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

Saturday, August 21, 2010

How do we know what we know?

Genealogy is not an exact science. What we know about the historical past and particularly our family is based on our experience. Some of the information is likely very accurate, while it is entirely possible that some of the things we know, or think we know, about our family are entirely false. Whether our beliefs about our family are based in fact or not, depends to a great extent on our system of justified beliefs, that is, those things we "know" to be true from our experience even though we have no objective evidence or proof that they are true.  In many cases, we may or may not be able to differentiate between fact and fiction, since it is experience which creates our system of justified beliefs and our experience may be limited or faulty. 

Evidence of the past is based on our perceptions, coupled with memories and introspection (i.e. thinking about our memories). In addition, we may have as yet unsubstantiated beliefs we can call intuition. All of these combine to form what we think we know about our ancestry.

That area of philosophy that deals with the study of knowledge and justified belief is called epistemology. It is not my intention to delve into the realm of philosophy, but it is important for those practicing in a fact-based discipline like genealogy, to take the time to analyze the basis for our beliefs about our family to the end of rejecting those portions of our justified beliefs that do not comport with reality. "Justification is the reason why someone properly holds a belief, the explanation as to why the belief is a true one, or an account of how one knows what one knows." Wikipedia. The real question is how do we determine a historical reality in light of our human tendency to justify our beliefs and can we overcome that tendency?

I believe that there is an analogy here to the "facts" developed in conjunction with a legal action (a lawsuit) in a court of law in the United States. As a legal case develops, there are many perceptions of reality. The plaintiff or plaintiffs each have their perception of the "true" facts of the case. That perception is only imperfectly conveyed to the Plaintiffs' attorney, who then has a second but different perception of the "facts." At the same time, the defendant or defendants have an opposing perception of the "true" facts, which, of course, differs diametrically from the "facts" believed to be true by the plaintiff. In addition, the defendants' attorney obtains a separate and distinct perception of the "facts." The reason I put facts in quotes is because none of the perceptions is complete or entirely accurate and all of the separate perceptions of the underlying "true" facts are subject to each individual's justification of the facts. Just as we form justified beliefs about our family history, the parties to a lawsuit also justify their perception of the facts to fit their own self interest.

When a case goes to court for a trial or other disposition, the various parties' perceptions interact with those of the attorneys and are presented either to a judge or to a judge and jury. In every case the judge and if present, the jury, then produce their own perception of the "facts" of the case. Are any of these perceptions "true" in the sense that they correspond with some objective reality? No. Most importantly, if none of the facts are contested by either side (if they seem to agree) then the court can decide to adopt the facts without making a separate determination of those facts. In other words, the way the facts are expressed by the opposing sides may become a separate and distinct set of facts, far removed from the "true" facts of the case, whatever those are.

Now an example from the world of genealogical research. Let's suppose you are searching for information about a Great-grandfather or mother and you find a letter talking about his or her birth written by one of their siblings (a great aunt or uncle). Many genealogical authorities including some database programs would have you rate the reliability of the letter as a source. The authorities would apply some standard of evidence and evaluate the document as either a original or derivative source and would further determine if the information was primary or secondary and then perhaps evaluate the letter as either direct or indirect evidence of the birth. However, in real life, the researcher is more likely than not, simply going to copy the information into their file and any evaluation of the reliability of the information will depend on the quickly formed justified belief that the information is accurate, just like a judge in a case where there is no contest over the facts. But the transmitted "facts" may, in reality, differ from some objective reality. This situation is especially common if the "facts" contained in the letter seem to agree with the researcher's own perception of the facts, i.e. the date in the letter agrees with the researcher's belief as to when the birth occurred.

Once the perception of the truth of the birth date is written down, the next genealogist in line, will take the information provided by the first and again accept it verbatim because now the second genealogist has a justified belief in its accuracy merely because the first transmission of the facts were not contested and because they were in written form. The tendency of the each researcher in the chain to accept without question the "facts" increases with each transmission. Just as the judge in a legal case has a justifiable belief in the version of the facts presented as uncontested, so the researcher forms his or her opinion as to the accuracy of the information obtained by adopting justified belief as to its accuracy. It should be noted that merely because facts are uncontested does not mean that they are in any way accurate. However, we have a natural tendency to accept uncontested facts. This tendency is so pervasive, that it is an integral part of our legal system.

The key here is that as a genealogical researcher comes across a "fact" contained in some kind of source record, the opposing or contradictory facts are seldom available. So the first instance of the fact becomes the "truth" of the research, just as uncontested facts or law in a legal case become the law or facts of the case.

In this way, facts become ingrained in the history of the family both true facts (i.e. those corresponding to an objective reality) and those facts that are merely justified beliefs.

How do we escape this problem? How do we know what we know? Tune in to my next post.

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