STEP SEVEN: Evaluating Evidence
The evidence an author offers the reader should answer the question, ʺHow do you know?ʺ Documents can contain two types of evidence, personal experience and appeals to authority. Through description of his or her own experience, direct quotations, or references to other sources, an author establishes his or her credibility.
Eyewitness accounts and other primary sources are often full of interest and emotionally powerful. But that doesnʹt make them true. Different witnesses often have different versions of the same event. To evaluate the reliability of a first‐hand report, assess these characteristics of it:
Proximity: Was the author actually there? was he or she in a position to know?
Timeliness: How soon after the event was the evidence created?
Breadth: How much of the event could the author have experienced, the whole thing or only a tiny part? Whatʹs likely to have been ignored, covered up, highlighted, or over‐emphasized?
Clarity: Does the author clearly explain who, what, where, when, and why?
Point of View: What might the author choose to omit (or not even have noticed) because of his or her worldview?
Bias: What beliefs, desires, or values may have influenced the authorʹs perceptions or descriptions?
Appeal to the Experiences of Others
Most historical documents also use arguments based on the experiences of people other than the author. To assess their reliability, apply the questions above to the sources the author quotes; how trustworthy are they? Then evaluate how the author uses evidence from external authorities:
Relevance: Are the sources quoted actually about the main topic, or are they brought in from some other context? Do they strengthen the argumentʹs logic or simply drop names?
Breadth: Does the author provide a wide range of authorities or a narrow range?