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

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Proving your case - Part Two

Why do you think the information you have is correct and that another family member's is wrong? I have been primarily involved in civil litigation. What that means is that I represented clients that thought they were right and someone else was wrong. As an attorney I represented my client's interests. Usually, the other side of the case identified me with my client and so I was vilified and of course was dishonest because I represented the other party who was obviously wrong and falsely claiming to be right.

Eventually, one of three things happened. Somebody ran out of money, died or otherwise quit fighting. The parties got tired of paying their attorneys and got together and settled the case or, the case went to trial and a judge or jury decided the case. Sometimes the judge or jury agreed with my client and then of course, we were right all along. Other times, when we lost, of course we were still right, but the judge or jury was either stupid, dishonest or didn't understand our position.

Any of this sound familiar? I see the same kinds of attitudes among highly possession oriented genealogists. They are right and everybody else is wrong. Hmm. That might be true. It is entirely possible that the opinionated genealogist is right and everybody else is wrong. But unfortunately, there are no genealogy police, courts, judges or juries. So if we think we are so right, how do we prove we are right?

Here is the great mystery of practicing law. How do you represent a client when you know that they are wrong (or guilty or whatever)? In criminal law the answer is simple. Our law system is supposed to abide by the principles of due process and equal protection. Everyone, guilty or not guilty is entitled to representation in court. On the other hand, civil law is a little more problematic. No one has any kind of constitutional right to an attorney in a civil case. In fact, many people represent themselves. As an attorney, I had to represent my client, so I chose my clients based on what I thought were the merits of their case. If I didn't think a client had a chance to win, I didn't take the case. When a client didn't have a case, if allowed to do so, I would explain why I thought the case was weak or non-existent and send them on their way to try another attorney or drop the matter.

Here is the problem with genealogy. We do not have anyone who has the role of an attorney, judge or jury that can tell someone when their evidence isn't good enough. So one genealogist can believe that the family members and births are "proven" by one census record, while at the same time another genealogist my still question the accuracy of the information after logging thirty or forty sources. When is enough, enough?

In law, if we keep going, some day the case will end. No matter how persistent the litigator, no one can keep a case going forever. Somewhere, sometime, a judge will finally decide a party has had enough opportunity in court and end the case. In genealogy, on the other hand, we pass our problems on down to the next generation. Some genealogical issues never get resolved because there is no one around to say "It is over."

So how do you "prove" you are right? It depends. Even if you read all 800 plus pages of Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Baltimore, Md: Genealogical Pub. Co, 2007, somehow you have to come to a consensus with the opposition (it there is any) and agree to disagree. You many be the best professional genealogist in the world and write the ultimate proof statement of all time, but guess what? I don't have to believe a word you say. I don't have to agree with any one of your carefully reasoned conclusions. I don't have to even read your proof statement and I can hold my own opinion based on the flimsiest of evidence or lack of evidence and what can you do about it? Absolutely nothing. Genealogy isn't court and the law. I can't force you to agree with me or pay me money if you do not.

Think about this aspect of genealogy for a minute. I have a family group record with a husband, wife and five children. I have birth dates for most. I have no places of birth at all and I have no marriage date or any other information. When you ask me if I have checked the Census records, I respond, "What is a census record."

In this first case, is there any room for discussion about the identity and personal information of the family members? Of course, you say. How can you tell you have the right family? What if I don't care? What if I think I have all I need to substantiate the family?

You see proof is kind-of slippery. I might think I have all the "proof" I need and you might disagree, but if we are genealogists, how do we determine who is right or do we care?

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