Most people, even very young children, have an intuitive sense that proof of the existence of something is required before that “something” is acknowledged as true. Kids say “prove it.” Adults understand that the burden of proof is almost always on the party asserting the truth of something. For example, in our justice system the burden of proof is on the state (in a criminal action) and the plaintiff (in a civil action). A defendant does not have to prove his innocence; the state must prove his guilt–beyond a reasonable doubt.
For some reason, however, this very simple concept seems to get lost in the political realm. All too often we hear a person assert the truth of a proposition based on the purported absence of evidence that it is not true.
This form of argument has several names, including proving a negative, the argument from ignorance and the negative fallacy. The logical form of the argument is: X is true (or must be true) because there is no evidence that X is false. This type argument is a logical fallacy, which is a fancy shmancy way of saying it is a bad argument, although it may appear convincing and persuade people who do not appreciate its logical flaws.
What does any of this have to do with Donald Trump, you ask? The answer is that he is clearly a fan of the argument from ignorance. In connection with his ridiculous assertion that he actually won the popular vote because millions of fraudulent votes were cast for Hillary Clinton by ineligible voters, he retweeted the following to CNN:
What PROOF do you have Donald Trump did not suffer from millions of FRAUD votes? Journalists? Do your job!
He also retweeted:
Pathetic – you have no sufficient evidence that Donald Trump did not suffer from voter fraud, shame! Bad reporter.
In Donald Trump’s world, the truth of a proposition that he wants to be true is simply assumed and the burden is on the rest of the world to prove that the proposition is false. Just imagine a judicial system designed by Trump. I shiver at the thought.
I suspect we will see and hear a lot more of this form of bogus argument in the future from Mr. Trump. I just hope most people recognize it as a deeply flawed form of argument.
Dan Klau is an attorney with McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter, LLP. His opinions are his own and not those of his law firm.
He is also the immediate Past President of the Connecticut Foundation for Open Government and is a member of the board of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information.