What is Evidence?

Learning Objectives

  • Describe ways to find evidence in support of a claim

Have you ever heard the term “Exhibit A?”

Here are some examples: In a movie review we read: “Nothing to Lose is Exhibit A in what’s right and what’s wrong with current Hollywood comedy.”[1]  A news article quotes a Senator as saying: “The massive data breach at Equifax Inc. is ‘exhibit A‘ on the need for strong U.S. regulation, including higher fines against companies that mishandle consumers’ personal information.”[2] An article about football claims that “Green Bay is Exhibit A in an NFL trend that emphasizes mesmerizing passing games above all else.”[3]

The term “Exhibit A” comes from courtroom trials. Wikipedia tells us that “an exhibit, in a criminal prosecution or a civil trial, is physical or documentary evidence brought before the jury. The artifact or document itself is presented for the jury’s inspection. […] The exhibits in any one law case are often labelled Exhibit A, Exhibit B, Exhibit C, etc. to distinguish between them.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exhibit_(legal))

In a trial, lawyers use “exhibits,” or evidence, to try to make their case to the jury. Evidence is extremely important in a jury trial: jurors are instructed that they should “base their conclusions [only] on the evidence as presented in the trial.” American Bar Association “How Courts Work” (https://www.americanbar.org/groups/public_education/resources/law_related_education_network/how_courts_work/juryinstruct/)

When you read an academic article, you, the reader, are the jury. The author is making a claim, and they will present their evidence to support their claim. As you read through the paragraphs of an essay, you can imagine that each paragraph is labeled “Exhibit A, Exhibit B,” and so on. Like the “exhibits” in a trial, the paragraphs contain information to try to convince you that the author’s claim is correct. Each paragraph will have a topic or key sentence that gives you a sense of the main point of the paragraph. The rest of the paragraph is supporting details, or evidence, that supports the claim of the paragraph.

A human pyramid with three people on the bottom, two in the middle, and one on top. The top person is labeled "Thesis", the middle two are labeled "Key Sentences of Paragraphs", and the bottom three are labeled "Supporting Details or Evidence in Paragraphs"

Figure 1. Just as the key sentences in the paragraphs support the overall thesis claim of the essay, the supporting details in each paragraph support the key sentence of the paragraph.

The key sentences in the paragraphs support the overall thesis claim of the essay, and the supporting details, or evidence, in the paragraph support the key sentence of the paragraph.  If the argument is a pyramid, evidence is the bottom layer; it holds everything up.

When writing an essay, you want to start with the evidence. Before brainstorming about the claim you’ll be arguing, you need to gather the evidence you have and think about how to fill in the gaps. Even a narrative essay telling a story is built on evidence. Were you ever given the writing advice “show, don’t tell?” Rather than telling the reader “I was scared,” you show the reader how scared you were: “my knees trembled, my voice shook, and my dry mouth tasted like aluminum.” In other words, these physical  effects are evidence of the emotion.

Evidence is what a writer uses to support or defend his or her argument, and only valid and credible evidence is enough to make an argument strong. What is valid or credible changes, however, according to the academic discipline.

Evidence in the Humanities: Literature, Art, Film, Music, Philosophy

  • Scholarly essays that analyze original works
  • Details from an image, a film, or other work of art
  • Passages from a musical composition
  • Passages of text, including poetry

Evidence in the Humanities: History

  • Primary Sources (photos, letters, maps, official documents, etc.)
  • Other books or articles that interpret primary sources or other evidence.

Evidence in the Social Sciences: Psychology, Sociology, Political Science, Anthropology

  • Books or articles that interpret data and results from other people’s original experiments or studies.
  • Results from one’s own field research (including interviews, surveys, observations, etc.)
  • Data from one’s own experiments
  • Statistics derived from large studies

Evidence in the Sciences: Biology, Chemistry, Physics

  • Data from the author of the paper’s own experiments
  • Books or articles that interpret data and results from other people’s original experiments or studies.

It is important to remember that evidence NEVER speaks for itself. Any evidence used to support a position must be explained – the author of the text must prove that the evidence supports his or her thesis.

Let’s practice moving from our initial questions to thinking about evidence.

Writing Workshop: What is Evidence?

Review the questions you created in the previous activity. Where would you look to find evidence to answer your defining questions and build an argument about school start times?


Step 1: Choose two of your questions from above.

Step 2: List three places you could look to find evidence that would help make a claim in answer to each question.


Note: for this assignment, you don’t need to actually track down the sources and evidence; you just need to note where you would find initial clues.


Question: “Would teenagers have fewer car accidents if they got more sleep?”

  1. Scientific studies on connections between fatigue in teen drivers and traffic accidents.
  2. Newspaper articles about teenagers and car accidents.
  3. Opinion pieces about preventing accidents among teenage drivers.

Your response:






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