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

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

What you really want to know about evidence

Judge: Proceed with your case Mr. Attorney.
Attorney #1: Thank you, your Honor, I would like to call Mr. Doe as my first witness...

This scene is repeated thousands of times a day across the United States. An trial is being held in a courtroom and one of the parties is beginning to present his or her case to the court or to a jury. Underneath this common exterior, portrayed in countless TV shows and movies, is a complex world of evidence and proof. As genealogists we are also intimately involved in the process of either presenting or reviewing evidence and vitally interested in the concept of proof, whether we know it or not.

The fact that we are unaware of either the process of proving a proposition or theory or the evidence involved in the process does not excuse us from participating, it only means that we do so ignorantly. Every day we do research or examine our files, we are presented with information, data and maybe, just maybe, some evidence.

Many, many times over the past years, I have had clients come in with a huge pile of paper, sometimes banker boxes overflowing. After explaining their claims, they have pointed to the boxes and said something to the effect, that there is all my evidence, as if the weight of the boxes would convince me that they were right and their opponents were wrong. It is a long process, but I have to begin explaining to the client that what they have is a pile of paper, not evidence. It is sort of like counting everyone who comes into a store as a "customer" but really only those who spend money are customers. Usually, very little of what the client has in the box is really evidence of their claim.

As genealogists we face the same challenge. We have huge piles of paper (or the corresponding computer files) but how much of it is really evidence for any of the claims we are making? But to even begin to talk about the subject of evidence we need some basic definitions.

First we need to talk about information. This can be a technical term, but normally the word "information" is used in so many contexts as to be mostly meaningless in the context of evidence and proof. From my standpoint, information is the stream of experiences both physical and mental we receive from the world outside of ourselves. As long as we are alive (and afterwards too) we continue to receive a stream of information. In order to function, we have to organize and select only a tiny portion of the stream of information we receive each day.

So, when you go online to look for information about your family, you are bombarded with huge amounts of extraneous material. By focusing on your specific goals and/or questions, you automatically limit and filter what you are looking for and try to avoid distractions. Information, as such, doesn't really help me much. Going back to the client situation, I usually listen to what they have to say which contains a lot of information, but isn't much use to me. After listening for a while, I begin to ask questions. This begins the process of sorting out the information into something more useful.

Once we begin the process of sorting out what part of the information stream we are interested in learning about, we begin to collect data. Data is factual information that can be used as a basis for reasoning, discussion or research. As an attorney, I take all the information my client has supplied and start selecting out those things that interest me and may help with the client's claim.  For a genealogical example, I may stumble upon a book about one of my ancestors. That book is information. In going through the book, there may be certain facts that I can use in my research. I now have some data. Information is nice, but mostly useless. Facts are nice and sometimes useful. But you will notice, we have yet to get to any evidence. Don't start making the assumption that you have evidence when what you have is a lot of information and some data.

Now what is a fact? A fact is a filtered, selected and most of all useful piece of data. Facts can usually be stated in clear, relatively simple, declarative sentences, such as Doe was born on 21 June 1833. Although, we may have a selection of "facts" we may or may not yet have any evidence and we certainly do not have any proof. To get passed the issue of facts we need some deductive reasoning. This is sometimes called the scientific method, but it is really not just the way scientists operate, it is the way all researchers, whether in law, history, genealogy or whatever have to operate in order to progress in accumulating evidence.

Well, time to take a break and continue again in the next installment.

1 comment:

  1. I am writing a book about the women who helped settle a town in CT in the seventeenth century and your post explains the hard path to writing about our ancestors in a truthful way. Unfortunately the lack of information makes it necessary to draw suppositions from what we learn from the known facts.