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How many times have you heard it said that affirmatives must “solve beyond a reasonable doubt” or provide a net benefit “beyond a reasonable doubt”? This phrase, “beyond a reasonable doubt,” is a “standard of evidence”–it defines what the judge must believe to assume something is true. I argue here that “beyond a reasonable doubt” should not generally be applied in the policy debate context.

In criminal law, “beyond a reasonable doubt” is an extraordinarily high standard imposed on the determination of guilt, and only guilt. Juries need not believe someone is innocent “beyond a reasonable doubt” to acquit. The reason for this uniquely high burden on the prosecution is that putting innocent people in jail is an awful result that we want to avoid at substantial cost.

The same considerations are not present in policy debate–the loser of the debate round does not go to jail, thankfully–and so we shouldn’t use the same evidentiary standard.

I like to say that if you can’t explain a policy debate argument in terms of ordinary, everyday behavior, you don’t understand it.

If the policy debate case was “we should go to Chick-Fil-A for lunch,” a negative team could say “but can you prove that we won’t get in a car accident on the way? Can you prove they won’t run out of Chick-Fil-A sauce before we get there? Can you prove that the line won’t be 30 minutes long?” As tragic as any of those outcomes would be, no one can claim to know for sure–certainly not beyond a reasonable doubt.

A reasonable doubt evidentiary standard keeps us trapped in our houses if we use it for every decision. 

But is it ever applicable in the policy context? Maybe, but you should be prepared to offer a focused argument. Wrongful convictions are so bad that they justify a different evidentiary standard in the criminal context. You could make a similar argument about existential threats like nuclear war or environmental catastrophe.

What should be the default?

Preponderance. If something has the “preponderance of the evidence” behind it, there’s a greater than 50% chance that the claim (or case) made is true. Preponderance is the standard used in a civil trial, where there’s no concern about wrongful convictions, and it is probably the standard that you intuitively use to make decisions about what to eat for lunch, or what homework to do first. It’s also the standard that is most applicable most of the time in policy rounds.

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