Trusting records

I’m spending my Christmas holiday trying to catch up on my reading, and I’ve just finished working my way through Heather MacNeil’s book «Trusting Records» (a revised version of her doctoral dissertation), which deals with legal, historical and diplomatic perspectives on records and records’ trustworthiness.

At the end of the first chapter, MacNeil discusses how changes in the conception of records as evidence affects the concepts and methods associated with records’ trustworthiness, specifically evidence as inference. She writes:

    «By the late seventeenth century, with the emergence of a new concept of evidence as inference, records began to be seen […] as sources from which historical and legal facts might be inferred. The new concept of evidence as inference was intimately connected to the emergence of a new philosophy of rationalist belief which asserted that the truth of most propositions cannot be established with any certainty; it could only be measured in degrees of probability, based on reasoning from the relevant evidence.» (p. 31).

This is followed by a quote from Carl Joynt and Nicolas Reschers’ observations on evidence in history and law:

    «Facts are not evidence for one another per se, for the very idea of evidence rests upon the mediation of our knowledge regarding the relationship between facts. … Evidence, as a probalistic concept, is based upon reference to our information about things: it concerns itself with our knowledge about states of affairs, and not with states of affairs per se.» (p. 31).

But how do you trust that which can only be inferred? MacNeil quotes Peter Tillers, who has stated that

    «it is a mistake to suppose that we can trust nothing whose validity or reliability is not subject to logically compelling demonstration. The fact is that nothing in this cosmos is susceptible to a logically compelling demonstration (except upon arbitrary premises), and yet it is plain enough that we do not distrust everything we believe merely because the validity of our beliefs is not in that sense logically demonstrable. … The supposition that it is irrational to believe anything that cannot be proved rests on a basic misapprehension of what is means to be rational. Reason is not an instrument that can establish anything with certainty; but it is nonetheless certain that we can and do use reason and thought in wending our way through life and the cosmos. … In our daily life, we draw innumerable inferences upon which we rely and upon which we stake our lives and fortunes and we will not be easily persuaded that the inference we have drawn are untrustworthy.» (p. 115).

Hence; in our attempts to organize and sort out the world, we must always keep in mind that in both recordkeeping and records management, we’re dealing with probabilities, and the assumptions that we make based on the records that have been kept, are always products of previous or other knowledge, rather than the actual facts of the real life events.

This has stayed with me for a few days now, as I try to decide whether there are real practical implications of only being able to infer records’ evidentiality, as opposed to proving it (or if there’s even a difference between the two!).

And with that, I conclude 2013, and wish all readers a very happy 2014!

The More You Give Your Trust


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