QuickLesson 8: What Constitutes Proof?
Proof is not a document. It’s a body of evidence. As biographers or historians of whatever ilk, we do not ‘prove’ a point by discovering a record that asserts something. That assertion could be wrong. If so, any further work we do on the basis of that misinformation will likely be wrong or irrelevant.
Achieving proof is a process in which we assemble evidence, test it, refine it, and reinforce it until that body of evidence is solid enough to withstand contradictions and counterclaims. As with any construction project, results are only as good as the materials and the labor we invest.
Reliable proof has 11 basic building blocks:
- Thorough research;
- Thoughtful evaluation of the quality of each source;
- Careful notetaking and documentation;
- Unbiased appraisal of the informant for each piece of information;
- Accurate interpretation of the information each source provides;
- Knowledgeable placement of that information in relevant context;
- Skilled correlation of the details yielded by all the records;
- Creative milking of clues that point to new resources;
- Critical analysis of the evidence drawn from the sources, individually and collectively;
- Logical rebuttal of any and all evidence to the contrary;
- A written summation of the evidence that supports our conclusion—not a list of sources but a well-reasoned explanation of why we believe the body of evidence justifies our conclusion.
A literature survey is a logical beginning for most projects—that is: a survey of what is available for our subject, in print and on line. Yes, if we are interested in a person, we hope that person will appear in the literature. But we have other objectives as well. Our literature survey needs to identify all known resources for the time and place. It needs to educate us about the times, the customs, and the laws.
We scour those conveniently published materials—particularly their notes and bibliographies to identify their sources, because those other materials will likely yield more information not included in the published works. We study prefaces to books and the background discussions that accompany databases, in order to understand the materials and learn new methods. We identify the libraries and archives that serve our subject area and comb their websites and shelves for inventories and calendars of records.
Then, systematically, we seek out every relevant source. Anything we miss may be a ticking time bomb waiting to explode our premature conclusions.
Evaluation of Sources
All sources are not created equal. Some are originals; others are derivatives. Record books may be damaged. Files may be incomplete. Pages may be shuffled out of order. Image copies may be blurred. Penmanship may be illegible. Wording may be ambiguous. A myriad of other physical flaws can affect the reliability of the conclusions we draw from the information in those sources.
Notetaking and Documentation
Reliable proof is rarely rooted in careless habits. In the notetaking process, quotation marks should be used around any phrases or distinctive words we copy from a source. All sources need to be fully identified, following standards for each type of material. “Trivial” details such as the exact edition of a book or the exact wording in the title of a courthouse register, or whether we use one digital provider or a competitor that tweaks the images differently, and whether we use a church’s “certificate of marriage” rather than the original act recorded in the sacramental registers—all can affect the reliability of the “proof” we assemble.
Appraisal of Information
Researchers once spoke, in generic terms, about good sources or bad ones. Today, we realize that no source can be categorically trusted or arbitrarily dismissed. Instead, we have to appraise each individual assertion within the source. We consider the identity of the informant and whether that person had firsthand or secondhand knowledge of the specific “fact” asserted. We weigh the purpose for which the source was created and scrutinize its content for clues as to whether the person had cause for bias or duress. We consider whether the informant was speaking contemporaneously or long after the fact, as well as the apparent mental or physical state of the informant at the time the information was recorded.
Across time, words change meanings. Even with contemporary documents, words mean different things when used in different fields or differing contexts. For example, the legal term infancy, when encountered in a court case, invokes visions of a babe in arms. Yet the referenced person might be one day shy of eighteen years (in most states today) or just short of twenty-one (prior to the mid-twentieth century).
The significance of any piece of information also depends upon the social and economic contexts against which it is appraised. Such factors as language, laws, literacy, marital and childbearing patterns, military service (or the lack of it), occupation, religious affiliations—all help to prove an identity, a relationship, or participation in an event. Or they disprove it.
Correlation of Details
No one document tells an entire story. We piece together individual lives and happenings by correlating details across a variety of records. Toward that end, we seek materials that are independently created, preferably original records to reduce the likelihood that several published sources all took their assertions from the same earlier source. We look for contradictions between the details. We consider the extent to which information from diverse sources overlap or parallel each other, and we weigh how those correlations affect the evidence we are assembling.
Many of the clues that point to other records and other places of activity are silent ones. Others we find in materials that make no mention at all of the person or subject of our interest. A county history’s random reference to a pipeline being built between that place and Distant City, for example, can suggest a path of outmigration for a propertyless man who suddenly drops from local poll tax rolls.
Critical Analysis of Evidence
As biographers or students of history, we may accumulate reams of material that are relevant to a person or a region and yet have no bearing on a specific problem we are pursuing. As we build a case, we cull our findings, distilling them down to the most essential pieces that prove our point. In this process, we consider not only information that directly addresses our problem but also all the the bits and pieces that individually prove nothing but might be assembled to prove a case indirectly.
Rebuttal of Contradictory Evidence
Contradictions almost always emerge when research is thorough. A source may offer us direct evidence—an explicit statement of “fact” that directly addresses and seemingly answers our research question. Yet it may be wrong. It may be possible to build a case entirely from indirect evidence to clearly argue that the direct evidence is wrong. But whenever our evidence disagrees, we must logically resolve the discrepancies before our case can be considered “proved.”
Written Proof Argument
A stack of documents or a list of sources does not constitute proof unless we explain their significance, individually and collectively. A convincing proof argument will present the evidence from each document. It will frankly discuss the strengths and the weaknesses of each source and the information it provides. It will discuss the contradictions we found and how we resolved them. It will explain how and why, for the issue we are trying to prove, the whole body of evidence points to only one reasonable conclusion.
Our Bottom Line
Neophyte researchers love documents that make explicit statements. To the inexperienced, these provide assurance, a sense of certainty, clear-cut proof that needs only a citation to be accepted. The experienced researcher knows that history offers no certainties. All it offers are relics, from which serious researchers will ferret out the best evidence possible and attempt to interpret it with the best knowledge and judgment we can bring to the task. That, then, becomes the “proof” we offer to support our own assertions.
How to Cite This Lesson
Elizabeth Shown Mills, “QuickLesson 8: What Constitutes Proof?” Evidence Explained: Historical Analysis, Citation & Source Usage (http://www.evidenceexplained.com/content/quicklesson-8-what-constitutes-proof : [access date]).