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Challenging Issues, Keeping the Faith: Challenging Issues, Keeping the Faith: Types of evidence and the Book of Mormon

Published: Monday, April 18 2011 4:00 a.m. MDT

As noted last week, critics often claim there is either “no evidence” or at least no “direct evidence” to support the Book of Mormon.

In the hard sciences — such as physics — “direct evidence” refers to something that can be demonstrated in a lab under controlled conditions. The results of such observable tests must be reproducible to other scientists. Even under such conditions, however, scientists often rely on “indirect” measurements and multiple independent observations of related phenomenon for things that cannot be seen “directly.” As a page on Cornell University’s physics department's website explains, when it comes to small or immeasurable objects, indirect measurements must be made:

“Modern physics relies heavily on indirectly determining the physical characteristics of objects. ... Indirect determinations are important methods through which accurate measurements can be obtained. ....”

We find the same problem in geology. “Our knowledge of the earth’s interior,” G. Tyler Miller Jr. writes, “comes mostly from indirect evidence” such as density, lava and earthquake studies (Environmental Science, 270).

In the soft sciences — such as history, geography, archaeology, criminology, economics and anthropology — direct evidence is more akin to what we find in our legal system.

Our courts commonly delineate between two forms of evidence: “direct” and “circumstantial.” Either one — alone — can convict a criminal, but together they help solidify a case. The law treats them both equally. According to one lawyer’s website:

“Direct evidence … is evidence of a fact based on a witness’s personal knowledge or observation of that fact. An example of direct evidence would be the surveillance video of a person robbing a convenience store, or a witness who saw a person stealing a car.”

Under this definition, the testimonies of the Three and Eight Witnesses to the Book of Mormon would constitute direct evidence that Joseph had metal plates with curious engravings and that God declared the book to be true. Obviously the reliability of the Witnesses could be called into question, but their testimony is “direct evidence.”

Circumstantial evidence indirectly supports a claim. Typically, forensic evidence (such as ballistics, DNA and fingerprints, or even the proverbial "smoking gun”) is categorized as circumstantial evidence and is often the only kind of evidence used to convict criminals. Circumstantial evidence presents a series of facts that, when linked together, support a claim (not unlike how some conclusions are reached with “indirect evidence” in the hard sciences).

Criminal investigator and forensic expert Ronald F. Becker points out that “all physical evidence is circumstantial evidence and is only partial proof of a crime. Indeed all evidence is circumstantial except witness identification or a confession by a defendant. The closer to certainty evidence bring us, the more it loses its circumstantial nature,” (Criminal Investigation, 197).

We sometimes read of “parallel” evidence as opposed to “direct” evidence. Such terms seem to have loose definitions. In history, for example, a “direct” evidence might be a firsthand account, hand written by someone who witnessed or participated in an event. A “parallel” evidence could be other clues for things happening in the environment that support the reality of the event.

In archaeology, a “direct” evidence could be the discovery of bones, or perhaps the inscription of a city name on the wall of a structure, or the name of a king on a coin. A “parallel” evidence could be clues from the environment — such as the size of the wall — that leads us to believe how the city operated based on other “parallel” examples from other writings or historical sites.

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