Proof Arguments

 
 
 

 

12 August 2014

Proof is not a document. It’s a body of evidence. As biographers or historians of whatever ilk, we do not ‘prove’ a point by discovering a record that asserts something. That assertion could be wrong. If so, any further work we do on the basis of that misinformation will likely be wrong or irrelevant.

Not even a stack of documents or a list of sources can constitute proof, unless we explain their significance individually and collectively. The piece of writing in which we do this is called a proof argument.

A convincing proof argument will present the evidence from each document. It will frankly discuss the strengths and the weaknesses of each source and the information it provides. It will discuss the contradictions we found and how we resolved them. It will explain how and why, for the issue we are trying to prove, the whole body of evidence points to only one reasonable conclusion.

Achieving proof is a process in which we assemble evidence, test it, refine it, and reinforce it until that body of evidence is solid enough to withstand contradictions and counterclaims. As with any construction project, results are only as good as the materials and the labor we invest.

Need a model to see just how this works? EE's QuickLessons, accessible under the "Home" tab or in the "QuickLesson Archive," provide several of them using a variety of thorny problems

 


Photo credit: "Two Men Accused Against Himself," CanStockPhoto (http://www.canstockphoto.com/images-photos/argument.html#file_view.php?id=14925683 : downloaded 4 August 2014), used under license.

dpslager
dpslager's picture
Proof Argument Worksheet

Based on this blog, I've made myself a spreadsheet of questions to ask and things to consider when examining the "assembly of evidences".  I know this may seem a little elementary, but I know my brain, and it works best in spreadsheets where I can arrange my thoughts and see them all at once.  Would you add anything to this?








PROOF ARGUMENT
(Proof is not a document, it's a body of evidence)
Assembly of evidences
Document Name Information Contained Strengths Weaknesses Contradictions Argument Against Conflict Resolution Individual significance
               
               
               
               
               
               
               
               
Collective Significance
 

 

David P. Slager Jr.

dpslager
dpslager's picture
Proof Argument Worksheet

Sorry, I tried to copy and paste my worksheet and it looked good until I tried to add the comment, and the formatting went away.  It has columns headed: Document Name, Information Contained, Strengths, Weaknesses, Contradictions, Agument Against, Conflict Resolution, and Individual Significance, and then a separate section for Collective Significance, which is where I'd analyze the entire "assembly of evidence" as a whole.  Are there any other steps or considerations that you would add to this list?

David P. Slager Jr.

EE
EE's picture
Great suggestion, David.

Great suggestion, David.

Incidentally, I "fixed" your display problem so others could benefit from your offering. In the future, when you post, look below the message screen. There you'll see an option "Text Format." The default "Filtered HTML," gives only limited tools.There's also the option "Full HTML." I made the change so your spread sheet would display properly.

As for your question: Are there other steps or considerations that could be added to the list?  Oh, yeah! Most of EE's QuickSheets in the "Historical Biographer's Guide" series cover these points. We also have a new QuickSheet series "Your Stripped-Bare Guide ..." whose very first cheat-sheet covers Historical Proof, with a dozen or so issues that need to be considered when evaluating the source, the information, and the evidence (a dozen or so for each of these three elements). The "Historical Biographer's" series is available in the standard printed/laminated version or an electronic download. We don't yet have the two "Stripped-Bare" QuickSheets available in an electronic edition yet. The pair just rolled off the press, but are available in the printed/laminated version from EE's publisher, Amazon, B&N, etc.

My apologies for turning this into a commercial break, but you asked {smile} and the answer is waaaaaay too big to handle here.  :)

 

The Editor