Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Source Citation vs. Proof

Disclosing where you obtained genealogical information does not prove anything. As I read the discussions about sourcing your data, I get the distinct impression that the concept of sourcing has far outdistanced the issue of proof. Just because I have a citation that says I got all my information from Aunt Melba's GED file doesn't let anyone know the probability that anything I have in my file is accurate or correct.

Let's suppose that I go online and find a copy of the death certificate for my immigrant great-grandfather. I copy the information off of the certificate and dutifully enter into my genealogical database with a perfectly formatted source citation ala Mills. [Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Baltimore, Md: Genealogical Pub. Co, 2007]. There that does it! I am now on my way to genealogical paradise and a perfect genealogist. Not.

Source citation is laudable. It is in fact the key to understanding any of the multitude of conclusions one can make about genealogical evidence. If a source citation is missing, then the fact cited, no matter how consistent and reasonable is suspect. Maturity in doing genealogical research is reached when you begin to understand that merely citing a source is like looking at speed limit signs on the freeway. It doesn't get you to your destination, it only keeps you from getting a ticket. I could go online on's Family Trees for example and copy out literally hundreds of names that would fill spaces in my family file and cite each one correctly. But at this point I have not one shred of proof that the information I have gathered is correct much less proved.

OK, you have now probably guessed that I am going to bring up the venerable Genealogical Proof Standard again? You are right.  But I have a different point to make today. Yes, you do have follows something that at least approximates the Genealogical Proof Standard in order to have any confidence at all that what you are writing is correct, but on the other hand, you do have to move along down the road and should obsess with details that have no probative value. While at the same time you cannot gloss over the need to prove relationships to at least the standard of more probably true than not much less to the standard of beyond a reasonable doubt.

Let me give an example. My Great-great Grandfather was one of the sons of John Tanner, my 3rd Great-grandfather. This is a fact beyond dispute. But guess what? I have yet to see any contemporary underlying source information documenting this relationship. Do I doubt the veracity of the huge body of secondary evidence? Not in the slightest. Would I be glad to find a specific document linking the two as father and son? I would be delighted. Will I stop all my other genealogical searches while I beat my head against the wall to find such a document? Not at all. Technically, the link is unproven, but from a basically practical purpose that lack of proof is immaterial to the conclusion that Sidney Tanner was John Tanner's son. Somewhere there is such a document and guess what? I will likely find someone who will send a copy of it to me. But, the issue is not a significant problem that I will likely address in this lifetime.

But what about other relationships that are more tenuous? Going back a few generations, I can find situations where the same ancestral line contains huge numbers of contradicting claims with several possible wives and children listed for multiple names of ancestors. Citing sources in this situation gets me absolutely no where. I could cite a hundred "sources" and every last one of them would be wrong. Knowing this, you can probably get a glimpse of what I feel like when I walk into a huge Family History Center and see dozens of people dutifully copying things off their computer screens. Many (most) of them not even spending one minute thinking about what they are copying.

Look at's Family Trees for just a few minutes and you will see my point. Even those few individuals who have taken the time to jot down the sources (enter them almost automatically from the database) show little or no effort to evaluate or ponder the likelyhood that what they have just copied is correct and proved. Getting genealogists to provide a source is in reality only one small step towards the goal of an acceptable and defensible pedigree.


  1. Too funny. Source citation vs. Proof. There is no versus. Proof without citation does not exist. But proof is not the GPS. The GPS is the benchmark by which we judge proof. Citation does not evaluate the quality of record, the researcher does. However the researcher is evaluated on the basis of their citations and their analysis. You see it is the analysis part of the conversation that is missing. I would suggest that reading the first two chapters of Mills book would go a long way in helping you to better understand that citation and proof can not exist by themselves or in isolation. By the by there is no such thing as a fact that is beyond dispute. Just fact that have not yet been disproved.

  2. James,

    Isn't it possible that the mass of secondary information tying Sidney to John traces back to the same erroneous source? I understand your point, we can get caught in obsessing. But I would argue that if our research hasn't yet met the Genealogical Proof Standard then we aren't obsessing--we're simply striving for excellence.

    When you stated, "Technically, the link is unproven, but from a basically practical purpose that lack of proof is immaterial to the conclusion that Sidney Tanner was John Tanner's son," it's hard to know if you are saying there isn't any direct evidence of a link, or if there isn't any evidence at all. If you're convinced of the relationship I would imagine there is a body of indirect evidence--beyond the secondary sources--that support that conclusion, correct?

    I enjoy your blog and you always make excellent points. I am hoping to understand your thoughts on accepting secondary sources as truth a little better.

  3. I agree completely with this post. The map is not the territory.

    The truth is the truth no matter how, or even whether, it's documented. Aren't genealogists supposed to have—I guess you could call it an educated sense of certainty, like doctors?

    I think it's crucial to prioritize. Neglecting other ancestors in order to pursue a technically unproven one isn't the best use of precious time.