Personal Standards of Proof


From my experience debating in the posts and comments of the Internet, I’ve come to realize something: Each person has his or her own metric by which they weight evidence and arguments, and their own level of skepticism that needs to be overcome before they are convinced of a point.

I’ve always leaned towards objectivity and neutrality when it comes to debates. Not so far as to venture into relative truth territory – “Oh sure that may be true for you, but not for me” – as I believe that there is always an absolute trtuh. Whether we can conclusively determine what the absolute truth is, is another matter.

That last point brings me back to Personal Standards of Proof. To better understand what I’m getting at, let’s begin with the concept of reasonable doubt – ‘the level of certainty a juror must have to find a defendant guilty of a crime’.

For example: Zed was found at the crime scene covered in the victim’s blood, with his hand clutching the victim’s guts, and with sixteen separate witnesses to the crime – ten of them with cellphone cameras capturing the murder in real time. I as a juror would find this evidence that Zed committed a murder, beyond reasonable doubt.

Conrasting example: Wilma is accused of having bludgeoned to death the media tycoon Sir Ramsey. However, she did not know the man, had no motive to kill him, is half the former amateur wrestler Ramsey’s size, and her World of Warcraft account is shown to have been logged in and active at the time the murder was committed. Hence I as a juror would have plenty reasonable doubt that she did in fact commit the murder.

Similar to the above, but applied to areas beyond criminal persecutions, differing Personal Standards of Proof cause each person to come to different conclusions.

For example: A slew of IPCC reports might be enough ‘proof’ to convince John that global warming is a dire threat caused primarily by human emissions of CO2. Meanwhile, a slew of exposés of the shoddy science underlying those same reports might be enough ‘proof’ to convince Suzy that global warming is an overblown, dishonest scare.

Another example: A series of unlikely events occurs that seem to be in direct answer to a religious prayer. To Michael, this is proof enough that God is real and answers prayers. Whereas to Betty, this can be dismissed as pure coincidence, albeit with a cumulatively low random probability.

In short: What may be conclusive and inassailable to me, may not be as watertight and bulletproof to you. And what may constitute ‘good enough’ to you, may fall short to me.

From all of this, I’ve settled into a position where I present my points, arguments and citations to support my position. I will also rebutt and undermine those raised by my opponents. If I feel that they are not seeing a certain item clearly or that their interpretation is inaccurate, I will point it out to them.

But at the end of the day, I accept that neither of us will likely change our minds – despite all the ‘proof’ that was flung about. Hence I can let the debate trail off without thinking that my opponent is an utterly biased imbecile. Oh, he or she may very well actually be one, just that I don’t automatically assume so just because we come to different conclusions.

So back to “Oh sure that may be true for you, but not for me”. Although there is an absolute, undeniable truth, that saying is actually quite applicable real life – because a very convincing argument to John may be a shoddy argument to Suzy. Based on the same set of incomplete, imperfectly proven data available, they each will come to their own different conclusions.


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