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

Saturday, June 25, 2011

From Information to Data to Facts to Evidence to Proof

A classic example in today's world of gathering information is watching the stream of consciousness flow by on Facebook. Although, you may be fascinated by the flow (or addicted to it) what you are seeing is pure information. I would not even classify it as data since the organization imposed by Facebook doesn't lend itself to any further use or analysis. Researching in genealogy should be the antithesis of watching information flow by on Facebook.

Unfortunately, too many researchers using the Internet to try and find their family members, do just that. They watch the stream of information and impose only a minimal amount of organization. Information becomes data when it is organized, categorized and made accessible. Organization itself does not make the data useful. Even hoarders have an organization to their hoarding.

Computers give us all a marvelous tools for organizing, categorizing and making our data available to us in form that can be used in the future to construct facts and ultimately evidence for extending our research. So how do I move from gathering information to creating a database? That is relatively simple to answer, save your gathered information into a program that will impose an organization on it. Use any one (or more) of the generally available genealogical database programs. The program will do a number of things to your information that will turn it into data. First, it will impose a strict organization by family name and individual name. Even if you use the note function of the program to gather information, the notes are usually attached to an individual or even to a specific event. This automatically, almost, gives the information status as data. At least it will if the information is even remote relevant to the individual or event where it is stored.

Attaching the information to an individual or event (some programs call them facts) requires you to do at least a preliminary analysis of the relevance and appropriateness of the information. You must also categorize the information and will certainly be accessible. I still meet a significant number of people who are taking all their notes by hand on paper. The danger of doing this is that the information loses its character as data unless it is organized, categorized and can be accessed without major difficulty. Few paper genealogists have the organizational skills to do this consistently. My Great-grandmother, who researched her family and my Great-grandfather's family for thirty years, repeated her research at least three or four times, due to her inability to keep track of the huge amount of information she had generated and keep it in a format the made it readily accessible. I can't help but believe that she would have embraced computers and quickly recognized the utility of being able to avoid duplication of effort.

Now how does data (organized, etc.) make its transition to facts? That is a very difficult question to answer because facts are so event and individual related. You probably guessed by now, that I would end up with this discussion referring to the Genealogical Proof Standard. Yes, I am back to that. In law, there is an inherent standard of proof. But in law we refer to it as the burden of proof or sometimes the burden of persuasion. Many non-lawyers automatically association the burden of proof with criminal law but it applies just as appropriately to civil or non-criminal cases. Just so as to avoid any misconceptions, law is basically divided into two large divisions Criminal law or law dealing with acts that are punishable by fines, imprisonment or even death, and the civil law which deals with everything else. An easy way to see the distinction is that all criminal cases in the United States are brought by some division of the local, state or federal government. An individual or entity other than the government body, cannot bring or even file a criminal lawsuit.

So what are the levels of proof in the legal context: they can be listed as follows from the lowest to the highest level of proof:
  • Preponderance of the evidence
  • Clear and convincing evidence
  • Beyond a reasonable doubt (used more frequently in criminal cases)
  • To a moral certainty (not required in very many cases)
  • Absolute certainty (not used at all by any court)
Next time I come back to this subject, I will expand on the similarities and the differences between the civil/criminal standard of proof and the genealogical proof standard. They are related but address completely different issues and are used for divergent purposes.

1 comment:

  1. You're using the terms data and information in the opposite senses than they're normally used. Data is often prefaced with the redundant descriptor, raw, to indicate its character. Once it's been processed and placed into context, it can be considered information.