First of all, it may seem simplistic, but evidence is not proof. What you are looking at when you find a source document is evidence. How you view that document and what you do with it becomes proof. The idea of evidence is as old as mankind. The Bible says, at 2 Corinthians 13:1, "In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established." Here, the reference to "witnesses" is used in the context that witnesses give testimony or evidence of a fact, but implies the principle that one witness is inherently unreliable and more testimony or evidence is necessary to establish any fact, i.e. prove something.
When you are gathering your family history, do you rely on one witness? What if those witnesses contradict each other?
Among those of a certain level of genealogical involvement, it is common to hear references to a genealogical "proof statement." As defined by the Board for Certification of Genealogists, "A proof argument is a detailed, written explanation of the evidence and reasoning used to reach a genealogical conclusion." Now, I would call this type of document an opening brief. In the context of a court proceeding, when a party files a complaint, opposing parties can file motions to dismiss or take other action. Obviously, there are an extremely complicated set of procedures available to attorneys. But the essence of any motion made in court is that the first party filing the motion makes an argument for that party's position in the lawsuit. The opposing party then has the opportunity to file a responsive motion and in most cases, the first party can file a reply. The judge in the case then makes a decision in the case, either with or without the opportunity for the parties' attorneys to make oral arguments to the court (i.e. the judge).
The essence of establishing proof in the context of a court action is the idea of advocacy. Each party gets the opportunity to present their "case" or position to the court. Their case includes any evidence they possess and any legal arguments they wish to make based on the evidence. Obviously, I could go on for pages and pages with all the nuances of legal motion practice but the idea here is that a motion is simply an argument made by one side of the conflict. Now, back to genealogical proof statements or arguments, the Board for Certification of Genealogists goes on to state,
The final step of the Genealogical Proof Standard requires that “we arrive at a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion.” Writing a proof argument satisfies that requirement. Proof arguments are frequently composed with the goal of publishing and disseminating information to invite challenge to a conclusion. Arguments defending our conclusions are also useful for our personal files or for clients. Very often the process of writing a proof argument will reveal to us weaknesses in evidence and logic where additional research is required.Now, as usual, I would take exception to some of the things that are assumed by this type of procedure. Here are several issues I find with the whole process:
1. No conclusion in genealogy is "final." All conclusions are open to revision with the discovery of more evidence. If I find some evidence and write my "proof argument" there is always the possibility that I will find more evidence or that someone else will also. My conclusions may have to be revised. This is implied by the statement above that the proof statement or argument can "invite challenge to a conclusion."
2. Any "proof argument" just like an opening brief in a law case, is merely the statement of one side of the controversy. The person writing the statement (or the brief) selects those facts that support his or her conclusion and omits or minimizes the facts in opposition. Here, using the word "proof" is misleading. There is no proof, the statement contains argument and evidence. If you were to read the proof argument and believe it to be correct, you might consider the facts to be proved, but see No. 1 that no conclusion is final. In this vein, the very name of this type of argument, a proof argument, gives the impression that what a genealogist does is prove facts to be true. Although, I am sure many people would disagree, I take exception with that whole idea. Using proof in this context gives an impression of finality.
3. As I indicated above, proof involves advocacy and judgment. When I enter a name or event on a family group record or pedigree chart, I am acting as an advocate of that particular fact (evidence). Genealogical evidence is full of contradictions and inaccuracies. But in genealogy, the second part of the proof, the judgement, is missing. There are no genealogical courts and judges out there that will rule on whether or not the researcher's fact or evidence has been proved. I could make a perfectly formatted and acceptable proof argument (to the satisfaction of the Board of Certification of Genealogists or a journal editor) and yet be 100% wrong. The key is in the statement made in the same document quoted above, that states, "Do not omit contradictory evidence. When it exists, it must be presented and discussed." In the context of a court action, the opposing party will be quick to point out any omissions in the facts selected by the attorney in the brief, but in genealogy all of this is missing. The vast majority of genealogical proof arguments go unopposed.
I realize that this whole discussion is lost on most genealogical researchers. Very few genealogists rise to the level of making coherent, written proof arguments. In fact, most genealogists are probably unaware that such a thing exists. I am not advocating the abandonment of proof statements or arguments, in some contexts they may serve a valuable purpose, but I do take exception with the implications of using the concept that something has been proved by making those arguments. I would call them evidence arguments or something similar and leave the idea of formal proof to the scientists and lawyers.