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

Saturday, April 16, 2016

End of Line -- Speculation or Reality?

Some time ago a commentator to a post I wrote accused me of being "unprofessional" because I failed to adequately prove, to the commentator's satisfaction, that one of my family lines as shown on the Family Tree was extended beyond any possible historically supported conclusions. My point, at the time, was that all family lines on all human pedigrees reach a point where the next ancestral generation cannot be supported by any reasonable documentation. In addition, I would suggest that these unwarranted extension of family lines are the result of pure fabrication on the part of the "genealogists" who insist on adding these lines to their family trees.

Of course, the difficulty in "proving" that no connection exists in the next suggested ancestral generation is a matter of personal opinion and conjecture. As little as I would like to do so, I am going to resort to a legal analogy. In the world's systems of legal justice for criminals there are two opposing approaches: the accused can be assumed by the court to be guilty or the accused can be assumed by the court to be not guilty until guilt is proven. The degree of proof in the second instance depends on the severity of the crime. Our tradition in the United States is called the "presumption of innocence" and is viewed as a fundamental right. It is expressed in the law with the Latin phrase, "Ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat (the burden of proof is on the one who declares, not on one who denies)." This is recognized as a fundamental human right by the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 11.

As I have pointed out repeatedly over the past years, genealogy is not law. Attempts to make what is essentially historical research into an adversarial system based on quasi-legal jargon such as the use of the words "evidence," "proof," and requiring that conclusions be made so that they are "beyond a reasonable doubt" are entirely unwarranted. Some genealogists adhere to an elaborate system that purports to establish a proof standard and advocate that this standard should be imposed on all genealogical research. However, there is basic flaw in that system or any other system that attempts to impose some standard of proof on historical research. Proof in an historical sense, requires that the researcher draw personal conclusions from his or her investigation of historical documents. The problem with the whole system is that there is no forum for an independent determination of the researcher's conclusions other than the general community of the researchers relatives and peer group. The fact that I can convince other researchers in my peer group that my conclusions are correct does not make the conclusions any more than my opinion.

But with the comments made to me that I referred to at the beginning of this post, there is a more fundamental issue involved in genealogical research than mere assertions of "proof." In law, we refer to this issue as the "burden of proof." Essentially, if a name is added to my pedigree, then who has the burden of showing (proving) that this name represents a real person who is related as a parent to the child?

Granted, genealogical researchers recognize biological, adoptive, foster and step-parent relationships, but regardless of the type of relationship, aren't we assuming that there is a parent-child relationship when we add a successive generation to a pedigree? The fundamental question here is do we assume that the relationship exists or do we assume that the relationship does not exist unless it is "proven?"

What we face is the extreme difficulty of proving a negative. If I say that two people are related, how do you go about proving that they are not related? In criminal accusations, our system of law has addressed this issue by accepting a presumption of innocence. In genealogy, we have yet to define our own position in this regard. Until we do so and until there is a consensus on the subject of the burden of proof, there is no reason to adopt or adhere to any proposed standard of proof. The proposition could be stated as follows:

In all historical and genealogical research the existence of a parent-child relationship is assumed to be missing unless and until the researcher provides a basis for his or her conclusion. 

In other words, if I add another generation to my pedigree, unless I have some reasonable basis for drawing my conclusions and express (communicate) those reasons and conclusions, we must assume that no such connection exists. In effect, this places the burden on the researcher to provide documentation for any conclusion incorporated in a pedigree. Absent verifiable sources or substantiation, the relationship is presumed to be falsely claimed.

Now, if we reach this point, then we can discuss what we will or what we will not consider to be proof. However, because there does not exist a forum for either arbitrating differences or passing judgment on a researcher's conclusions, such a system of proof can never be universally applied. In fact, as is actually the case, such a system will be and is almost universally ignored.

There is one level at which such a system can work however. If a researcher fails to add any substantiation to a conclusion, i.e. adds a name to a pedigree without a source citation, any subsequent researcher can assume that the conclusion expressed by having a name in the pedigree is false and can be removed or ignored. If a researcher adds citations to historical records, then the burden passes to the subsequent researcher or researchers to evaluate and contest the conclusions from the record. Absent such support, the presumption is that there is no support.

I fully realize that such a position would severely "prune" a lot of family trees, but do we really want to continue to live in a world where there is an uncertain demarcation between reality and fantasy?


  1. A very difficult problem. Often, the citation the researcher adds is to another family tree, i.e. the persistence of junk genealogies by overwhelming majority. So just adding a citation is not sufficient. It must be a citation with substance. But that just transforms the problem to deciding how can we evaluate the worth of the "substance".

  2. Merely adding a "citation" which quotes another family tree, especially an online family tree is pretty much worthless beyond perhaps providing some pointers to another person's line of reasoning.

    This is a very, very, very common situation at and shows the lack of wisdom they have in giving "citations" of other trees on the site any weight. Far better to have the Member Connect system available which still allows the connection of trees together but makes it clear that such connections are not proper citations such as a census or probate or mortgage record would be. When considering Familysearch such "citations" are so tautological as to be comedic!

