatically imply a burden of proof to begin with–since such a burden comes from your desire to persuade another, which you might not feel. I'd write the above this way instead.

“Russian Asset” is a vague term meant to create public stigma about the accused, while avoiding specific claims that could be decisively contradicted.

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