EVIDENCE: WHAT IS IT?

Do You Know What Evidence is?

 

Let’s ask a detective! What do they collect at the scene of a crime? Fingerprints, bloodstains, spent cartridges - clues which can be observed, collected and shown to a jury, in other words, evidence needs to be re-observable.  What doesn’t carry much weight in court is witness accounts. We all know that witnesses can lie, exaggerate and be mistaken. Just talking about an event mixes it with narrative techniques to capture the interest of the audience, so witness accounts change with time. And identification parades are wrong most of the time - in a test, only 7 out of 52 witnesses picked the culprit! Human memory is unreliable. Do you believe rumours? What does ‘gullible’ mean?

 

Once evidence has been collected, it must be prevented from being tampered with. Another police officer watches it being bagged up and they both sign the bag, then everyone who handles  it (wearing gloves) signs at handover to establish a chain of responsibility.

 

Scientists expect a very high standard of evidence too - they are not convinced by the testimony of witnesses. Personal experiences, which cannot be shared, signify nothing. Scientists only accept observations which can be repeated by anyone with the right equipment. So, if something happened back in history and can’t be repeated, it doesn’t count. If something has only happened once, as far as a Scientist is concerned, it simply hasn’t happened. Nowadays, observations are not restricted to what human senses can detect - the best sort of observations are made by instruments and they come in the form of numbers - data.

 

And it works! This level of scepticism and provenance has enabled us to discover a very great deal about reality and to apply this knowledge to modify our environment and achieve enormous feats well beyond our bodily capabilities. Can you list some Scientific achievements?

 

Historians have to accept a lower level of validity. Although they refer to more than one citation (written record) to get confirmation where possible, much of history wasn’t recorded at the time so it remains speculation. Even if there are published sources, we often cannot determine their veracity - authors have their own agenda and may have written propaganda. Archaeology is more scientific than history.

 

No book actually contains evidence.

 

Books merely contain reports. They are an early method of recording. Fiction is a record of the author’s imagination. Audio and video recordings are not acceptable in court because they can be faked; we should be equally strict about written evidence. To establish veracity we need to test the content of a book to find out whether it is real fact or merely opinion or imagination. Some books are easily testable - a phone directory can be verified by a few phone calls, Science textbooks only need the investigations repeated to check what they claim. Religious books are completely untestable and they tell of miracles that contravene the laws of Physics - Jesus walked on water allegedly! The basis for such claims is the testimony of witnesses whose accounts were passed by word of mouth for three or four generations before being written down and, since then, have been copied and translated multiple times.

 Shouldn’t incredible stories be treated with extreme scepticism?

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A book: not evidence

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