Is it Evidence or "Just a Clue"?

Graphic: Clue or Evidence?

A newly found source gives us information about a person or a problem. Is that evidence? Or “just a clue”? We might even ask a more basic question: What’s the difference?

According to Merriam-Webster:


a : an outward sign : indication

b : something that furnishes proof : testimony; specifically : something legally submitted to a tribunal to ascertain the truth of a matter


Something that guides through an intricate procedure or maze of difficulties; specifically : a piece of evidence that leads one toward the solution of a problem.

Hmhh. The first defines evidence as just a “sign" (i.e., a “clue") and the second defines “clue” as “a piece of evidence.” Did we just walk into a maze and end up back where we started?

Confusion about the two usually stems from expectations. We would love to think that

  • Clues are suggestions that are obviously questionable. Therefore, we use them to find “real evidence.”
  • Evidence is proof. Evidence is trustworthy. Evidence is something we can accept and move on.

Both expectations miss the mark.

When we find information in a source, if it’s relevant to our research question then, yes, it’s evidence. But …

  • It may or may not be reliable.
  • What looks reliable on the surface may be wrong.
  • What seems to be a poor-quality source may actually have correct information.

Everything we find that’s relevant to our problem is both evidence and a clue.

  • It’s evidence because it’s relevant.
  • It’s a clue because we haven’t yet investigated it to determine whether it’s reliable or not.

Bottom line: There is no information we can just accept, so we can move on to a new problem. Every piece of information begs to be used as a clue to something more. That "something more" should be supporting evidence--independently created. That "something more" is often additional information—new insight, more details, even more clues.

And yes, even for the toughest problems, “something more” almost always exists, in some form, some where, because most records are part of a chain of records that were created when an event occurred. EE’s “QuickLesson 6: Mindmapping Records” explores this point.

IMAGE CREDIT: Presenter Media ( accessed 15 September 2018), item 12525, “Book Searching for Answers”; used under license.

HOW TO CITE: Elizabeth Shown Mills, "Is It Evidence or 'Just a Clue'?," blog post, QuickTips: The Blog @ Evidence Explained ( : posted 15 September 2018).