19 July 2014
"Proof" is a loaded word. Different fields define it in radically different ways. Some even argue that proof cannot exist in historical research because none of us can say with certainty what happened in the past. All we can do—except, perhaps, in some cases where DNA is applicable and doable—is search for evidence and reach our own personal conclusion. Others, new to serious research, assume that "proof" means nothing more than the source they use to "back up" what they are asserting.
In the history field, many researchers qualify the word proof in two ways, each carrying a distinct meaning.
Proof Argument: a well-reasoned and carefully documented explanation of a research problem, the process by which it was solved, and the evidence that supports the conclusion. It may be long. It may be short. Length usually depends upon the complexity of the problem. Typically, proof arguments are used when conclusions are based on indirect, complex, or conflicting evidence.
Proof Summary: a simple recitation or list of quality sources that support a conclusion. It may be placed in a reference note. It might be presented as a standalone table. Or it might be woven into our narrative. The proof summary is appropriate when all evidence is direct and no evidence conflicts.
What if we have both direct and indirect evidence, all of which agrees? Could we still, for simplicity, use a proof summary?
Many would say not. EE follows that camp. If we use indirect evidence as part of our proof for an assertion and then, on a simple list of sources, just cite the source in which we feel something provides indirect evidence for our problem, we beg a question: How will anyone else understand what the unobvious significance is of the source we've listed? After all, by nature, indirect evidence does not explicitly address the issue we're trying to prove—which, of course, is why so many people miss the evidence they need to solve their problems.
- If you could use a tutorial on the differences between direct, indirect, and negative evidence, you'll find one at https://www.evidenceexplained.com/content/quicklesson-17-evidence-analysis-process-map.
- For a glossary of numerous terms relating to proof and evidence, see Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, 2nd rev. ed. (Baltimore: GPC, 2012), Glossary, pp. 819-30.
IMAGE SOURCE: Can Stock Photo (http://www.canstockphoto.com/images-photos/proof.html#file_view.php?id=12881592 : downloaded 28 June 2014), "Proof concept," csp12881592, by 72soul; used under license.