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

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Genealogical Power of Observation

Rudyard Kipling described a "game" about observation in his book Kim; a book that has passed through hundreds of editions in many languages. Kim's game involves increasing the power of observation. In the TV series Psych, Shawn Spencer learned his power of observation from his father, who taught him to look for details and especially things that were out of place. Adrian Monk is another good example of using observation as are many others, Poirot, Marple and the whole list of other detectives. Current detective/mystery movies and series mostly substitute technology for observation, but it is same principle.

I am very much a fan of mystery stories and I have noted that increased powers of observation are a key element in the makeup of all famous detectives. For example, Sherlock Holmes often solves the mystery by observing some small detail that is not evident to others, including his friend Watson.

If you aren't starting to think about how increasing your power of observation for genealogy, then you should be. You should be able to look at any entry in a family group or pedigree and see anomalies, things that don't belong, are out of place, incomplete, lacking in documented support or any number of other common genealogical issues. You also shouldn't have to rely on a computer program to tell you that the dates and places are not consistent with reality. But how do you acquire this ability? Isn't it something you are born with?

The answer is that it an acquired skill. However, what is commonly seen often defies observation. If you are used to looking at what you have already added to your family tree, you will probably skip over looking at what you have already done with a critical eye. But the ability to keep looking at what we have done and do better is also an acquired skill. I started my studies at the University of Utah as a Fine Arts major in painting and drawing. One of the "skills" they tried to teach me and the other students was the ability to look critically at our own work. We were taught that as we worked we got "tired" of looking at the same drawing or painting until we could no longer see the defects. I have seen that same phenomena when editing posts.

As we become used to the work we have already done, we ignore the defects. The only way to overcome this predisposition is to put the work away for a while and come back to it with a determination to look at it critically and to try to break away from our "blindness of familiarity." We do the same things with the clutter in our homes and almost every other aspect of our lives. For example, we get used to being overweight and just ignore the need to watch our diet.

Unfortunately this tendency to ignore what is common and familiar is a major obstacle to accuracy in genealogical research. During the last few days, I have been reminded of this obstacle many times when helping people look critically at the family trees they find in the online family tree programs. Some might criticize me for being "picky" and overly critical, but accuracy is the major objective of research in any field. Progress in genealogy (or any other endeavor) is in the details. There is an old saying that "God is in the details" and this is certainly true in genealogy.

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