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Saturday, June 15, 2013

Dealing with contradictory evidence

This past week or so helping patrons at the Mesa FamilySearch Library raised some interesting issues. One patron, who was just beginning her research to extend her line, began finding records on her ancestor and almost immediately found a death record that gave her ancestor's parents. The record was interesting because the parents on the record were different than those she had on her "inherited" pedigree. A little more research showed another death record with an entirely different set of parents. At this point, she was ready to quit her research cold and go back to watching TV or whatever. Exactly contradictory evidence can be overwhelming.

Does contradictory information just create a situation of "take your pick" or flip a coin? Is genealogy more than just making arbitrary choices between equally possible alternatives? Of course, I began explaining to the patron that all she needed to do was more research to find additional information about the family that would likely settle the controversy of the contradictory parent information. But my suggestion was just that, a suggestion. There was always the possibility that we would not find any more information than we already had found. It was my opinion that the probability of running out of sources was pretty slim, but the patron quit for the day and I never did find out the end of the story.

But the issue still remains: what is the best way to deal with contradictory evidence? From the standpoint of experience, the simple answer is the one I gave to the patron; keep looking. All instances of contradictory evidence are merely an invitation to further research. It is almost inevitable that you will encounter contradictions. How you handle those contradictions will determine the ultimate validity of your research.

In the above situation, there are really several possibilities. One or the other of the two sets of parents could be the correct set. But both could be wrong and both could be right also. Let's suppose that the patron had kept searching and found one more piece of evidence agreeing with one or the other of the first entries? Is that additional evidence the "tie-breaker" and the agreement automatically wins? Not really. All evidence has to be evaluated on the basis of a series of considerations. You must evaluate both the record and the source of the information. One key point I left out of my example above was the fact that both of these records found by the patron were extracted records, essentially indexes. So neither of the records was in anyway conclusive of the facts, a difficult point for the new patron to understand.

All records need to be evaluated as to their relevance, their category and their format. A record is relevant if it was created for the purpose of preserving the information you are seeking. For example, a census record is relevant to the issue of where the people lived because that is the reason the record was created. Records are found in categories based on the type of information preserved. The format of the record is also important because it determines whether or not the information is accessible.

As to the record itself, you need to evaluate the following:
  • the origin of the information
  • the facts given in the record
  • the events described
  • whether or not the evidence is direct or indirect
The FamilySearch Research Wiki suggests asking the following set of questions or other similar questions:
  • When and where was the record created?
  • Who created the record?
  • Why was the record created?
  • Who provided the information for the record?
  • How was the information recorded?
  • How was the record preserved?
  • What kind of information is missing or incomplete in the record?
  • Are there any other records that are usually associated with the record?
  • Which records came just before and after this record and would they give further information?
  • Is the record part of a series of records that may contain further information about the family?
  • Where are other associated records located?
  • How reliable is the information contained in the record?
  • What other information is suggested by the record but missing?
It is too bad that the patron above, did not stay long enough for us to find some other more relevant and conclusive evidence. She might have had a more positive experience. Further research would likely have revealed more direct evidence of the identity of the ancestor's parents. 

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