    As you address in your post above, that person was also proceeding from the wrong starting point. It is for the person making a contention to prove that it is correct, not for those disputing the contention to prove it incorrect. There are so many times when people who "debate" in a great many forums need to be told in no uncertain terms that they are talking drivel and that they should shut up. The reason for that harsh treatment being meted out is that said people are proceeding to construct an argument which starts with any of a large number of logical fallacies. Even worse such "arguments" then make huge jumps and come to conclusions with any proper supporting logic or data.

    Those who add unsupported lines to family trees and then moan when those lines are removed are guilty of starting from a logical fallacy, ie proving a negative (which cannot be done except through a proof of contradiction). There are so many places in the Familysearch tree where it is obvious that someone has not thought for a second about what they are doing. A good example of that is children supposedly "born" before their parent's birth! Logic needs to be added to the Familysearch system and other online systems which absolutely stops that sort of thing being created. I don't envy those who have the job of untangling the IOUS later this year when it is finally possible!

  3. I appreciate your comments about some other genealogists wishing to enforce a particular proof standard. I have my “standards” for what I will accept as good enough proof, for my choice to include an ancestor into my tree. Sometimes the data that I used is good enough for a rigorous lineage society rules, sometimes it is “close enough for gov’t work” and rarely does my citation meet all the rules of the various genealogy proof standards and citation requirements.

    If someone else don’t like the decisions I made to add someone to my tree, or not add someone then I really don’t care. This is my hobby, and my interest. I don’t like it when I’m now supposed to follow everyone else’s rules. It’s like quilting. Some people can’t abide polyester or nylon thread. Some people believe everything has to be hand done, others love all machine work.

    I like others, look askance at the bad / unsourced thoughtless trees that show up on Ancestry. But I also don’t want to be bullied by others insistence that their data is more correct than mine. I understand that my focus in genealogy may be different than those trying to create one big family tree, but we need to be sensitive to the fact that there are many distinct truths in history, and some truths may never be known for sure.

  4. "I fully realize that such a position would severely "prune" a lot of family trees, but do we really want to continue to live in a world where there is an uncertain demarcation between reality and fantasy?"

    Evidently from the sheer numbers of mostly-spurious trees, no few persons do not care about such a demarcation. This is why the proposal that sometimes pops up in FS-FT circles, that there be ~voting~ on correctness of purported relationships, cannot be a solution to tree-wars. As you have pointed out, no few tree-creators seem not to have given any thought at all to what they assert. And others just *believe* something, whether read someplace or derived from their own imagination.

    In the future, one publicly accessible tree may stand out as having a higher degree of accuracy than others, but for now what's hosted on the web really is a collection of muddles. Those who endeavor to find the best evidence they can will continue to do so, but they are outnumbered by those who do not.

  5. All of these comments are very thought provoking and interesting. I certainly appreciate the time and effort taken to comment. Thanks to all.

  6. Yes true James, some genealogist do not verify sources and insist on adding lines to family trees, same happened with my colleague. His family extensions were altered on a few genealogy portals, we verified them through with proper citations and references of the family surname, we provided the proof to these portal owners and after some struggle they agreed to correct these faulty and false extensions.

  7. Sourcing is extremely important. I divide sources into categories of importance. Pension records, for example, can contain multiple names, dates, places as well as witnesses speaking about the same family, so they are very valuable. A marriage record stating that Jacob White was born in Massachussets in 1852 WITHOUT a specific location, day, month, or parents listed is a poor source because there will be many, many Jacob Whites living in Masachussets and surrounding states at that time. Family stories are sources that often have very good information that can lead to sources that prove the information, but they can only be relied on insofar as you are able to eventually prove them out. Everyone wants to be related to royalty or someone famous and all it takes is for one family member to sneak in a fantasy to start your tree headed up the wrong path. Surnames themselves can be sources by learning the history and origin of the surname. I use them as a "desperate measure" source when I've hit a brick wall. But even then, the majority of surnames are not spelled the same way throughout history so what once pointed to a Dutch origin will point to an Irish origin when sourcing shows the surname spelled differently prior to the general public becoming literate. I'm surprised at how many people are resistant to believe the spelling of their surname is anything but what they have always known. That prevents them from being accurate because they refuse to believe the spelling has changed. The biggest mistake I see is trying to add a source to someone without a single shrapnel of evidence that the person ever lived in the county or the state but because they share the same birthday and name, it must be the same person. Nope. There are some names that are far too common for you to assume it is the same birthday because they also share the same birth date. The name Hezekiah was very common in the 17 and 1800s though nowadays we would think it was unique. When you are stuck at a brick wall, the more vague sources are sometimes the only clues you have to go on, and they can lead you to more definitive sources, but one should always consider them to be theoretical before applying them to their tree and use them for detective work only. Theories can be helpful, but they need to be backed up eventually by evidence and shouldn't be applied as evidence until they are no longer theories, but proven. I'm still trying to figure out why more genealogists aren't doing their DNA. This has a wealth of information that can help with brick walls. It's not uncommon to find out that your ancestors came from places you never suspected. If you can afford the DNA, do the DNA. It's a source that is very underused.