Fact: during at least one of your affirmative rounds at every tournament you go to, the Negative team starts the 1NC by going over the burden of proof, if they didn’t already cover it during the preceding cross-ex. I myself went through this phase, giving the exact same 45-second script each round. However, over the last couple of years, there seems to be a growing sentiment that the burden of proof is just an artificial construct designed to give an unfair psychological advantage to the Negative team. As such, this article aims first to explain the anti-burden of proof position and second how to leverage these ideas on the affirmative.
Here’s the basic argument: if the essential elements of the burden of proof are as follows:
- A significant harm
- A plan that solves
- A significant advantage (that outweighs the disadvantages),
Then judge is essentially just asking the same question three times. For example, there will almost never be a scenario where there is a significant advantage when there is not a plan that solves the problem. In other words, the burden of proof could just be boiled down to the last question, whether the good of the plan outweighs the bad.
“So what?” You may ask. “The worst thing that can happen is the Negative just wastes their breath on framing that doesn’t do anything to the round; it’s harmless!” However, anti-burden-of-proofers point out that while this system doesn’t necessarily skew the debate on a technical level, it hurts the debate environment in two ways.
First, the burden of proof is a mind game in some ways. By having a judge ask themselves three separate questions which are effectively one and the same (unbeknownst to them), this drastically increases the odds of them answering at least one of them with a “no.” This isn’t because the “mathematical” odds go down from 50 percent to 12.5, but rather because of the psychological attack posed by this framing. Instead of just having to answer one question (“Is the plan a good idea”), judges will instead be effectively asking that same question three times in a row, which isn’t necessarily bad on paper, but encouraging the judge to overthink the affirmative plan often can lead to them voting against it.
Second (and more seriously) the burden of proof excludes the possibility of comparative advantage cases, which automatically fail the burden of providing a significant harm since the case doesn’t present one. The danger here is that first and second-year parents, indoctrinated by traditional debate theory along with hapless community judges view the burden of proof almost as a rule that the affirmative must follow, and while logically sound, the comparative advantage case structure is entirely excluded from the possibility of discussion under burden framing.
Thus, as an affirmative debating a negative team arguing for a burden-centric debate, your job is easy: simply point out how
- The burdens effectively boil down to a comparative advantage weighing mechanism, meaning that should be used, and that
- Comparative advantage is what we use in our day-to-day decision making; in layman’s terms, it’s quite literally what we in the business call “a good idea.”
The only downside to this is that, if universally adopted, this framing would shut down burden-centric argument entirely, meaning you can’t use the burden of proof to shift the round in your favor when you’re on negative… or would it? If defended, the burden of proof can be an extremely effective weapon on negative (for the aforementioned reasons), and we thus shouldn’t be so quick to throw it out the window as a strategy. As such, I’ve been thinking about it for a long time, and I believe I’ve found a valid way to justify its use. Look for part 2 to find out how.