Whatever happened to the language of facts and proof?

The simple answer to whatever happened to the language of facts and proof is that they have been conflated into the single notion ‘evidence’.

One implication is that ‘evidence’ speaks for itself since it doesn’t have to be proved. But of course it doesn’t, for were it to do so there would be few contested disputes. And as Stephen Pepper has pointed out, there are few if any self-evident truths.

Consider then my surprise when I heard ‘proof’ being used in two recent Radio 4 broadcasts. It is worth quoting from both to see what has been lost by the ubiquitous use of ‘evidence’.

Under the heading ‘Judgement reserved over Oxford University student discrimination row’, the broadcast stated:

Damien Shannon, 26, from Salford had alleged St Hugh’s College was discriminating against poorer students. He said because he had no proof he could cover living costs, an offer from the college was withdrawn. Judge Armitage QC reserved judgement at Manchester County Court until a future unspecified date.

The college requires proof from potential students that they can cover costs of £12,900 before they are accepted onto courses.

The second, under the heading of ‘The testimony of women assaulted in Tahrir Square in recent weeks is shocking.’

“Why else are the attacks concentrated where the demonstrations take place?” says Nevine Ebeid, from the New Woman Foundation, a group that documents attacks against women. She does though acknowledge that solid proof is hard to come by, and that most of the evidence through testimony is circumstantial.

‘Against Islam’ While the problem of sexual assaults in public gatherings began well before the revolution, Ms Ebeid feels that the political and social climate that has come with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood has made things worse.

“Political Islam has meant there is a discourse opposed to women’s rights,” she says.

We are against any assault, especially sexual assaults” (says) Essam El Erian Freedom and Justice Party

Using the term ‘evidence’ obscures the fact that it has to be actively sought by inquirers after particular truths; and that each comes to the inquiry with a subtly different world-view. Some might wish to hold that a fact is a fact, is a fact, is a fact. Yet the same criticism can be made against the term ‘fact’ as against ‘evidence’. The law, of course, plays on this since it frequently directs which facts can and which cannot be cited as evidence in contested judgments.

Using ‘prove/ proof’ indicates that facts don’t speak for themselves, and therefore can’t provide unequivocal evidence with respect to any particular judgment.

The case of Oscar Pistorius aka The Blade Runner, illustrates the case well. The (agreed?) basic facts are that his model girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, was shot dead at his home, on St Valentine’s Day, and that he was present. The question is what further facts would prove that Pistorius committed pre-meditated (as opposed to spontaneous) murder, manslaughter or pure accident. It is only the consideration of additional facts that will solve the ‘evidence’ of murder question.

About petermathews

Member of the Royal Society of Medicine
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One Response to Whatever happened to the language of facts and proof?

  1. Informative article, just what I was looking for.

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