Evaluating Negative Evidence

by Fred Ray on November 14, 2008 · 2 comments

“There is no evidence” is a phrase that historians love to throw out, but it’s one that ought to be used more cautiously than it is. Just because you haven’t seen it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. Most of what we evaluate is paper evidence, which covers only a small part of what actually happens. Many things happen, particularly in a military context, that everyone knows about at the time, so no one bothers to remark on. Some are never recorded on paper, and much of the paper is ephemeral, that is, something like a duty roster or target score gets written down, used, and then thrown away. When you add in the destruction of war and the passage of time, a lot of information about the Civil War era has disappeared. Then too, many historians rely on the same sources.

I found some of the best information on sharpshooter training not in official documents but in soldier’s letters home. They assumed that the folks back home did not know about that sort of thing and often went into considerable detail.

An excellent example of what I’m talking about is my recent post on the silver stadia awarded to a soldier in the 62nd Pennsylvania for being the regiment’s best shot. The regiment’s Boswell, John Henderson, who has looked at a great deal of material both official and private on it, tells me that “I never have read anything about target practice or marksmanship contests.” Thus one might conclude that “there is no evidence” that the 62nd ever had a marksmanship program. Then the silver stadia pops up. Now we have physical proof of a program, and the top award made just as prescribed in Heth’s book on marksmanship. So this makes you wonder—if this is the case here, how many other regiments had marksmanship programs but did not mention them? Can we still say that lack of evidence is conclusive?


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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Scott Manning November 18, 2008 at 6:52 pm

Great post, Fred. I’ve found way too often the use of “there is no evidence” when reading history books. The statement is completely unqualified. Typically, the writer has no business even drawing such a conclusion.

A more accurate statement that historians could use, if they must, is to state, “In reading papers x, y, or z, I found no mention of a, b, or c.” The reader should be given some sort of qualification for the statement. It is misleading and downright dishonest to approach it any other way.

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Fred Ray November 19, 2008 at 10:06 am

Yes, it’s certainly been used both to promote an author’s agenda and to cover for some sloppy work and dubious conclusions.

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