*Note: it is not my intention in this post to try to put forward a case for either side of the EU referendum debate, I simply wish to point out a logical flaw in the leave campaign’s argument.
A lot has been made in the EU referendum debate of the in campaign’s use of something called ‘project fear’. The idea being, of course, that they have no positive arguments to support their case and have to resort to scaring the electorate into voting with them as a result. This is not going to be the retort that many have pointed out elsewhere about the leave campaign’s own (much nastier) ‘project fear’ campaign which is primarily built around negative stereotypes of immigrants. Instead, I simply want to make a very simple and (when you think about it) kind of obvious point about the nature of any debate.
For any debate, regardless of topic, there are two sides – for and against. If (as is the case with the EU debate) there is an element of nuance and disagreements within one of the sides, that would be a separate debate. The side arguing ‘for’ always holds the burden of proof. This is because ‘for’ is the side making a claim, they are the ones who want something to be taken as true. To give a rather absurd and obvious example, say I was to claim that there is a pot of gold buried in my garden. There would be no burden upon you to show that there is no pot of gold, it would be my job to show that there is, or at least to satisfy your own personal standard of proof in support of my claim.
So, where does the burden of proof lie in the EU referendum debate?
Rather unhelpfully the two sides have been named ‘remain’ and ‘leave’ but let’s look at the nature of the two claims:
Leave are claiming that something should be done, some action should be taken, in order to make the world a better place. Remain are, despite most advocating a ‘reformed’ EU, arguing that we should not take this action (the reforms necessary would be another debate). You can see then, that the ‘for’ side in this argument is ‘leave’ and the ‘against’ side is ‘remain’. This means that as the ‘for’ side of the argument, burden of proof rests with the leave campaign.
Of course, this does not mean that ‘remain’ can simply sit back and offer no arguments as this debate is not as obvious as my pot of gold analogy. It does mean however, that the type of arguments they need to make (or indeed, logically ever could make) is profoundly changed.
Firstly, the ‘against’ side in a debate does not have to advance any new arguments, they merely have to show that the ‘for’ side’s arguments are wrong. Perhaps the premises are false (informal fallacy), perhaps the conclusion does not follow from the premises (formal fallacy) but because of the burden of proof, there is no need to advance a positive case.
‘This is all well and good,’ you might say, ‘but this is politics, and whether an argument is technically ‘correct’ or not is irrelevant in politics’. Of course, you would be right. But the main issue here is that not only are ‘remain’ not compelled to provide a positive case, it is logically impossible for them to do so! Any possible argument can only ever be a list of what we would lose if we left, the bad things that would happen if the ‘for’ side won (gasp) project fear! If I were to come up with a brilliantly worded, perfectly sound, irrefutable argument for why the EU is a good thing (and I am not claiming that I or anyone else could). That argument still could not ever say anything other than ‘this is what we would be missing on the outside’ and that would be (shriek) project fear!
Let’s turn this on its head and see if the same holds true from the other side. Say, for example, the UK was not in the EU right now and we were having a referendum on whether we should join or not. Well, in that case, the in campaign would now be on the ‘for’ side and the out campaign would be ‘against’. In that case, a ‘positive’ case for being in the EU could be made because they would now be arguing for all the good things that could result from our joining. The out (against) campaign would have to demonstrate why losing our sovereignty, paying to be members and having free movement of peoples would be a bad thing. In other words, they would have to run a ‘negative’ campaign based on the bad things that would happen if we were to join. This would be – you can see what’s coming – (horror) project fear!
Of course the leave campaign know this. Most (though not all) of the people who have thrown around the project fear/ negative campaign argument know that it is logically impossible to prove a negative. #projectfear was probably a part of the out campaign strategy long before the arguments were being put forward, precisely because ‘in’ had no option but to state the negatives of leaving (apart from saying nothing at all, I suppose). This is simply a very crude way of shifting the burden of proof and demanding an impossible argument from your opponent. It is what is known as an ‘argument from ignorance’, where a claim is taken to be true unless it can be shown, conclusively, to be false (which can never be done). They are demanding a positive argument for a negative claim!
I am aware that in many cases, the argument is not that remain should be presenting a logically impossible argument. I am aware that some people simply do not see remain as having presented enough ‘positive’ (meaning attractive) points about the EU in order to convince them to stay. Of course, those people are well within their rights to demand more good things about the EU be told to them in order to influence their vote. If you are one of those people though, I would urge you to consider that even when they do, it will always be in the form of a warning that ‘this is a good thing that we will lose if we leave’.
Unfortunately, an inevitable part of any debate is always going to be that one side will always, inevitably and forever be on the side of…project fear!!