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

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Analyzing Mistakes in Family Trees - Part Three

Continuing this series of posts about the issues of duplicated misinformation and errors in online family trees. The question posed is whether or not the causes of the deficiencies can be quantified and if there are some corrective measures that can be implemented either from a programming standpoint or from efforts by the genealogical community. In this third part I propose to discuss the issue of genealogical validation through extensive repetition. In other words, if you say something long enough, does it become true. This is, of course, the Big Lie technique of propaganda.

It may seem excessive to compare online public family trees to propaganda, but some of the same mechanisms are in effect. For example, a certain daguerrotype that surfaced some time ago was claimed to be an image of my 3rd Great-grandfather, John Tanner. No other photograph is known to exist of John Tanner. When the daguerrotype image surfaced with the claim, my daughter, Amy Thiriot, and I had an extensive discussion as to whether or not the offending photo could possibly, historically be considered as a photo of John Tanner. The image is unmistakably a daguerrotype. The first know such image in the United States was in 1839. John Tanner was born in Rhode Island in 1778. So he would have been 61 years old by the time the first such image was even physically possible. I will not risk spreading the image further by including it in this post. But you can see it on Amy's Blog, TheAncestorFiles, if you wish to do so. The point here is that despite our extensive analysis, Amy's historical research and writing about our conclusions which are unassailable, the image of the daguerrotype continues to be posted online as an image of John Tanner. One of the many reasons why this is not possible is that none of the males in the daguerrotype are over 60 years of age, John Tanner's age at the time of the first daguerrotype in the U.S.

But now, the Internet has created its own reality. The daguerrotype has been identified as John Tanner so many times that the truth has been lost in the noise of the repetitions. This is exactly what happens to other misinformation as it is spread across the world by the Internet. A quick look at's Family Tree Photos shows that the image is there identified without qualification, as an photo of John Tanner. Interestingly, the Photos program does not even recognize me as being John Tanner's descendant. Some of the images of the daguerrotype have three conflicting tags and so the images do not show up as in my pedigree.

Why do situations such as these persist? Because of carelessness? I think it is mainly because people want to believe. They have no desire to be dissuaded from their mistakes. If every single fact asserted in an online family tree is subject to suspicion, how can such a system endure? Why don't all of these falsified family trees just collapse of their own weight? They are suspended by belief and by the special interests of those sponsoring the family trees.

We already have a very good online system of establishing value. It is the rating system used by online sellers and reviewers of all types. A good example is Each product listed has to face a litany of reviewers who rank the products according to their ultimate usefulness and adherence to the product claims. What we need online is a way of rating the information, perhaps with one to five stars. All of the reviews of the information should then be visible, just as they are on, with the ranking clearly visible. There should be some kind of warning system when an entry got very low reviews that indicates that the entry is unacceptable for the reasons shown in the ratings reviews. Maybe if people were subject to some sort of review, they just might stop adding junk to the family trees.

One thing that comes out in Amazon's reviews is when one or more disgruntled users have clearly misunderstood the use of the product or purchased the wrong product, their reviews are transparent on that subject.

Don't take me wrong, I do not seriously believe that the companies hosting family trees online would risk the ire of their paying customers to produce believable family trees, but I can always dream. By the way comments made on the Photos website on the mis-identified daguerrotype have no effect whatsoever. It is unlikely that the people who put the photos online have ever looked at the site since uploading the photos.

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