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Sunday, January 9, 2011

Futher thoughts on metagenealogy

Gödel's second incompleteness theorem states that "Any formal system that is interesting enough to formulate its own consistency can prove its own consistency if and only if it is inconsistent." Although Gödel's Theorem's apply to mathematics, his theorems have implications for other disciplines.  It is common for genealogists to talk about a "genealogical proof standard." It is also common for more advanced genealogists to produce a proof statement. For example, quoting the FamilySearch Wiki,
When considering the information, compare it with what you have found in other sources and evaluate the—
  • origin of the information
  • facts given in the records
  • events described
  • directness of the evidence
Evaluating all of these elements together will help you determine what level of proof you have found, and if more research is needed. The Genealogical Proof Standard shows how to evaluate and use all the evidence to create a credible proof statement.
Although the term is not commonly used, discussions about genealogical proofs are technically part of what can be termed a "metagenealogy" that is, a discussion about genealogy as a concept and system rather than about any particular genealogical fact or inference. The attempts at constructing a genealogical proof standard are in effect creating an abstraction from the concept of genealogy. See my previous discussion on Developing a metagenealogy.

The question of "proof" in the abstract has occupied scientists, philosophers, religionists, and legal systems since the dawn of mankind. For example, our U.S. legal system, derived primarily from English Common Law, operates under a three tiered system of proof; preponderance of the evidence, clear and convincing evidence and proof beyond a reasonable doubt. In our jury system, ordinary citizens are asked to make serious decisions affecting lives and property, about the evidence presented at trial based on a brief and somewhat ambiguous definition of these three levels of proof depending on the Judge's decision as to which one applies. For many years, since the time of Donald Lines Jacobus, there has been an attempt to graft the English common law concepts and definitions of proof onto genealogical research.

This attempt at using a legal based proof system is unfortunate on several levels. There is no generally accepted understanding or agreement on the definitions of the levels of proof. Try to explain, in simple terms, the difference between preponderance of the evidence and clear and convincing evidence. If you would like a very confusing study some time, look at the definitions of these two terms. In one definition the preponderance of the evidence is defined in terms of facts being more likely than not but on the other hand, clear and convincing evidence is defined as more highly probable to be true than not. After years of practice, attorneys can claim to understand the difference, but these subtle differences are lost on most people.

As Gödel pointed out in mathematics, the issue of proof always requires one to, in a sense, step outside the bounds of any particular discipline and try to formulate a methodology and terminology for talking about the subject. This brings up another issue with genealogy. The so-called Proof Standard is neither uniformly applied or even marginally well known. It is laudable that genealogical professionals attempt to conform to some sort-of standard, but realistically, very few unsophisticated researchers, of which there are millions, have never heard of the standard and would not understand it if they did.

We are still at the level of trying to convince people to annotate their sources. As a whole, genealogy is still in the dark ages. The age of enlightenment has only penetrated into the rarefied atmosphere of certified, professional genealogy. Looking at the lists of those who are either certified or claim professional status it is clear that there are percentage-wise an extremely small group of professionals who even claim to be so. For example, this next week at the Mesa, Arizona Family History Expo, there will be over 2000 people. However, the Board for Certification of Genealogists list only four people in Arizona who are certified and none of the four are featured as presenters at the Mesa Expo. There is only one accredited genealogist by the International Commission for the Accreditation of Genealogists in the entire state of Arizona and she is not presenting at the Expo either. There are quite a few more individuals who are members of the Association of Professional Genealogists in Arizona, 26 to be exact and interestingly only three of the four certified genealogists are listed as members.

What we have is a serious disconnect between those who consider themselves to be at some kind of professional level and the vast majority of the people who are involved in genealogy at some level. Some professions, like medicine and law are regulated and non-registered people do not generally have access to the profession. In the amorphous realm of genealogy, anyone who wants to look for their ancestors can be considered a genealogist.

If, as a discipline, genealogy is ever to move towards some reasonable standard of proof and evidence, there needs to be a more uniform and accepted methodology, a metagenealogy, if you will. That gives the beginner as well as those considering themselves more advanced, a basic starting point for understanding the goals and standards of the discipline. The Genealogical Proof Standard is a good start, but unless and until it becomes almost universally known, it will have almost no impact on those practicing the discipline.

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