Tactics Chapter 4 – Columbo Step 2: The Burden of Proof

guest blog by David Stoecker*

tactics-burden of proofChristians should be able to give reasons for what we believe to be true. For some reason, others feel that Christians have the corner on that market and forget a truth. They need to be able to back up their beliefs, too. In Chapter 4 Greg look at the second step Columbo used, which he calls "reversing the burden of proof." Whoever makes the claim has the responsibility to prove their view. They don’t have to prove me wrong, instead they have to prove their point of view to be right.

To illustrate what he is talking about, Greg looks at a caller who disagreed with his "a big bang needs a big banger" line. The caller felt that if you have "a base of nothing and you could say that there was nothing but an infinite, continuous moment, until one tiny, little insignificant thing happened: a point happened in the nothingness. This requires no intelligence, so no intelligent God had to intervene. All we need is a tiny imperfection in the perfect nothingness that expanded and became increasingly complex, and soon you have galaxies and planets."

From here Greg threw down the gauntlet, telling the caller that "It’s not my job to disprove your something from nothing fairy tale. It’s your job to prove it. You haven’t done that, you haven’t even tried." Generally when people throw out "stories" to disprove your beliefs, they expect the discussion to end there. That should never be the case. If they have a theory, they need to give an argument.

The first Columbo question that we looked at was, "What do you mean by that?" That question let’s you know what a person thinks. The question you will learn today is, "Now, how did you come to that conclusion?" This question allows you to know why a person thinks as they do. They are made to give reasons for their beliefs, and many are not prepared to do this. They may even say, "I don’t know why I believe it, I just do." Which allows you to ask, "Why would you believe something when you have no reasons to believe it’s true?"

You need to remember that you do not have to counter everything that someone says. What you need to do is steer the burden of proof back onto the shoulders of the person you are having the discussion with. You do not have to defeat their statements, they have to defend them. Further remember that "an alternate explanation is not a refutation." That means just because someone may be able to spin a story to support their view, that is not the same as them explaining why what they believe is true.

Many of the explanations by people like Richard Dawkins that pop up in Darwinian circles are "just so stories" after the Rudyard Kipling’s book entitled "Just So Stories." It had chapters called "How the Leopard Got His Spots" and "How the Came Got His Hump." Don’t allow people to pass of stories as fact. Instead, ask yourself three questions.

  1. Is it possible – some stories will seem completely impossible given closer scrutiny
  2. Is it plausible – given the evidence, it is reasonable to think this is the most likely option
  3. Is it probable -considering the other options, is this the best one

The question, "How did you come to this conclusion?" allows you to ask yourself these three questions and insures that the burden of proof is on the person making the statement. You are able to see if the argument was valid or if it was just an opinion they had. If it is an opinion, then that leads you to more questions. "Very interesting opinion you have there. How did you come to it? Can you give me a couple of reasons I should take it that conclusion seriously?" When someone gives their opinions, they must further support their opinion.

Next you have the "professor’s ploy." This is a common move used by people to escape the burden of proof. It happens when someone makes an attempt to poke holes in someone else’s beliefs. When this is done, ask them why they feel as they do. "What do you mean by that?" and "So what is your opinion, then?" Make them explain how the evidence convinced them to believe how they do. They may try to return the burden to you, "Why don’t you try to prove me wrong." In reply, you can say, "I haven’t even said anything about my view. I might even believe as you do. It is irrelevant what I believe. You ideas are relevant and I am just wanting clarification and good reasons for the view that you have." Remember to show others grace and respect.

The minute that you feel outmatched you can switch to fact-finding mode instead of persuasion mode. Just say something like this:
"It appears that you know a lot more about this than me, and you have some interesting ideas that I have not heard before. I wonder, to help me understand you ideas better could you please take a minute to explain them to me as well as why you believe it to be true so that I can have a better understanding of it."

You have now bought yourself extra time and have also let the other person know that you care about their point of view. You can then end the conversation for the time being with, "Very interesting. Let me think about what you’ve said and we can talk more about it later." You are off the hook. You have already pleaded ignorance of the subject. You have not resisted, but instead let them have make their case.

Now you can research what they have stated and create a response. You got off of the hot seat and allowed yourself valuable time to gain more knowledge. Once you understand their point of view, it is easier to respond. We have now learned how to get others to tell us what they believe and why they believe it as well as creating a buffer when we are overpowered by a subject we do not know enough about. Join me next week when we look at how to use leading questions in our discussions with others.

*Written for TPE by David Stoecker of Spiritual Spackle.



Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions

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