Evidence Network

*** the 'Evidence' project ran between 2004-2009 ***

Who we are

This programme brings together researchers from a wide variety of academic disciplines to explore similarities and differences in their approaches to evidence. It is supporting development of a number of distinct specialist strands, while at the same time attempting to weave these together into a single integrated whole by emphasising and developing common intellectual ground. By establishing a community of interest across a very broad field, it aims to bring cohesion and interaction to the currently fragmented activities of different research groups.

Mission statement

The ultimate aim is to advance human understanding, decision-making and risk management across a wide variety of academic and practical activities. This will be achieved through improved treatment of evidence, inference and enquiry, and through cross-disciplinary transfer of understanding, insight and good practice.

Anticipated outcomes

  • Conceptual and methodological advances in Evidence Science.
  • Improved understanding of human biases in handling evidence.
  • Explicit understanding of the special features of evidence in different disciplines.
  • Identification and improved handling of common features of evidence across disciplines.
  • Decision aids for evidence analysis.

The need

Modern technology allows for the collection of vast quantities of data of many different kinds, but the technology for combining, comparing,linking and interpreting all this information - so turning it from information to evidence - is almost non-existent. Although interpretation of evidence is as fundamental to all human enquiry as Aristotelian logic, and just as ancient, there has generally been little interest displayed in generic aspects of evidential reasoning.
Different disciplines tend to conceive of and use evidence in different ways, often with little intellectual examination, nor any conception that there might be an underlying generally applicable rational foundation. Unintelligent use of evidence is widespread and damaging. Even in the face of terrorist threats, training and practice in intelligence analysis largely ignore fundamental principles. In law enforcement there is scant appreciation of the import of missing evidence, while new evidence is sought to try and firm up a currently favoured theory, rather than to discriminate between credible alternatives. In forensic science, distinct types of evidence such as DNA, fingerprints, fibres, etc. are typically handled by different teams using different specialist methods, rather than integrated under a "substance-blind" approach. Similar inadequacies pervade decision-making in politics, medicine, public health, and commerce.

Understanding the nature and impact of evidence is a non-trivial and often counter-intuitive task. Evidence never speaks for itself, but has to be interpreted through the filters of models, assumptions and analyses. Generic attributes of evidence include accuracy, credibility, objectivity, relevance, provenance and weight. An item of evidence may corroborate another, or conflict with it, or explain away its apparent message. Items of evidence and hypotheses can form complex interrelated chains or webs, outstripping unaided human comprehension. Any general theory of evidence has to explicate and
analyse such issues.


A raft of activities is being organised, aimed at cementing together the variety of projects and personnel involved in this programme into a coherent evidence community, and disseminating the fruits of the research programme more widely. In addition to standard mechanisms (journal articles and books, presentations at national and international conferences), these include:

  • Lectures and masterclasses
  • Specialist and inter-disciplinary seminars
  • Study circles
  • Panel discussions
  • Internal workshops
  • Open conferences
  • Public debates
  • Research report series and archive
  • Software and decision-aids
  • Dedicated interactive website
  • E-mail circulation list

Please click the links below to view staff associated with the Evidence Network.

Formal Tools for Handling Evidence

Versatile formal representations of webs of evidence, and some of their current applications, include Wigmore charts (cases at law), Bayesian networks (complex DNA cases), and computerised systems such as Flints (Forensic-led intelligence system, for linking crimes and criminals). We are studying their logical foundations and inter-relationships, and attempting to extend their capabilities and applications.

Model-Contingent Interpretation of Evidence

The interpretation of evidence is grounded in assumptions, which may be unverifiable. Using econometric examples and techniques we are seeking to isolate these, and developing approaches to minimise sensitivity to them. In particular we are addressing issues of causal conclusions from observational data, and developing methods to construct and test underlying economic models under the weakest possible assumptions.

Historical Evidence

Problems of historical evidence include: Factoring out bias or point of view in historical sources; distinguishing between actuality and memories; and assessing the weight, validity and interrelations of evidence from archaeology (e.g. artefacts, architecture, material culture), inscriptions (including coins), eye-witness reports, and secondary or retrospective accounts of events. We are studying the potential of subject-blind Evidence Science (including Wigmore charts) to describe and ameliorate these problems.

Human Attitudes To Evidence

Conservatism and other inadequacies of evidence processing, both by lay people and by professionals, are well established. We are conducting experimental studies to characterise the nature and source of such biases, and investigating the potential of decision-aids to overcome them.

Synthesis of Complex Evidence For Practice And Policymaking

The project is a joint initiative between the Department of Primary Care and Population Sciences and the Department of Computer Sciences. It aims to investigate how evidence from research is identified, interpreted, negotiated, and fed into the healthcare policymaking process. We will use a novel cross-disciplinary theoretical framework that draws on both medical sociology (in which the focus of analysis is the roles, relationships and interactions of individuals and groups) and the philosophy of argumentation (in which the focus is on how evidence is constructed, framed and rhetorically presented to support particular arguments in particular micro-political contexts). Using in-depth case study methods, we will explore how teams charged with "summarising the evidence on X" refine their brief and then seek out, evaluate, summarise and present evidence to a wider policymaking team. We will follow what happens to this secondary (i.e. evaluated, summarised and synthesised) evidence as it enters the policymaking process.

Evidence In Natural Sciences

This project is an investigation of evidence in the natural sciences from the viewpoint of the history and philosophy of science. Historians have studied numerous instances of evidential disputes in the natural sciences over the centuries, and philosophers have made serious attempts to reach a general understanding of the nature of scientific evidence. Considerations of the "theory-ladenness" of observation have called into question the precise status of observational or experimental "facts" as evidence. The debates on scientific realism have highlighted the difficulties involved in establishing the truth of a theory even when we have relatively secure factual evidence in support of it.

Evidence: A Case Study of Interdisciplinarity

This project seeks to study, in the context of the “Evidence” programme, how different disciplines can engage with each other critically, and to identify those features that enable or disable this. In this way it will develop a conceptualisation of interdisciplinarity that is most appropriate for large-scale social science investigation.

Enquiry And Detection

This project broadens the concerns of “Formal Tools for Handling Evidence” to address strategies for gathering of discovering evidence. There are many high-profile recent instances of the dangers of flawed, ineffective or unimaginative approaches to this. A mix of perspectives, experience and skills will be applied to develop new insights into the nature of enquiry and detection, and to construct formal representations and computational tools to address the complex evidential problems arising from this – including in particular the determination of effective questioning strategies. We will motivate and test our methods using specific cases from a variety of applied fields, with particular focus on Police Detection and Intelligence Analysis.

Towards An Integrated Concept of Evidence

Is there a concept of evidence that applies universally? Are there specific or generic techniques for manipulating evidence that can be applied across disciplinary boundaries? These are questions that arise continually in the multidisciplinary research programme “Evidence, Inference and Enquiry: Towards an Integrated Science of Evidence” at University College London, supported by the Leverhulme Trust and the ESRC.

Page last modified on 21 may 11 12:34