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OpinionCommentary

The difference between evidence and proof

Clear language struggles to thrive in the face of passion, which may help explain why, as our politics becomes more passionate, our language becomes less precise.

Supporters of President Donald Trump argue that there

Supporters of President Donald Trump argue that there is no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians, when what they mean is that there is no proof. Photo Credit: AP / Evan Vucci

Clear language struggles to thrive in the face of passion, which may help explain why, as our politics becomes more passionate, our language becomes less precise. Perhaps we could be more careful.

For example, we often don’t bother with the distinction between the terms “evidence” and “proof.” Thus supporters of President Donald Trump argue that there is no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians, when what they mean is that there is no proof.

And Trump’s critics may argue that there is proof of collusion when what they mean is that there is a whole lot of evidence. It might be helpful if both sides would slow down and acknowledge that we are not going to resolve this difference of opinion until the Mueller report is made public.

“Evidence” and “proof” are not identical, but they reside on the same spectrum. The point where evidence shades over into proof is a judgment call, which is why our nation of laws uses judges and juries to decide when the evidence builds up enough weight to tip over into proof.

The notorious June 2016 Trump Tower meeting among well-connected Russians and principals in the Trump campaign — including Trump’s son and son-in-law — provides a practical example.

The Trump Tower meeting matters because receiving assistance from a foreign government is apparently a violation of campaign law, and for good reason: We don’t want to elect presidents who have clandestine obligations to foreign governments, especially an adversarial power such as Russia.

On its face the evidence looks suspicious: Emails indicate that Donald Trump Jr. was excited by the prospect of promised “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. And, frankly, it’s hard to imagine high-powered players such as these — both Russian and American — convening to discuss the adoption of Russian children, which was a cover story that was subsequently conjured, allegedly with the president’s help. More evidence.

Trump has been reluctant to acknowledge any connection with or knowledge of the meeting. But now his long-time fixer, Michael Cohen, contends that Trump knew about the meeting before it occurred. Trump isn’t known for his truthfulness — neither is Cohen — but it’s still one man’s word against another’s. All of this is evidence, not proof.

But this is why the Mueller investigation is important: Trump supporters and Trump critics may look at the conflicting evidence connected with this meeting and be tempted to draw conclusions. Many on both sides probably already have.

But our system depends on impartial analysis to make judgments about when evidence shifts to proof. Facts and testimony are compiled and, in criminal cases, presented to grand juries, who make judgments about the evidence and, if it’s convincing, they pass their findings to another set of citizens — another jury — which determines whether the evidence amounts to proof.

At least that’s the way it’s supposed to work. The system is sabotaged when either side refuses to accept the process. Trump supporters and Trump critics alike would serve our country well by being willing to defer their judgments about the evidence until the proof is in. Trump supporters have to be willing to accept that Trump might be guilty; likewise Trump critics must be willing to accept his exoneration.

President Franklin Roosevelt was wrong. We have more to fear than fear itself. A thoughtful citizenry might fear climate change or nuclear war. It might fear increasing levels of inequality or the resurgence of racism or the breakdown of community and the increasing mean-spiritedness of our discourse.

But we should fear, as much as anything else, Trump voters or Clinton voters who refuse to change their minds, no matter how convincingly the evidence hardens into proof. It’s not Trump’s inclinations toward autocracy or the left’s flirtation with socialism that will do us in. It’s our refusal to look at the facts and change our minds accordingly.

John M. Crisp is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service.

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