[ Question ]

How to respond to a series of defiantly persistent evidence-free claims?

by ThurstonBT1 min read14th Oct 202118 comments



I am looking for a magisterial rebuttal, that I can cite in the future, to this conundrum that I often encounter in the truth-seeking process.  Prior to a series of recent experiences, I would have assumed that 'please provide evidence for your claim that X is true' is a matter near and dear to the members of 'the rationalist community'.  Certain recent events have shown that to not be the case.  Does anyone have any insights to offer? 

An example of this issue ...

Person A: X is true!

Me; I see no reason to believe that X is true.

A: X is an empirical claim and X is true!

Me: Would you please provide evidence that X is true?

A: X is true!

Me:  As you are claiming that X is true then you bear the burden of proof and are required to prove logic and evidence to support your claim.

A:  No!  X is true!

Me:  You are violating a basic rule of logic.

A:  No!  And you are being an asshole!

Me:  I refute your evidence-free claim with Hitchens's razor — "what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence".

A: X is true!  

Me:  I refute your evidence-free claim and ridicule your your defiantly defective rational argumentation in persisting to make the claim.  I bitch-slap you with Hitchens's razor!

A:  You're making me sad.

Me:  Neither your sadness nor any of your others feelings are evidence that X is true.

Does anyone have thoughts on this matter?



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4 Answers

In your example, both parties are asserting at the other party who doesn't respect their assertions, and neither is getting curious. Saying "Would you please provide evidence" might superficially sound like curiosity, but you'll notice that you still haven't asked what evidence is or why they believe it. The question is "Will you justify yourself to me", and this hypothetical person seems pretty clearly uninterested in that -- and that's okay, you may not be worth justifying to. Maybe you are, but it's not guaranteed. As Christian says, burden of proof doesn't always work that way. As a simple rule, "the burden of proof is on the person who wants to change minds". On the other side of the coin, the burden of curiosity is on the person who wants to find truth.

When you find yourself in this kind of situation, you can shortcut the whole thing by dropping the presuppositions that they need to justify things in ways that would satisfy you, and engaging in curiosity yourself.

A: X is true
You: Hm, how do you know?

Certain recent events have shown that to not be the case

I see no reason to believe this. Please provide evidence that this is true.

@JBlack:  Your request for evidence substantiating my claim is well taken.  That evidence is visible at the Berkeley (CA) area 'rationalist community' Discord channel called "The Forum".  If you cannot find "The Forum" on Discord then please DM me and I'll attempt to supply you with other information whereby you can access it (I apologize as I'm a none-too-deft Discord user).

You can find dialog, at "The Forum", substantiating my "[c]ertain recent events have shown that to not be the case" if you search for dialog from c. 5 Oct.-13 Oct. that ... (read more)

9JBlack2moOkay, so you are claiming that these tiny fragments of a particular discussion within a particular subdivision of a geographical fragment of the rationalist community represents evidence for the much broader claim you made about the rationalist community as a whole. Well okay, you provided evidence so weaksauce as to be nearly water. If this was the best evidence you could provide, then I should update away from your claim, because I would have expected you to be able to provide much stronger evidence than that if it were true.
6Said Achmiz2moI’ve never even heard of this Discord channel (server?) before, so it can’t be very important to “the rationalist community”. Therefore, you can’t conclude anything about what is, or is not, near and dear to said community, from—what, one conversation on this one obscure Discord server? (I mean, really. “Certain recent events”! Talk about blowing things out of proportion…)
5Viliam2moOh come on! You have the evidence under your cursor, yet instead of copying it here, you are giving us a manual how to find it at some obscure server, with a warning that it gets deleted in 24 hours. I have read your comment 2 days and 2 hours after you wrote it, therefore I have no idea what you refer to. Never heard about that Discord channel either. Could you please be a little bit more cooperative?

If you ask yourself "how to respond" you might first ask yourself whether to respond at all and if so what your goals for responding happen to be.

