If you've been doing genealogy for any length of time, you've probably heard the advice that you need to evaluate evidence, but what does that really mean? How does that fit into our genealogy research? Let's see what it really means to evaluate evidence.
What Is Evidence, Anyway?
Evidence is when you take information and apply it to a question. There are two basic types of evidence:
Direct evidence spells out the answer. There is no ambiguity. If you ask, "When did your grandfather die?" and I answer, "He died 15 December 1980," that's direct evidence.
Indirect evidence requires us to make an inference to arrive at an answer. If you ask, "When did your grandfather die?" and I answer, "I wore my heaviest coat and gloves to his funeral," you would infer that he died in the winter. However, other possibilities exist. He could have died in the fall and his funeral was held on a cold, blustery day. He could have died in the spring and his funeral was held on a day when there was a late snow.
Information vs. Evidence
Evidence is applied information. Without a question, you only have information. Let's take the statement, "I wore my heaviest coat and gloves to my grandfather's funeral." It's indirect evidence of when he died. However, it's direct evidence of what I wore.
Here's something that you might come across in your research. If Elizabeth Henderson left a bequest in her will "to my granddaughter Rose Smith, I leave $100," that's direct evidence that Rose Smith is Elizabeth's granddaughter.
However, that information by itself doesn't answer the question of how Rose is Elizabeth's granddaughter. She could be the married daughter of one of Elizabeth's sons. She could be the married daughter of one of Elizabeth's daughters. She could be the unmarried daughter of Elizabeth's daughter who married a Smith. Bottom line: We need more information to apply to that particular question.
Is Direct Evidence Always Best?
"Always" is a loaded word. Direct evidence does eliminate ambiguity. However, direct evidence doesn't mean that the answer is correct. You have to evaluate the underlying information for accuracy. (Check out my post "5 Things to Ask About Genealogy Information" for tips on how to evaluate that.)
Case in point, if you ask me when my grandfather died and I respond that he died on 15 December 1980, that's direct evidence, but it's wrong. (Neither of my grandfathers died on that date. I just used it as an example for this post.) You have to evaluate the information.
Evidence is Part of the Picture
There are three basic things that we have to evaluate in our research: the source (essentially the container that holds information), the information (what the source says), and evidence (how that information is applied to a question). They are intertwined. We have to evaluate all three if we want to make accurate conclusions.
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