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

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Ins and Outs of Evidence for Genealogists -- Part Six: An Evolving Standard

We start with the concept of existence. As expressed by René Descartes, "cogito ergo sum" (English: "I think, therefore I am"). We exist and as we exist we acquire self-awareness. Through this self-awareness we are bombarded with both internal and external information. We interpret and organize this information by means of an intangible innate quality we call intelligence. As we begin to sort out this information (as babies) we become aware that there are other entities who also possess self-awareness and intelligence. We learn to speak and begin organizing and quantifying our personal universe.

We encounter experiences that we cannot explain. From those around us, we acquire a world view, culture, cultural biases and we form an internal model of the physical world. Eventually, we encounter experiences we cannot explain with the information we have already have in our model of the universe. As we find answers to those questions, we adapt our world view to the new information and our internal model. That process continues until we die and start a new existence. 

Inevitably, we discover that our world view does not correspond with that held by others. We collaborate with others and develop a common world view on the subject of our collaboration. Groups of individuals with a common collaborative world view approach the resolution of questions in different ways. 

OK, enough of this sort of analysis. One of our collective early realizations is that we have parents. We begin to realize that they too had parents. Our individual and cultural identity comes from the collective experiences of all those generations of parents going back in time. It is a common human experience to wonder about those previous generations of parents. How we address that problem is what I am discussing in this series. 

During our lives we are faced with a series of experiences we cannot immediately resolve into our world view. We are faced with the need to resolve that problem. We can either ignore that need or take some action. Because there are so many of us, the resolution of those problems create a tremendously complex society. Different problems are resolved in different ways. There are disagreements that can escalate to a global scale. We classify our problems in different ways and resolve them with systems we believe will resolve those problems. 

Now to the present reality. We live in families. We all have ancestors. We live in societies made up of complex organizations and relationships. We face individual and shared problems. Some people attempt to resolve problems be using, what we call, science. Other problems are addresses through our political and legal systems. Each of these methods of problem resolution arise from unanswered questions. Genealogy is one of those methods developed to address certain questions (problems) and their resolution. 

During this series of posts, I have been exploring the relationship of genealogy to other problem solving systems. There is a tendency to "borrow" methodology and terminology from other disciplines that seem to have the ability to resolve problems. We do this even when we realize that our particular set of problems are not appropriately addressed with these other methodologies. Genealogy addresses a narrow set of problems. 

Our tendency to look outside of our area of interest for solutions results in confusion. What is genealogy? It is an attempt to place ourselves in our historical family. It is confined to that information that has been preserved from that historical family. It is not conflict resolution like the practice of law and it not the discovery of natural laws and their application by science. The subject matter of genealogy is history from a very personal perspective. 

Genealogist learn about their families by examining sources. A source can  be anything that contains information about the history of a family. Oral histories, books, documents, photographs, audio and video recordings all become sources. Some genealogists would equate evidence with sources. However, we often find much more information from a source that we do not consider than the amount of information we deem significant. When we find information in a source that we believe addresses the particular problem we are trying to resolve, i.e. gathering information about our families, we remember or record that information. At this point, since we consider the information we have gathered to be pertinent to our inquiry, we call it "evidence." The term itself is vague and used in almost all inquiries such as law, science, and even in everyday conversation. What we mean when we adopt information from sources by the term evidence is that we have selectively determined that certain information helps us to resolve our inquiries into solving the problem of determining our ancestry.

Historical information is by its nature difficult to obtain, limited, unreliable, contradictory, imperfectly preserved and subject to differing interpretations. As genealogists we realize these limitations and cooperatively have built up a system to attempt to compensate for these limitations in the historical record. As I have expressed in previous posts, borrowing from law and science does not particularly help us in this endeavor. Genealogy is really very personal. We each create our historical and ancestral world view according to our own experience. We often see conflicts in what we perceive as important and accurate and what others consider to be important and accurate. We have no way of resolving these differences because we cannot resort to the courts as in law or to experimentation as in science. We can only try to gather more information and hope to acquire more "evidence." We can also try to persuade those who do not accept our particular interpretation to come around to our viewpoint. 