In different context widely different responses might be in order. In different contexts the burden of proof is quite different. If your boss says X, he doesn't have the burden of proof. If your subordinate says X, he has the burden of proof. 

When it comes to discussion among rationalists those are often about attempting to convince another person. If your goal is to convince another person saying "provide evidence for X" is not helpful for convincing the other person. What's necessary to convince the other person is often to provide evidence for !X.

For discussions that are about convincing other people it's important that particpants provide what they beliefs independent on the extend towards which those beliefs can be supported by explicit evidence. That means it's good to have social norms that don't ban people from expressing those beliefs if you want to have discussions that aren't just about people talk each other and nobody shifting what they believe.

Considering that you only wrote two posts on this site, and the other one concerns the Roko's Basilisk, I am going to assume that it refers to the part that "Discussion of Roko's basilisk was banned on LessWrong for several years because Yudkowsky had stated that it caused some readers to have nervous breakdowns", or perhaps just the part "Yudkowsky had stated that it caused some readers to have nervous breakdowns", or perhaps just the part "some readers [had] nervous breakdowns".

Give that this information was provided on Wikipedia, why are you asking us for the evidence? Ask the people who wrote it!

Do you want a step-by-step manual how to fix unsubstantiated statements at Wikipedia? Regretfully, we don't have one. Nobody has.

10 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 2:19 PM

Are we to understand you're asking for an authority to cite...for the PURPOSE of "argument from authority" to get your opponents to shut up when you disagree? Some sort of "Rationalist Trump Card?" 

That...seems strange. But I must be misunderstanding.

I think a good principle for keeping something contentious from getting out of hand is to keep any replies (if they really must appear at all) technical and more detailed than should be necessary, deescalate the unhelpful aspects at every step, even if that doesn't get the point across.

@Shouperflous — Indeed.  You "must be misunderstanding".

1)  My goal is not to " get [my] opponents to shut up". My goal is to cause persons making evidence-free claims to  support those claims with evidence.  This is the opposite of causing someone to "shut up"; it is prompting someone to keep talking and provide evidence.

2) You appear to also misunderstand the  "argument from authority".  The argument from authority refers to an appeal to false authority on the topic at hand or a putatively authoritative person opining on a matter  while failing to engage with the evidence at hand.  A citation to an authoritative source on the norms of 'the rationality community' (e.g. The Sequences)  to the effect that 'it is a norm of 'the rationality community' that one responds to a challenge for evidence or withdraws the claim in dispute' is not an appeal to false authority.

[1] Given Hitchens's razor, I infer that that is, or should be, OBVIOUS to any 'rationalist'  that evidence-free claims, when challenged, must be supported with evidence or withdrawn.

Argument from authority does not require the authority be false, it requires that the authority be, itself, used as "evidence" of a claim. Looking for "Magisterial" i.e. "authoritative" rebuttal to cite in the future seems like looking for some "authority" on what rationality means to throw at someone, not unlike the "Hitchen's Razor" you're citing as a "bitch slap" which is.... odd. 

A lot depends on the X, and the implications of X, and whether EITHER of you have evidence for or against it.  There are plenty of topics that really aren't motivated by empirical predictions and evidence.  Those tend to be very frustrating to try to use Bayes' Rule on.

Many social or religious statements, for instance, are not claims as such.  They're framed as truth, but are really moral axioms or faith-based frameworks of thought.  My general advice: let it go, you probably can't convince them, nor can they convince you.  Truth-seeking is not the mode of communication you're in.

@Dagon:  Please note that in the example, above, A asserts: "X is an empirical claim and X is true!"  
I concur with A's assertion that ""X is an empirical claim".  This is not a matter of normative "social or religious statements". 

Your observation that normative claims are often "framed as truth" is well taken.  The use of "truth" to describe both empirical and normative claims is the source of much confusion and facilitates the use of the Fallacy of Equivocation. 

I find your advice to "let it go" in this matter, of refuting an evidence-free empirical claim, to be unacceptable and inconsistent with truth-seeking.