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

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Genealogy and the Narrative Fallacy

The narrative fallacy was most recently popularized in the following book:

Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. The Black Swan. London: ALLEN LANE, 2011.

If you have read this book it would certainly help you to understand what I am writing about in this post, but it is not essential.

The narrative fallacy is our need to fit a story or pattern into a series of connected or disconnected facts. Part of Taleb's essential premise is that we impose our individual explanations on past events based on post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this) reasoning.

Most recently I have been stuck in just this sort of situation. On my Tanner family line, my own research had traced the ancestral line  back to the 1600s in Rhode Island. In 1680, William Tanner first appears as a witness on two disclaimer deeds. Although his existence is well documented and his grave site located, his marriages are unclear and it is uncertain as to whether or not subsequent references are to William Tanner or to a son with the same name. The real mystery is connecting him to his family in England. One supposition is that he was "transported" as an undesirable or criminal to America. There is an extensive discussion of this entire issue on (in the list of people, look for William Tanner).

The narrative fallacy becomes relevant because there are those who purport to connect him to a William Tanner in England. The claim has been published online many times and the pedigree in reflects parents in England. Currently, the Family Tree identifies William Tanner as born in England and married in Connecticut. Here is a screeshot:

William Tanner is identified as William Francis Tanner, Sr. and he is shown as the son of John Tanner born in Bromley, Kent, England, whereas William Francis Tanner, Sr. was supposedly born in Chipstead, Surrey, England. William Francis Tanner, Sr. is currently shown with nine different wives. The name of "William Frances Tanner, Sr." comes originally from the Ancestral File. Part of the confusion here comes from the existence of another prominent Tanner family in Connecticut at about the same time. Here is a screenshot of the book which is readily available from a number of online sources including Google Books and

This Thomas Tanner, Sr. has a son, born in Rhode Island, named William Tanner. At about the same time, there are other individuals named William Tanner in Massachusetts and other parts of the Colonies. Here are a few facts,
  • My ancestor, William Tanner, is not recorded as having a middle name in any record attributed to him. None of the other members of the family had middle names.
  • None of the records produced by the various parties claiming to have connected the Rhode Island William Tanner who appears in 1680 connect him to a family in England. The arguments for all of the records in England are basically that the same name = the same person. 
  • The William Francis Tanner, Sr. born in England is born in a different parish than the John Tanner reported as his father. 
  • William Tanner was a member of the Seventh Day Baptist Church in Rhode Island and this could explain his appearance in America. 
Both my daughter and I have asked for documentation showing the connection between the William Tanner born in Chipstead, Surrey, England and the William Tanner in Rhode Island. I have never had a response to my request for documentation except to claim that they have found the ancestor in England. I am still waiting to see a connection. Now, I am wondering how the John Tanner in England, who is listed as his father, is born in Bromley, Kent, England and is buried in Chipstead, Kent, England. This could all be true, but no one has produced any documentation connecting these various people. 

Now back to the narrative fallacy. The common genealogical fallacy of claiming that a person with the same name is the same person is a very good example of the narrative fallacy. When we do this, we impose our own view of the history without substantiating facts. The fact that a person discovered in a relationship has the same name does not establish a relationship. What is missing in my example is some documentary evidence connecting the English Tanner with the person in Rhode Island. It may be that no such evidence exists. If he were a transported person because of his religious beliefs, he may have changed his name when he came to America and he may not have been a Tanner in England at all. A conclusive record would be one that connects the two individuals, such as finding a Seventh Day Baptist Church Record showing where he came from in England. It would even be helpful to show that the William identified in England was a Seventh Day Baptist and/or moved to America or was transported to Rhode Island. 

There is a lot more history here and the issues become very complicated. Because of the lack of connecting documentation, there is a doubt as to the conclusion. I am not a bad person just because I don't happen to see sufficient documentation to establish a connection. What happens in these situations is that the narrative fallacy created becomes the reality for those who believe the story. A real issue and problem arises when the narrative fallacy imposes its story on the facts to the exclusion of any alternate explanations.

Here is a good example of a genealogical narrative fantasy; what happened to the 1890 U.S. Census Records? If you have bought in to the narrative fantasy, you will reply that the records were destroyed in a fire. Is this actually the case? How and when did most of the records get destroyed? Do you know enough about the history of the 1890 U.S. Census to answer that question?

If you want to see the answer to the Census question, see "First in the Path of the Firemen" The Fate of the 1890 Population Census, Part 1 By Kellee Blake from the U.S. National Archives. 


  1. True, most of the 1890 census was destroyed by order of Congress. But had the fire not happened, Congress would not have ordered the destruction. It was water damage from the fire (leading to mold) that prompted Congress to act.

    1. Not exactly, it was bureaucratic oversight when the Librarian of Congress failed to request funds for the conservation of the records that ultimately caused the destruction. You should read the Archives document above. It took some major blunders to destroy the records.