Imply, Infer, and Evidentiary Weight

 
 
 

 

21 May 2014

Imply or infer? The differences in these two words have implications for the historical researcher as well as the grammarian. 

A document might imply something. We, in reading a document, might infer something from it. (But, of course, as with reading the lips of politicians, what we infer from the document might not be what the creator of that document was trying to imply!)

To say that a source implies XYZ means that it hints at it but does not say it directly. We, as the reader, might then suppose the source is telling us XYZ, even though it is not explicitly said. In that process, we're making a cognitive leap of the type that past generations referred to as "reading between the lines."

So, a question: Where would we place inference on an evidentiary scale? What type of evidence would you consider an inference to be?

 

IMAGE SOURCE: "Implication," Wikimedia Commons (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AImplication.jpg : accessed 15 May 2014), citing "By Jdaviduga (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons."

 

dsliesse
dsliesse's picture
Wouldn't consider it to be evidence

I don't think I'd consider an inference (nor an implication, for that matter) to be evidence, per se.  I think of it more as a hypothesis to be explored further.

At best it could be considered circumstantial evidence, suggesting an answer but not being anywhere near sufficient to prove it.  I only thought of this possibility because of our genealogical society's computer users group meeting last night where we had a portrait with the photographer's studio address, he was known to occupy that location during certain years, and only one circumstance in the family correlated with that location and time period.  Doesn't prove who was in the picture, but is strongly suggestive.

EE
EE's picture
Dave, you make good points.

Dave, you make good points. But there's an overriding issue: no one piece of evidence proves a point. A single piece may justify an hypothesis from it, but we still need supporting evidence to prove that it is accurate, that it relates to our same-named person or situation, etc.

If we use the language of the Evidence Analysis Process Map on the flyleaf of EE and expanded in QuickLesson 17, (https://www.evidenceexplained.com/content/quicklesson-17-evidence-analysis-process-map) we can better understand this:

A source gives us information, from which we draw evidence. The source, itself, does not give us that evidence because the evidence we draw from the source's information is simply our personal interpretation of what that information means. You and I might see the same piece of information, interpret it in different ways according to our own experiences and knowledge base, and then draw different conclusions about whether it is evidence and what it does or does not imply or support.

In the case of inferences that we make from something a record implies, those inferences would be indirect evidence. We might use it to point us to more-concrete evidence. We might use it to build a circumstantial case. But, as you say, we still have significant research ahead of us.

 

The Editor

DebNC
DebNC's picture
Imply vs. Infer in terms of Evidence

When we make an inference from an implication, we are basically making a hypothesis. It is the starting place on the evidentiary scale and is indirect evidence. The next step would be to test the hypothesis by looking for supporting data which might be direct evidence, and then it would become a theory. But even a theory is not necessarily fact. I've heard it said that we must have at least three forms of documentation to support a theory before we can consider it to be fully credible.

yhoitink
yhoitink's picture
I have heard that 'rule' that

I have heard that 'rule' that you may consider something proven if three sources agree but think that is a very limited view of the analysis process. There is no magic number to guarantee or even suggest accuracy; it all comes down to the reliability of the sources, the informants, the way we perceive the source (original or derivative), whether or not the sources are created independently and close to the actual fact they report. I agree that three sources can be enough but there are plenty of cases where they won't be.

Yvette Hoitink, CGSM, the Netherlands
Dutch Genealogy Services

yhoitink
yhoitink's picture
I just re-read your comment

I just re-read your comment and realized that you said 'at least three,' not three, so we probably mean the same thing :-) Sorry about that, I'm typing this on my phone so I can't see the comment I'm replying to while typing.

I remember Tom Jones saying in one of his lectures he gave at an NGS conference that you need at least two sources; one is never enough, even when using reliable sources, because without comparison you won't know if that record is in the 95% that is correct or the 5% that is wrong. (Boy I love those jamb-Inc recordings!)

Yvette Hoitink, CGSM, the Netherlands
Dutch Genealogy Services

EE
EE's picture
Debra, I should have read

Debra, I should have read your comments before I responded to Dave. You had already said virtually the same. I was just wordier. :)  

With regard to your last sentence, have you seen EE's section on the "Three Sources Rule," p. 121?

The Editor

yhoitink
yhoitink's picture
I don't consider an inference

I don't consider an inference as a type of evidence but as a type of analysis that I apply to evidence. An inference is the process by which I attach meaning to indirect evidence. For example, if the law says all living children must be listed in a death duties file, and one of the children is missing, I will infer that that child has died. Like any evidence, I will correlate this inferred information with other findings to build my case until it is proven or disproven.

Yvette Hoitink, CGSM, the Netherlands
Dutch Genealogy Services

DebNC
DebNC's picture
Three Sources Rule

Sorry, Elizabeth, I cannot find "The Three Sources Rule" on p. 121 in the Second Edition of EE. Page 121 is 3.8 Collection as Lead Element in Source List, and 3.9 Document as Lead Element in Source List. I've checked the index and also browsed through the pages and cannot find this entry.

EE
EE's picture
Three Sources Rule

My apologies, Debra. That should have been section 1.21 rather than p. 121. It is in the index at p. 877, second column.

 

The Editor

DebNC
DebNC's picture
Three Sources Rule

Yes! Thank you, Elizabeth! Don't know how I missed that index entry.  I agree with what you stated about needing multiple sources which can be used together to make an assertion using indirect evidence.

In researching my husband's African American ancestry, there are frequent clashed in reported ages on Census records and death certificates. And since there were no birth certificates issued before 1914, it makes it even more unlikely that any one document will be correct. It often takes a variety of sources which must be analyzed in order to come to the most likely conclusion. For many, the best we can say is "b. abt. -- ."