So here is the process. We have a problem. We need to determine our ancestry. We look at or listen to sources. We extract those pieces of information we feel conform to our world view and call that evidence. We then draw conclusions from that evidence through a process of analysis and review. Some genealogists feel that they have acquired a better system for processing historical information. They then try to assist all those around them in acquiring and interpreting their information. Most of this help falls in the category of methodology and is aimed at acquiring more information and evaluating that information. This methodology is far from uniform, but certain reliable procedures have evolved.

We often use the word "prove" or "proof" in our discourse about genealogy. In an absolute sense nothing derived from historical records can be proved if by that we mean that there is one set of facts that is invariably true. Genealogists (and historians) deal in probabilities. If I claim that I have proved that my ancestor was born in such a place, what I am really saying is that based on the historical sources I have examined, I am convinced that I discovered the ancestor's birthplace. My conclusion which I refer to as proof is nothing more or less than an individual conclusion based on the records I have examined to that point in time. For example, I recently was searching records for the birthplace of an ancestor. In the course of searching for the place, I found a record, made by the ancestor himself that contained a birth date different than that recorded in previously examined sources. Who was correct? Perhaps we shall never know. That is the nature of basing conclusions on historical records. 

Once we have accumulated a certain amount of information, we make a decision that what we have found is "fact." Unfortunately, since our conclusions are based on historical sources, there is always the possibility that additional sources will contradict our conclusions, just as in my example above. People do not like this tentative nature of genealogy and resist changes, even in the face of newly discovered information. Genealogists want predictability and consistency and so they look to science and law as models for how they would like genealogy to operate. 

So what is "evidence" in a genealogical context? Nothing more or less than a personal opinion concerning certain information obtained from unstable historical sources. We only partially succeed in making genealogical investigations and conclusions more reliable.

In the next, and last, installment, I will examine the reliability of records as a basis for forming more reliable conclusions. Although genealogists have a tendency to rely on certain notions of reliability, many of these notions come from the legal profession and do not directly apply to genealogy. 


  1. Wikipedia says "evidence" is anything presented to support an assertion. I think that any record that provides information for, say a birth date, is evidence. The information may be right or wrong, but it's still evidence. The evidence may be direct (provides information that answers the question at hand) or indirect (information that doesn't answer the question at hand).

    It all depends on the question. If my question is "what date was Devier Smith born?" then an 1875 state census record that says he was 35 in 1875 provides evidence (albeit indirect). If a family Bible says he was born 1 May 1842, that is direct evidence. It may be wrong. I have another record that says he was born 1 May 1839. All of that is evidence that we can use to answer the question, and draw a conclusion. I don't think any of those pieces of evidence are "personal opinion" - they can be used to draw a conclusion. The conclusion may be a "personal opinion" based on all of the evidence, or feelings or bias.

    1. If the birth record and the U.S. Census disagreed, you would have to decide which was correct. You would then make a judgment as to which was more reliable. I recently had a conflict between the age represented in a marriage license and the age reported in the next Census after the marriage. I choose the Census record because it showed he was underage at the time of the marriage and was probably lying about his age. When we pick and choose which records to believe, the conclusions are our personal opinion.

  2. That's where the "Proof Argument" comes into play - in the GPS we try to use reason and logic to resolve conflicts in evidence, and then write a reasoned proof argument to support the conclusion. The concept is similar to a closing argument in a courtroom. The GPS clearly states that if you cannot resolve the evidence conflicts then you shouldn't draw a conclusion.

    1. The issue that I am pointing out is that there is no "closing argument" in genealogy. No one is going to make a decision as to whether you are correct or not when you make your proof argument. When you discuss the idea of proving a fact that implies that someone else is in a position to disagree. I'm not arguing against the value of proof arguments of merely the assumption that some conclusion has been reached other than satisfying your own opinion. Thanks for the comments. Looking forward to seeing you at RootsTech.

  3. I'm a bit behind on my reading, but I am glad I saved this one and actiually read it. What you say here is very important.

    Personally, I try to avoid the word "prove" in matters of genealogy. I prefer "demonstrate." Particularly where DNA is concerned.