There’s No Such Thing as Proof

If, as a genealogist, you believe that you can “prove” something, well, you need to be re-educated. . . .

In genealogy, we talk about evidence and data sources, and the Genealogical Proof Standard.  We don’t talk enough about what is meant by “proof” or how “proof” is distinct from evidence,or about the multifaceted nature of proof (which means our inability to “prove” anything).

Let’s take an example.  Suppose that we are trying to establish the paternity of Archimedes Jones.  We have two documents: first, a birth certificate that lists Plato Jones as the father of Archimedes Jones; and second, a death certificate for Archimedes Jones that lists Plato Jones as  Archimedes’ father. Do we have proof that Plato is Archimedes’ father?

The best we can say is that we have two bits of evidence that suggest the proposition at issue.

Suppose further that we have census records from two different census years that place Archimedes in Plato’s house as a son. If we couple those with the birth and death certificates, do we now have proof that Plato is Archimedes’ father?

The best we can say in this instance is that we now have four bits of evidence that Plato is Archimedes’ father.

Now imagine we have a will in which the testator, Plato, leaves a substantial sum of money “to my son, Archimedes, with love and affection.” If we add that to the prior documents, do we have proof that Plato is Archimedes’ father?

Or suppose we have a an affidavit sworn to and subscrfibed before a notary public in which a woman declares that she was married to Plato Jones at the time Archimedes was conceived and that Plato is his father.  Do we at last have proof that Plato is Archimedes’ father?

Suppose all we had was the last mentioned document–the affidavit.  Would that constitute “proof” that Plato Jones is the father of Archimedes Jones?

The answers to our questions rest upon the nature of proof.  In fact, there is no such thing as “proof” in a
universally objective manner.  I will go so far as to say that proof is a figment of one’s imagination.  A disturbing statement from a lawyer and genealogist, yes?

Well, I can’t prove that statement, but I can probably get you to believe it.

Let us begin by considering some well-regarded definitions of “proof” taken from leading dictionaries:

1.    The establishment of the truth of anything.

2.    The result or effect of evidence; the establishment or denial of a fact by evidence.

.3.    That evidence sufficient to establish a thing as true, or to produce belief in its truth.

4.    The effect of evidence in convincing the mind [of the truth of a proposition].

5.    The evidence that compels the mind to accept an assertion as true

6.    The state of being convinced or persuaded by consideration of evidence.

7.     That degree of evidence which convinces the mind of any truth or fact, and produces belief.

Which of these correctly describes the nature of proof?

I say that 1 and 2 are plainly incorrect and 3 is somewhat confused.  First, the establishment of the truth of anything is obviously impossible in the realm of human affairs. Second, facts either are or are not; facts cannot be  established or denied by anything other that which creates the universe.

The third definition hedges the bet–that “evidence can establish a thing as true,” but if not, then evidence can produce a belief in the truth of something.

The fourth through seventh definitions are correct; the differences being in single degrees.  Proof is a process that occurs in the human mind.

Take for instance an example from my research.  Here is the evidence and sources:

1.  Mary C. Manson was born in about 1847 in Georgia. 1850 US Census, Talbot County, Georgia. 15th District, p.311; dwelling 1261; household 1261

2.  Mary C. Manson’s race in 1850 was described as “mulatto.” 1850 US Census, Talbot County, Georgia.

3.  Mary C. Manson was apparently the daughter of Jane Manson, born about 1826. 1850 US Census, Talbot
County, Georgia.

4.  Mary C. Manson received a gift of real property from one Nathaniel Brown in 1853 by a deed that reads as

Nathaniel Brown to Mary C. Manson, daughter of Jane Manson

Love and affection  1/2 acre Pine land where Jane Manson now lives.
Southwest corner of lot of land conveyed to me by J.C. McCants, A. McCants, & J.T. Gray three acres
Wit: W.W. Wiggins, Isaac Mulkey, JJC
Recorded: 14 Nov 1853

Land Records of Taylor County, Georgia, Deed Book A

5.  Nathaniel Brown was a white man. 1850 US Census, Talbot County, Georgia, 24th District, p. 312.

Now that we understand that proof is a mental process, what comes to mind? Are you “convinced in your mind” of the proposition imagined? Is your mind compelled to accept the proposition as true?  Have you been “persuaded” by consideration of the evidence?  Has the evidence produced a belief in your mind?

I will suggest that many will say that the implied proposition on the evidence stated likely fails as “convincing” or “persuasive” under the Genealogical Proof Standard.

A proposition is proven when an arbiter believes it is established by the evidence presented.  The arbiter’s belief that the proposition is established may coincide with such a belief on the part of another, or many others; or it may not.  The arbiter’s belief actually may coincide with objective truth (although we will never know), or not. But as to the believing arbiter, the matter is proven.

Think about that for a minute.  Something which is true may not necessarily be proven, and that which is not true might be proven.  So it is in life; so it is in genealogy.


6 Responses to “There’s No Such Thing as Proof”

  • Amir Dekel says:

    I like the line you take here, but the paternity example can be proved with DNA, can’t it? Well only if you have a way to obtain DNA samples from Plato and Archimedes.

  • Thanks so much for this clearly written post on an important subject. This is one of those things I intend to actually print and keep – as a constant reminder.

  • Like beauty, proof lies in the eyes of the beholder.

    I’ve been working on a “problem” involving relationship of a “son” to his “parents”. No document has yet been found that states the relationship, but even if one did, would that be sufficient “proof”? Though there is a bit of evidence that could lead one to that conclusion, not everyone would agree.

    So, how much evidence is enough? Is there ever enough?

  • Judy says:

    Wow, what a great posting this is. Where does DNA fit in, to the scheme of proof & evidence? Would it just be another bit of evidence? So is there an objective way to weigh genealogical evidence? or is it all in the mind of the beholder?

  • So it is my friend, so it is!

    So is it by a preponderance, clear and convincing, or proof beyond a reasonable doubt?

    You did an excellent job with something so difficult to explain.


  • This is a great overview Craig and I really appreciate it!

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