Jan 17, 2014

Evidence, a conceptual analysis

Notes from "Conceptual Analysis: A Method for Understanding Information as Evidence, and Evidence as Information" by J. Furner (Archival Science, 2004, 4, 233–265, pdf)

The paper examines the concept of evidence and compares it to the concept of information. Conceptual analysis treats concepts as classes of objects or events and seeks to define the meaning of a given concept by specifying the conditions under which any entity could be classified under the concept in question. The goal of conceptual analysis as a method of inquiry is to improve our understanding of the ways in which particular concepts are used for communicating ideas. The utility of this method is to produce provocative or interesting ideas which can be pushed as directions of further research.

Definition:Evidence is that which we consider or interpret in order to draw or infer a conclusion about some aspect of the world.

Evidence is a concept that is used in science, law, history and archival practice/science. In science evidence is an important component of theories of induction (inference from a set of premises) and explanation (specification of a sequence of cause and effect). Induction can be done by generalizing evidence (e.g., by observing a white swan we conclude that all swans are white), by deducing conclusions from a hypothesis (we hypothesize that cigarette smoking causes cancer and expect a smoker to have lung disease - if the smoker has the disease, the hypothesis is confirmed), or by calculating the effect of observed evidence on our degree of belief in a hypothesis (evidence raises our degree of belief and increases the probability of explanation). Hypothetico-deductive reasoning has a problem of underdetermination (the observed evidence can be entailed by more than one hypothesis). Deductive explanations also assume existence of a law (the deductive-nomological model), which is problematic for the social sciences. In the social sciences this model is rejected in favor of other accounts of explanation that allow for the effects of human intentionality and free will and that require the explainer to engage in imaginative interpretation of the meanings of events.

Evidence in legal context is information presented to prove or disprove a given fact. Eye witness accounts under oath are examples of direct evidence, fingerprints are an example of circumstantial evidence.

Evidence in history depends on whether a historian belongs to the positivist or postmodernist camp. The former camp acknowledges the existence of reality that is external and independent of human thought and uses evidence in the scientific sense, as a premise to form and test hypotheses. The latter group argues that reality is a construction of human thought and that "the facts" are statements endorsed by the group of people most well equipped to impose their values over others. Evidence in this cases speaks to historical and social arrangements rather than to generalized conclusions about reality.

Evidence in archives is closely related to the use of evidence by historians. Archival records can be viewed as evidence of "what really happened" or they can be a means of understanding the social structures and processes that contributed to record generation.

Documents contain information, they have immediate properties of being informative. They have meaning (either objectively or subjectively construed) and are a source of relevant ideas. Records stored in archives are different because in addition to having meaning they serve as potential evidence. Their "evidentiariness" is the relationship between the existence of record and the occurrence of the events that produced the record. From the record and its existence (premise) we can infer not only about the content of the record, but about events that produced the record (conclusion). To realize their potential as evidence, archival records must be reliable (their creators are truthful) and authentic (the content is truthful). Records as evidence can be used for making inferences to a)context (the circumstances of objects's creation and identify of its creators), b) function (uses of object), c) meaning (individualized or conventionalized expressions of ideas).

This is an interesting and dense paper. However, after reading it, my doubts about conceptual analysis as a useful method of inquiry only increased. One of the main conclusions of the paper seems to be that information and evidence are not that different conceptually. They are used differently in information science vs archival science, but that's a matter of practice, rather than their inherent definitions. Both documents and archival records can serve as information or evidence, it depends on their use. Concepts, especially those that are in use in different areas, stabilize in practice and function well without clear definitions. In archival science the question of how to evaluate records as potential evidence and, especially, what to include into or exclude from the archive is crucial (in other words, we need to know that what we save today can be used to make reliable inferences in the future). Is social epistemology, which was suddenly brought at the end of the paper, an invitation to have an open discussion about it or a way to overcome positivist approach to evidence?