If you watch a lot of cop or lawyer shows, you probably hear well-dressed, suave professionals throwing around words like “proof” and “evidence” a fair bit.
But don’t these words mean the same thing? If not, what’s the difference? Keep reading to find out.
Proof vs. Evidence – What’s the Difference?
“Evidence” refers to materials or information that give weight to the truth of a claim. It is most often used in Law. “Proof”, on the other hand, refers to more conclusive information which shows a statement to be factual. It is mainly used in Science and Mathematics.
At first glance, you may have thought that the words “proof” and “evidence” were synonyms that can be used interchangeably. However, these terms actually have distinct meanings.
The main difference between “proof” and “evidence” is that “proof” tends to refer to information which is conclusive. Evidence refers to materials that can be used to prove a statement, theory, or accusation.
Consider the sentences below:
- These fossils provide evidence for the semi-aquatic nature of this dinosaur.
- These fossils are proof of the semi-aquatic nature of this dinosaur.
As you can see, the first statement leaves open the possibility that there are alternative conclusions available. The evidence gives weight to a theory but does not prove it.
The second statement suggests that a theory or hypothesis is, without a doubt, confirmed. If a theory is proven, it is a fact, and there is no further room for speculation. If a theory is merely evidenced, further evidence may come along and disprove it.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines “proof” as “a fact or piece of information that shows that something exists or is true”. Merriam-Webster defines it as “the cogency of evidence that compels acceptance by the mind of a truth or a fact”.
“Proof” is information that shows the truth of a claim. It can be used in a legal context, but also in the context of mathematics and science, when a particular theory or hypothesis is proven.
Once again, “proof” appears to show that a suggestion or claim is conclusively true. Once the evidence available is sufficiently clear and provides sufficient weight to a claim, that claim is proven. Thus, evidence may become proof at a certain stage.
In law, a person making a claim bears the burden of proof. This basically means that if you make a claim, it is your job to prove the truth of your claim.
- The statements made by eyewitnesses are substantial proof for the claim that the defendant was present at the same event on the night that the murder was committed.
As such, in order to convict a person of a crime, the evidence against them must prove that they committed that crime beyond a reasonable doubt.
- The damage to your car won’t suffice as proof that he’s the one who did it. We need more evidence!
In civil claims, which do not result in conviction and jail time, the burden of proof placed on the claimant is less extreme. They must simply prove their claim on a balance of probabilities.
This means that it should be shown that it is more likely that their claim is true than not.
It is suggested that “proof” only truly exists in logic or mathematics, as, in law, there is always room for doubt or speculation.
“Evidence” is defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as “one or more reasons for believing that something is or is not true”. Merriam-Webster defines it as “something that furnishes proof”.
“Evidence” can be used when you are collecting information in the pursuit of proving a claim. It is often used in the legal arena.
Once again, we can see the strong connection between evidence and proof. Evidence is what contributes to the proof of a claim. Once a person has acquired enough evidence, they will be able to prove their claims.
The “burden of evidence” is therefore distinct from the burden of proof as well. In a claim between two parties before a court of law, both bear a burden of evidence.
- “I’m afraid,” said the judge stoically, “that the plaintiff has failed to meet the burden of evidence.”
- I tried to prove his guilt, but I didn’t have enough evidence!
This basically means that the person making a claim (the “plaintiff” or “applicant”) is responsible for providing evidence for their claim against the “defendant” or “respondent”.
The respondent or defendant also bears an evidentiary burden, though. They are responsible for providing evidence that will disprove the claim against them. They must set out the evidence for their defense.
- My client has provided photographic evidence that she was at a family gathering when the applicant’s car was vandalized.
- We don’t need concrete evidence to prove your innocence; we just need enough to cast doubt over their claims.
Meanwhile, the burden of proof never shifts to the defendant. While they have an evidentiary burden, they are not responsible for proving their innocence. It will always be the duty of the plaintiff to prove their guilt.
This is because, in most systems, there is a set standard that a defendant is “innocent until proven guilty”.
Which Is Used the Most?
According to the Google Ngram Viewer, “evidence” has consistently been used more frequently than “proof”.
This might be the case because proof is a far more conclusive standard. Thus, people may be reluctant to state that they have proof of a particular claim.
Because “evidence” is inconclusive and allows for further speculation, it is likely safer to suggest that certain info evidences a claim rather than proving it.
“Evidence” is information that gives weight to the truth of a claim. It is often used in the context of the legal field. “Proof” is information that conclusively confirms the truth of a claim. It is mainly used in mathematics, where certain claims can be systematically and conclusively proven.
Martin holds a Master’s degree in Finance and International Business. He has six years of experience in professional communication with clients, executives, and colleagues. Furthermore, he has teaching experience from Aarhus University. Martin has been featured as an expert in communication and teaching on Forbes and Shopify. Read more about Martin here.