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

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Fact? Evidence? or Proof?

The past few posts, I have been commenting on certain alleged facts that were fairly easily demonstrated to be wrong. Thomas Famous Morris was probably not born in Booneville, Kentucky and Booneville, Kentucky was not the location of Daniel Boone's settlement called Boone's Station. Where do these facts come from? Why would anyone publish an easily disputed and more easily disproved fact?

Let me back track a little. There are two (possibly more) ways to approach the idea of proof. You can start with an a priori premise or assumption and then try to prove or disprove the assumption or you can gather information, analyze it and then build a case based on the evidence. Both methods have their advantages and pitfalls. The English Common Law system, used throughout most of the United States, is based on the idea that someone will take a position and try to prove it. For example, I am involved in an accident. I am injured. I believe the other party to be at fault. Therefore, I am going to try to collect my damages from the other party by proving my claim in court. In all of these types of claims, the claimant begins the process by making an assumption and then trying to prove the assumption.

Beginning with an a priori assumption is very attractive. But it is also a trap, in a sense, it predetermines how you allocate your resources. You have already made up your mind what you are trying to achieve and therefore you do what is necessary and spend the resources (i.e. hire an attorney) to "prove" your assumption or claim.

In genealogy, making an a priori assumption is analogous to deciding that you want to prove your ancestors came to America on the Mayflower and then setting out to find the connections based on a family tradition even if you have no reason otherwise, to believe that such a connection actually exists. I can assure you that many lawsuits are based on just that amount of factual support.

In our legal system, some unfounded claims are winnowed out by the complex rules of our court system. However, if someone wants to spend the time and resources, even totally meritless claims can be kept alive in the court system for years and years. Eventually, the court system shuts those claims down and the litigation ends. Unfortunately, in the genealogical realm, there are no judges and juries ultimately resolving meritless claims. If I wanted to write a book and claim to be a literal descendant of Daniel Boone, I could do so and no one would be there to question my claims.

So what would it matter, if I published an entirely fabricated pedigree "proving" that I was a Mayflower descendant? Who in the genealogical community would care? I wouldn't expect you to be able to qualify for any of the Mayflower organizations, but you would still have your book! If you think about it for a while, you will start to realize that there is huge body of unsubstantiated claims out there in the world, everything from alien invasions to surviving dinosaurs. If I want to write a book "proving" that aliens from outerspace built the pyramids in Egypt, then who is there to stop me? (My apologies to Stargate).

So, for proof to be a valid concept, you have to have something like a judge or jury to pass judgment on the veracity of the assumption or claims. In the absence of someone fulfilling that judicial function, there is nothing to prevent fabrications of the worse sort. So on a very local and minor basis, if the residents of Booneville, Kentucky want to advertise that Daniel Boon slept (or lived) there, what can anyone do about it?

But here is the counterweight to stop the landslide of manufactured genealogies; along comes someone like me and pokes holes in the assumptions and theories. I have the audacity to ask for proof in the form of substantiated source documents. I have the further audacity to adhere to The Genealogical Proof Standard. All the fabrications and drivel in the genealogical world isn't worth one good documented pedigree with abundant copies of the source documents attached.

So when do I have enough proof if there is no one out there in genealogy land judging whether or not I have made a sufficiently convincing argument? Oh, that IS the question.

See you next time.

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