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.
Parallel evidence is a type of circumstantial evidence in that the information in one study parallels the information in the second study thereby implying that the two are linked or behave in similar fashion. The weight of parallel evidence is used to make supportive conclusions in medicine, history and archaeology. As with legal and scientific indirect evidence, parallel evidence is merely suggestive for single parallels but becomes more valuable when there are interlocking parallels.
In reality, however, virtually all of the evidence in history and archaeology is — to some degree — circumstantial. While the discovery of human bones may be direct evidence for the existence of humans, it is circumstantial evidence that typically tells us that the bones belong to the people who lived in nearby dwellings.
Archaeological data must be interpreted, and a primary tool used for interpretation is analogy (or parallel). As non-LDS anthropologist Dr. Nancy White explains, analogy is used to “(figure) out the unknown by beginning with the known, and we use it because it is the best and often only way we can explain the behavior of people who are not here to explain it themselves.”
Archaeology is a historical science. Non-LDS anthropologist Dr. Diane Gifford-Gonzalez notes: “Historical scientists continue to use analogies in every phase of their research. ...” “Like specialists in criminal forensics” who make inferences from the data, she explains, “historical scientists must use indirect evidence to reconstruct past agents, processes, and events.”
Contrary to the claims of many critics, the Book of Mormon is not only supported by direct evidence, but the parallel evidences that support the Book of Mormon function in the same fashion as any other evidence used in archaeological studies.
Michael R. Ash is on the management team for FAIR (the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research FAIRLDS.org) and is the author of "Shaken Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One's Testimony In the Face of Criticism and Doubt" (ShakenFaithSyndrome.com) and "Of Faith and Reason: 80 Evidences Supporting the Prophet Joseph Smith" (OfFaithandReason.com). Michael's column, "Challenging Issues, Keeping the Faith," appears Mondays on MormonTimes.com.