Official Blog of the Bishop of Durham

Proof and Evidence

Posted by NT Wrong on May 6, 2008

Recently people have been shy in using the word “proof” to describe the results of social science research. This is misguided, possibly an overreaction to positivism.

If facts are regarded as “evidence” then, from the definition of “evidence”, this simply means the facts are regarded as supporting some proposition. If they do so “successfully” (according to the rules of a particular game: anthropology, archaeology, history, biblical studies, etc), then the evidence “proves” the proposition.

Evidence: “that which tends to prove or disprove something; ground for belief”

Proof: “evidence sufficient to establish a thing as true, or to produce belief in its truth”

Proof in the social sciences is not a priori or necessary. The claim of “proof” of a proposition is merely the claim that the proposition has the sufficient support of the available relevant evidence. The evidence “proves” that most of the Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew. The evidence “proves” that the account of the Exodus, as described in the Book of Exodus, did not in fact occur.

Here’s to the phrase “It is proved ….” being used more – but only at the end of a cogently argued and persuasively evidenced piece of writing.


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