RootsTech 2015

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

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Conflicting sources and why do we care?

In my last post, I left you with a hypothetical male person (HMP) for which we had two conflicting birth dates, one from an oral interview and one from a birth certificate. As a rational, experienced genealogist, I am now going to rush in and gather my evidence and prove the actual birthdate. Hmm, or have I bought into the pseudo-legal/scientific method applied to genealogy and am really just wasting my time? But wait, shouldn't I evaluate the sources? Don't I need to resolve the discrepancy? Isn't this contradictory evidence an invitation for more research?

Let me ask two simple questions. Why do we care? What does it matter? Well mister smarty pants, you say, what is the point then of doing the genealogical research? Can't we just plug in any old date and leave it at that? Who cares about accuracy anyway? What about all those genealogical journals out there with their detailed proof statements?

Here is the response, another question. What kind of source would I need that would reconcile the two different dates? You see, genealogy is a source based inquiry. I could sit here and argue that the birth certificate was "more reliable" than the oral memory of my HMP and use all sorts of legally and scientifically based analogies, but in the end what we have is two sources with conflicting evidence. Genealogy is the activity of investigating historical sources about individuals and families. The genealogist searches out historical records, extracts the information contained in those records and records it in some organized way. Moving beyond that source based activity, sets up the genealogist as a pseudo-legal/scientific authority. In reality, all a genealogist can do is to formulate an opinion about which of the two (or more) sources is more believable.

In my original hypothetical, the HMP in a telephonic interview gave a birthdate of 5 July 1934. On the other hand, in my hypothetical situation, I discovered a birth certificate with the date of 6 July 1937. Of course, we weigh the evidence. Look at the reliability of the sources. Determine which date is more likely correct and proceed to record the birth date given on the Birth Certificate and simply disregard the date given us by the informant. Why do we do this? Because we have been culturally conditioned to look at genealogy as if it were the law or science. We feel compelled to "resolve the discrepancy" and prove the actual date of birth. Why do we do this? Who cares which birth date is correct? How do we know that either of these two dates is correct?

Here is where these facts matter: if we are trying to differentiate two or more individuals with similar information. Otherwise, we record both sources and simply note the difference. We also keep looking for addition records that have information about our HMP. Let's give our HMP a name and an earlier birth date. Let's call him John Doe and push his birthdate back to 1784. We have been searching for Ancestor John Doe for many years and have found several people named John Doe in the same small area (not unusual, by the way). Lets list them as follows:

  • John Doe 1
  • John Doe 2
  • John Doe 3
  • John Doe 4
  • John Doe X

The number of John Doe ancestral candidates "X" can be any whole number. Now, you would say, small things like the correct birth date matter. There are several possibilities here.

  • There could actually be a number of people born in the same small area at about the same time given the same names. This example could be in a country such as Denmark and the names could be the results of patronymics.
  • There could be some of the people with the same name in the same family. I was not unusual in some times and cultures, if a child died young, to name the next child of the same gender with the same name as the deceased child.
  • They could all be the same individual with inaccurate and incomplete records.
  • Any combination of the earlier possibilities.
Now, wouldn't you think that knowing the exact birthdate of each of the four or five individuals would help in making a determination as to which of the individuals was your ancestor? You are right, but the real question is whether such records exist. Genealogical records have a tendency to peter out about the time we need them. The process of differentiating these individuals involves doing research for records on each of them. With each source found, it should be possible to narrow the field, so to speak, and eliminate some or all of the contenders. Remember, there are always three or more possibilities:
  • All of the sources are wrong
  • Some of the sources are wrong and some are correct
  • All of the sources are correct
Also, it is entirely possible that you are looking for the wrong person altogether. Let's also suppose that after a reasonably exhaustive search that you cannot reconcile which of the Does is your ancestor. Wait, let's be more optimistic. You find documentation that convinces you that John Doe 3 is the correct ancestor. Being a very diligent and experienced genealogists, you want to make sure everyone in your family and in fact, everyone in the world, recognized the wonderful job you did in differentiating these potential Doe ancestors. You write a journal article outlining your "proof." You carefully show every document and source and then your spring the conclusion that Doe 3 is the guy. You follow all the generally accepted formats, punctuation, italics, footnotes etc. Your article is published in a leading genealogical journal for all of posterity to admire. There is just one small problem (this is my hypothetical remember) you are wrong. You missed the one source that conclusively shows that Doe 2 is the real ancestor. 

Here I come along (still hypothetically) and point out the fatal flaw in your "proof." Do you get the point here. Let me repeat. Genealogy is source based. Anything else is bare opinion and speculation. What happens when sources aren't clear or disagree? You keep looking. You can express your opinion at any time, but you must always realize that it is not a "proof" in the legal or scientific sense. It is always open to finding one more source document. What would be more than fatal to your statement of proof is if you failed to account for all the sources, whether or not they were contradictory or not. 

So what so many call a genealogical proof is nothing more or less than an opinion (or an argument) with sources. I could look at the same exact sources and come up with a completely different opinion. Unlike science, as genealogists, we are not entitled to advance our theories of which of the Does is the actual ancestor based on experimentation. We are confined to the discovered sources. Also, unlike a lawyer, we cannot just make our best argument and hope the judge buys it. There is no genealogical judge who is going to make it all right by deciding the case in your favor. There is no end to genealogy. There is always another source. 

You can gussy up your proof statement with all sorts of formalistic footnotes and tidy it up with citations to journals and authoritative books, but when the final note is played in any given song, there is always one more note and another song. 


Some excuse the whole proof thing by simply saying the word "proof" really doesn't mean that in the the context of genealogy and we all know what we are talking about and so who cares and would Tanner quit writing about this subject before we all go crazy trying to figure out what he is saying.

Let me summarize. Genealogy is not science. Genealogy is not law. Genealogy is genealogy. It is a historical pursuit where the adherents attempt to discover historical documents about their ancestors. When they find documents they can accept what is in the documents as long as it is logical and verified by subsequent documents (sources). In the end however, everything, that is every conclusion and opinion is entirely subject to finding additional sources.

Oh, wait. I didn't mention the alchemy of genealogy: DNA. Isn't this the scientific part of genealogy? Not at all. Basically, it is just one more document. DNA testing can only give you a possibility of a relationship. When accompanied by all the other stuff that makes up genealogical research, it may confirm or change your opinion, but it fails to make genealogy any more scientific than it already is not.

Time to stop. See you next time.

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