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Saturday, July 2, 2011

We must begin with doubt

There is a saying, attributed to a Persian Proverb, that doubt is the key to knowledge. In genealogy, doubt is a method of self preservation as well as a key to knowledge. One of my early experiences with the value of doubt was a surname book for one of my ancestors. Before going into the expanded list of descendants, the author gave a summary of my Great-grandfather's ancestral line. My Grand-father had the very common name of John Morgan and in tracing the Morgan line, the author found five potential ancestors named "John Morgan" in the same small town. Instead of doing more research or acknowledging that there was no way to determine the correct progenitor, the author choose the one John Morgan for whom there was a documented ancestry. It just so happened, that this one potential ancestor was well known and descended from rich fore-bearers.

I had to conclude, because of a lack of either documentation or sources, that the decision to extend the family line back to the rich bankers of New England also named Morgan. To add insult to injury, the author also felt compelled to recount how three brothers came from Wales, one went south, one stayed in New England and one went west. I was hoping that the author was doing all this in good faith and had no prior knowledge of the classic Three Brother Myth.

Other than being disappointed in the conclusion and lack of source information, the entry taught a lasting lesson, doubt or die. In other words, I had to decide if I was going to be a genealogist of convenience or insist on documentation and sources for all of my genealogical conclusions. Unfortunately, many researchers never extend themselves to the point of having to make that decision. They stay safely in the click and copy realm and never venture into the far country of doubt. Even more unfortunate, many of these genealogists have large impressive books of their "research."

How does a pile of information become facts? When do facts become evidence? And, when does evidence constitute proof? Research is the process of extracting information and then organizing it in a fashion so as to support a hypothesis or assumption. In this context, it is common to speak of a research cycle. In the context of family research it is not uncommon to speak of a genealogical research cycle. Often, the cycle is graphically represented with anywhere from six to twenty or more steps. I have a tendency to adopt a more extensive than simple model of the research cycle.

Here is my list of steps in the research cycle:
  • Question (establish an objective)
  • Doubt
  • Develop a plan of action (identify sources)
  • Gather information (search in the sources identified)
  • Sort and prioritize the information
  • Evaluate the information and organize
  • Revise the initial questions (refocus on the objective)
  • Repeat the above steps until a conclusion is reached
  • Evaluate the conclusion (doubt)
  • Organize the information into facts
  • Weigh the facts
  • Determine whether any of the facts are probative of the objective
  • Apply probative facts to the objective
  • Record and report the findings
  • Start over

I know, I have a lot more steps than your favorite outline, but I could take some out and even put in a few more steps. My rule of thumb is three sources overcome my doubts, but from my own research I really never consider something proved beyond any doubt, everything is subject to question. But once I have enough validly believable and verified sources, I move on in my inquiry.

Some day I will get to the issue of proof.

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