2 Chapter 2: An Academic Mindset
Colleges and universities collectively form “academia,” an abstract notion that includes the culture and the institutions of higher learning. College students need to learn what expectations their teachers and fellow students have for them in an academic setting, and they also need to learn how to tap into the tools that the academy offers to them.
BURDEN OF PROOF
Of all the concepts that frame academic argument, the notion of burden of proof is both among the most familiar to student writers and among the most difficult to grasp. For the most part, student writers will find that the burden of proof is on them, meaning that if they want someone to believe a claim, they must provide evidence to support that claim. The burden of proof, or the requirement to provide evidence, is always on the person seeking to prove a claim or change the status quo.
Overview: The burden of proof is a term to explain a simple but important concept. Basically, any claim requires evidence to support it, and that evidence must be strong enough to suggest to a neutral reader that the claim is worth considering. Otherwise, the status quo is that the claim is unproven. Think about the concept that someone is “innocent until proven guilty.” This statement implies the status quo (innocent) and it tells us who has the burden of proof (the person claiming the suspect is guilty). Note that it is possible to be “right” without meeting the burden of proof. However, a chance of being correct is not the same thing as having a valid argument.
Failing to meet the burden of proof does not mean the claim is untrue—it means that the claim is rejected until such time as the burden is met. For academic settings, the principle of a falsifiable argument is an essential tool. Evidence is presented and weighed before a conclusion is reached.
Academic arguments must meet the burden of proof for a simple reason: the inability to prove a negative. A specific claim can be falsified. For example, a claim that the arrowhead I found in my backyard is a prehistoric artifact can be examined and found to be lacking. Perhaps the arrowhead is made of the wrong materials, has signs of modern machining, or simply isn’t an arrowhead at all but rather an odd piece of rock that just looks like an arrowhead. However, this falsification does not prove that there are no prehistoric artifacts in my backyard.
Application: In academic writing and college-level arguments, intuition and opinion are not enough to establish validity. In other words, it is not enough for someone to say “X might be true,” or “We don’t know Y isn’t the explanation.” Instead, the person making the suggestion has to prove that there is evidence in favor of his or her suggestion being valid. This means that a student writer can’t simply rely on what “everyone knows” and must instead provide a logically valid argument. Most importantly, writers do not get to assume that they are right. Instead, they have to earn the respect of their readers.
What to Avoid: Quite simply, writers should avoid assuming that they are right. Instead, they should consider the reasons that others might disagree with them and then construct an argument using evidence and support. Student writers need to be careful that they do not trust information sources that act as if they are above the need for evidence, as well. Avoid making and trusting arguments that assume a position is true without evidence or justification.