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

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Prove it if you can

Proof is a nebulous concept. In a recent high profile criminal trial the defendant was acquitted by the jury on insufficient evidence, but hundreds of thousands of trial watchers were outraged because they had pre-judged the defendant as guilty and were so upset at the jury that there were threats of violence made against the members. How is it that jurors who are sitting and watching the presentation of the evidence could be so misguided when hundreds of thousands of people who did not have the benefit of having any information other than what was reported in the newspaper, were certain she was guilty? Doesn't it stand to reason that the jury, whose members had no stake in the outcome of the trial, were in a better position to judge the proof than those who obtained the evidence second or third hand? What do we really mean by the term, "proof?"

How is it that genealogists can accept the flimsiest of second hand drivel as Truth, with a capital T and then go on to argue about the format of source references? I don't really think there is an answer to that question, but I think there is a lot more to proving a point than simply sticking on a couple of source references however formatted. Why can a court of law spend weeks on a case while both sides try to prove that their position is correct and genealogists feel that they can resolve equally as complex matters with a single reference to a U.S. Census record? In court cases, we often hear references to the weight of the evidence, you can't weigh the evidence if the evidence has no weight.

I frequently hear comments from less experienced genealogists that there is no need to look further, because they already know all the facts and have all the evidence, when it is painfully apparent that they have no verified sources whatsoever. All of their information has come from secondary sources, which would be considered hearsay in a court of law and stricken from the testimony. I am not advocating that genealogy become more like law, but I am questioning the sufficiency of what commonly passes as genealogical evidence.

We do have some standards for genealogical evidence, but they are neither widely known nor widely observed. The summary of The Genealogical Proof Standard is as follows:
  • a reasonably exhaustive search;
  • complete and accurate source citations;
  • analysis and correlation of the collected information;
  • resolution of any conflicting evidence; and
  • a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion. 
I don't want to sound like I am wringing my hands in despair, I am merely commenting on the state of affairs as I see it virtually every day as I  participate in various aspects of the genealogical community. If genealogy were a baseball game, most of the players would never make it to first base, i.e. a reasonably exhaustive search. In fact, most of the players would not even be aware of the game or that they were or could be players.

What I observe on the larger, national and international scale is a relatively small elite of hard working and somewhat intense researchers who either knowingly or instinctively adhere to the proof standard in all of their work. On the other hand, those diligent researchers are few and far between out here in the day to day world of the average researcher, most of whom do not even guess the existence of the alternative universe of well documented and accurately cited genealogy.

In the last day or so, I had a conversation with a not-too-distant cousin, who was entirely unaware of any of the issues or research the exists in our shared family line. This is unfortunately the rule rather than the exception. I am immune to indifference and ignorance in the non-genealogical community, but I am still genuinely disturbed when those that claim to be looking for their family members are so completely alienated from reality.

This week I got into an almost perfect example of this whole issue in my post on A Genealogical Reality Check.  The question is simple, did Daniel Boone (the famous frontiersman) live in a place now called Booneville, Kentucky? Why is this important and who cares? Well, let's say you are trying to establish if your ancestor lived in Booneville or was associated with Daniel Boone? This question might be relevant to any number of other issues involving the identity of more remote ancestors such as parents and grandparents of the Boone associate. So where did Daniel Boone live and is there any documentary evidence about his association with Booneville, Kentucky?

I will have to continue this post at another time.


  1. I don't have much of a Genealogical Proof Standard for anyone in my family files as yet, but I AM aware of that. I am hard at work on the exhaustive search and complete and accurate source citations. I still have lots to learn about both of these steps, but I do understand the basic reasoning for them.
    But I'm pretty much in the dark about the remaining three steps. I don't feel that I'll know when I've achieved them; I don't feel that I'll understand when I "get it right." (Although I do understand that there may be more evidence later that may change today's "got it right."

  2. I wish I would have seen this post prior to my blog today, about Using Census Records: Why We Need to Understand. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Wonder if it was because the jury was sequestered 24/7 for the whole of the trial without access to anything or anyone but what was presented to the jury in court?