Monday, January 2, 2012

Genealogical Myths and Fallacies

Like any other human pursuit, genealogy has its own myths and fallacies. Some of these are so well known and repeated so often that it is considered heresy to question them. Some are so bizarre as to be something you might see on reality TV. I realize that by pointing out some of these myths and fallacies, I may be branded a heretic and possibly excoriated by the true believers but I have never been one to shrink from controversy. My last attempt at a list proved to be controversial, but whatever, I guess I am a glutton for punishment.

Come to think of it, it is pretty difficult to tell the difference between a myth and a fallacy. I use the word myth in the sense of an unproved or false collective belief that is used to justify a social institution not in the sense of Greek myths. A fallacy is a failure in reasoning that renders an argument invalid. The difference is subtle, a myth justifies a social institution or convention, a fallacy is a failure in a line of reasoning. Both depend on a disjuncture between the mythical idea or fallacy and reality. If either a myth or fallacy are generally and commonly believed, they are particularly hard to detect. Usually this is the case, because the potential challenger is part of the social structure or has bought into the fallacy simply by reason of his or her membership in the community.

One of the problems with addressing either myths or fallacies is that the community, in this case genealogists, resent being told that their beliefs have no basis in fact. The person who questions the status quo appears as an usurper or a trouble maker. It is also difficult to question myths and fallacies without appearing to be condescending or elitist. The critic is attacked as being out of touch with the reality of the community and unfeeling and insensitive to the common people or in the particular case of genealogists, those who are just beginning to investigate their family history.

Ultimately, the critic will be accused of trying to discourage people from doing genealogy or what is worse, discouraging those who are already in the genealogical community. 

OK, here it goes.

Myth #1: Genealogy is easy and can be done by everyone.

A prominent genealogy company uses this as almost as a tagline in many of their ads. In fact, genealogy is not easy, it is genuinely very, very hard. It is a highly complicated subject that ultimately requires a knowledge of history, geography, languages, historical writing systems, familial relationships, kinship systems and many other subjects. If you think genealogy is easy, try taking a university level course in genealogy or try obtaining certification or accreditation.

Have you ever built a car from parts? I mean started with purchasing a frame and etc. and building a car from the ground up? Is that something that anyone can do? Does it take specialized tools? Do you need to have some experience working on car engines? Would it help to have a dedicated space in which to build your car? I would venture to suggest that genealogy is a lot more complicated than building a car from scratch. I once spent two days trying to fix a front ball joint on a Jaguar. No matter what I did, I could not get the ball joint to separate. (This was before the Internet). I finally talked to a friend about the problem and he offered me the use of his ball joint fork. With this tool, separating the ball joint took five minutes. Now, was working on the Jaguar hard or easy? If you owned Jaguar Motors, would you run ads about how easy your cars were to fix? The point is that working on automobiles and doing genealogy both take a lot of practical education and specialized tools. Encouraging people to participate in an activity is different from telling them that it is easy. If genealogy were easy, I would have stopped investigating my family years ago. I don't climb mountains or hike across the Grand Canyon because they are "easy" activities.

Learning how to do genealogy is not beyond the ability of most people. It is just not easy. Telling people how easy it is to do genealogy only leads them to frustration when they find out that this is a myth.

Myth #2: Genealogy is one of the most popular past times or hobbies in the U.S. (World?).

I hear this repeated regularly, oh, did you know that genealogy is one of the most popular hobbies in the U.S? Let's look at the most recent compilations. Here is a list of some websites with recent "most popular hobbies" lists. Can you find genealogy listed?
Genealogy is almost exclusively listed as a popular activity by genealogy websites.  What does the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics say about the leisure time of people in the U.S? See American Time Use Survey Summary. No mention of genealogy. Do you really care whether or not genealogy is a popular past time?

Where does this myth come from? Where are the polls or studies indicating that genealogy is more popular than say watching professional football or monster truck competition? How many people watched the last Super Bowl? How many watched Who do You Think You Are? Does watching a TV show about celebrities constitute a hobby or interest? If you are asked whether or not you have in interest in your family, does that mean you like to do genealogy?

Myth #3: All you need to do your genealogy is on the Internet.

The huge amounts of information appearing almost daily cause this myth to be commonly believed. Book use at the Mesa Family History Center has almost entirely disappeared from my own observations. Unfortunately, this one comes from my own observation and I don't have any convenient statistics to back up my claim. This is another myth supported by ads from major online genealogy companies.

Fallacy #1: The post hoc fallacy.

The term "post hoc" comes from the phrase, "post hoc ergo propter hoc" or "after this, therefore because of this." This refers to the very common conclusions people make that just because one event occurs after another, the first event was the cause of the second. It is extremely common to make this type of unsupported conclusion in the context of genealogy. The post hoc fallacy often originates from the misuse of timelines. Separation of events in time does not necessarily imply causation.

One of the most common genealogically related traps of the post hoc fallacy goes as follows:
  • I am looking for a marriage record in 1890 in a specific county.
  • I cannot find any record of the marriage.
  • The court house burned down in 1892
  • Therefore the record I am looking for was lost
Can you detect the fallacy? The courthouse burned after the marriage so the conclusion is that the record was lost in the fire. But you have no evidence that the particular record you are looking for was lost or never existed or wasn't moved to another jurisdiction or whatever. Your conclusion is based only on the fallacy of the temporal relationship.

Fallacy #2: The ad hoc fallacy

An ad hoc hypothesis or theory is one that has no basis in fact but is used to explain away facts that seem to refute one's own personal belief or theory. This type of fallacy is very common. This past week I was discussing a situation with a friend who was looking for a great-grandfather's birth place. He knew his great-grandfather was born in Germany because his grandfather was born in Germany. It took some time and some effort to finally convince the person that his great-grandfather was born in Russia. The place where his great-grandfather was born was part of Russia at the time of his birth.

The main problem with the ad hoc fallacy is that it is virtually undetectable. Some of the so-called family traditions are in fact ad hoc explanations with any basis in fact.

It is beginning to look like this post will have to be continued in the future. I think I would like to spend some time discussion whether Occam's razor applies to genealogy and history in particular.

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