I think I'm using the concepts Burden of Proof, Confirmation Bias and Falsifiability inappropriately, or muddling the notions in my way of thinking. I just looked up these concepts on google a few minutes ago, so hopefully someone can clarify things for me.

I have a friend on my team and he's not pulling his weight. Everyone outperforms him and puts in more hours of work than him. He replies, "I like to sleep 16 hours every day because once I'm awake, I'm much more alert and efficient."

I tried to challenge my friend saying he should try to sleep less. If he sleeps 16 hours, that leaves very little time for work (since he also parties with his friends and hangs out at burger king every day). IF he slept less, lived a healthier life style, it will be better for him down the road.

He replied, "I saw a youtube video saying that it is healthier for humans to sleep more and not sleep less. When I compared sleeping 16 hours vs. sleeping 12 hours, I was able to confirm that I felt more refreshed after 16 hours of sleep than 12 hours of sleep."

I tried debating him, but it seems the Burden of Proof is on me to prove to him sleeping 16 hours a day and eating burger king 15 meals per week is not a good idea. And he'll rebuttal by saying he found youtube videos and blog posts to confirm what he already believes.

So my question is, isn't it a dangerous for society for the burden of proof to be on me as the challenger to prove to my friend his life style is unhealthy (because it causes our universal healthcare to sky rocket, bad influence on younger people, etc...)? Isn't it dangerous for society for my friend to use confirmation bias to re-inforce his decision to lead an unhealthy life style?

Wouldn't it be a safer and more productive option for society if my friend used an approach of falsifiability, where he should actively try to falsify his own beliefs and replace it with new+better knowledge? So if I submit a contradictory belief, the burden of proof is on him to try to falsify his own beliefs using the additional data I've provided him?

But then I see a problem with what I just said in my previous paragraph. If my friend says, "Earth's gravitational constant is 9.81m/s^2", and I submit to him, "Earth's gravitational constant is not a constant, but is a box full of cereal, aliens and fuzzy wuzzy wombats." It would be a complete waste of time for my friend to investigate my claim to falsify his beliefs. A good way to avoid wasting people's time is for me making the stupid claim to take on the the burden of proof.

So why does it seem like the burden of proof is ALWAYS on the person making the claim? Why can't it be SOMETIMES be on the person making the claim? Other times, it is up to the listener to do his on falsifiability research? Or is there already a process for me to follow to decide who should have the burden of proof given each specific context?

I'm so confused.....I'm clearly misunderstanding how these tools are used...

  • The burden of proof isn't an ethical thing, it is a logical thing. Sure, it is really unfortunate that you have to make the arguments to your friend that not sleeping all day and not eating fast food is better for him, but since you are making a claim you have the responsibility to provide proof for it. It is not dangerous for society that we need to prove our assertions, no matter how true they are. It is dangerous for society when people refuse to believe evidence or try to find unreliable information to support their arguments. That has nothing to do with your burden of proof though.
    – Not_Here
    Jul 29 '17 at 18:57
  • I'm sure that you've shown your friend reliable information and he chose not to believe it. The burden of proof is no longer relevant because you've already provided proof, he has just chosen not to believe it. So your comments about falsifiability don't really apply because we don't get that far. Producing evidence isn't the same thing as convincing the other side. You can meet the burden of proof and provide ample evidence and they can still deny the position, people are not always rational.
    – Not_Here
    Jul 29 '17 at 18:59

Your situation is not all that simple and is essentially one of the problems of the scientific method. Falsifiability refers to a method of approaching better knowledge by trying to disprove theories and retaining those one fails to disprove. You are implying that the theory "Eating burgers and sleeping lots is good for people" has already been shown to be false by several epidemiological studies (which it has), but your friend is not positing that theory, he is positing the the theory "Eating burgers and sleeping lots is good for me". This theory is almost impossible to falsify, if every single person who ate burgers and slept lots suffered poor health we could falsify it to an extent, but they don't. If there were no mechanism by which your friend's metabolism might differ from others we could reject the theory, but there is (genetics). Without making a clone of your friend and putting one on a better diet and more sleep whilst retaining all other factors, it can't be done.

So, to surmount this problem of imperfect conditions for falsification and yet still work with the theories that are more likely to be usefully predictive, it becomes imperative that the theories themselves meet certain criteria before they are tested. Several such criteria have been suggested, all with the object of improving the value of the theory whilst it is being falsified.

One such suggestion is known as Ockham's Razor. This is, at it's most basic exposition, the principle that the simplest explanation which it is possible to hold should be held (and tested) first. This may seem uncontroversial, but in modern philosophies (small p) there is a good deal of misunderstanding. I would expect the diet you might advocate to your friend, for example, would be that of a standard, western culture without excess. The idea is that because this theory, that this diet and lifestyle is healthy, has yet to be falsified, it is rational to hold it. If, however, we take the view that health is about maintaining an evolved biological machine (our bodies), then the theory that whatever diet happened to have come about as a result of farming, industrialisation and thousands of years of cultural influence just happens to be the best for us is not the "simplest" theory at all. Those advocating such things a "Paleo-diets" have the simplest theory "we are best eating what we're designed to eat and anything else must prove itself to be OK", and yet society places the burden of proof on them to show their diet is healthier. Your theory "Earth's gravitational constant is not a constant, but is a box full of cereal, aliens and fuzzy wuzzy wombats." is not the simplest theory about the earth's gravitational constant, which is why it should not be held (and tested) unless it is required (i.e. other, simpler, theories have been shown to be false), but then neither is your theory about the diet and lifestyle your friend should adopt the simplest.

Related to the above is the principle that one should not invent a new phenomenon or force to explain something when an existing one could do so. Again this can be applied to your friend's theory. He is implying that his (presumably satisfactory) health now is the result of his sleep, burgers and lifestyle in general, but there is currently no mechanism whereby that could be the case and yet there is a mechanism to explain his current health under the theory that such a lifestyle is bad for him (the effects are delayed because they take some time to build up). Again, however, this could be applied to your theories. You would like him to be more productive at work, but have no sound mechanism whereby this will be of any benefit to his well-being.

In summary holding a theory whilst attempting to falsify it seems to be a very satisfactory way of maintaining usefully predictive beliefs, but with theories that are difficult to falsify it requires considerable effort in selecting your first theory if it is to work. That effort is what is lacking in most ad hoc personal theories such as your friend's, but it is surprisingly absent in many widely held beliefs including, no doubt, some of your own.

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