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

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Essence of Proof

In the past, proving a family relationship in the area of genealogical research has been compared to the methods of both legal and scientific proof. Both comparisons have basic flaws. From one professional standpoint genealogical proof has been characterized as a methodology rather than an absolute. This way of characterizing proof also has its flaws. As yet, I find no completely adequate definition of genealogical proof. I will explain my concerns and my suggestion for a more appropriate definition.

As noted by Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Baltimore, Md: Genealogical Pub. Co, 2007 beginning at page 18, "Modern family history (aka genealogy) draws heavily from law in its handling of evidence. However, family history standards require a higher level of proof than does most litigation." Mills goes on to state, "Modern standards for family history also require more precision and rigor than commonly applied in the social sciences (does she mean history? My comment), where individual oversights or errors on common folk tend to cancel each other out in the broader interpretations of society." Further on, in the same chapter, she also says, "Unlike science, however, genealogy accepts no margin of error."

On the other hand, in Greenwood, Val D. The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy. Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Pub. Co, 2000 beginning at page 8 states, "Genealogy will reach its proper place of respectability among the sciences only as we, its devotees, adopt sound scientific principles in our research." Later on the same page, Greenwood goes on to state, (emphasis in the original) "Thus, to the definition of genealogy given earlier, let me add the word scientific and say that GENEALOGY IS THAT BRANCH OF HISTORY WHICH INVOLVES A SCIENTIFIC STUDY FOR THE DETERMINATION OF FAMILY RELATIONSHIPS."

So here we have the various opposing views of genealogy that it is related to law, social science, scientific history or more "rigorous" than either law or science.

Is genealogical proof similar to (or more rigorous) than legal (courtroom) proof? Analogizing genealogy to law originated with prominent America genealogists who were also lawyers such as Donald Lines Jocobus. Naturally, they saw proof as relating to the process of proving a case in court. However, the analogy is basically faulty. All of the legal rules involving evidence and proof relate to litigation. As Mills observes at page 18, legal proof involves a decision by the court, "then and there." Although that statement is extremely simplistic, the basic idea is sound, proof in court always presupposes that there is a trier of the fact; either the judge or a jury. A decision is usually made, no matter how close the two or more sides may be factually. It is this concept of trying a case to the court or a jury that destroys the analogy of genealogy to the law. There is no genealogy court. There are no "genealogy judges" making a determination as to the winner (prevailing party) and the loser (losing party). As I have noted in various post previously, genealogy is not adversarial. Although disagreements may arise, all of the disagreeing parties can maintain their positions indefinitely with impunity. No matter how much evidence the rigorous genealogist amasses, it can be totally ignored by the most rank beginner with his or her own opinion.

Likewise, any analogies to natural science break down, although there are some parallels, because the essence of science is reproducibility. If I claim a scientific discovery, my fellow scientific colleagues will demand that my results be reproduced. Any scientific discovery must be proved by allowing access to the original. In this way, science deals with facts derived from observations and any similar observation must produce the same set of facts.

How is genealogy different? Does genealogy really accept no margin of error? Is genealogical proof more demanding than court cases?

As a side note, as I look around the genealogical community, I fail to find much in the way of rigor or scientific study and many of the genealogical conclusions that I find are not based on any evidence at all, however derived.

I guess an important question to ask is whether or not we are talking about the rarified atmosphere of professional, journal article writing genealogists or the common generic-brand? Does the existence of a huge number of casual genealogists negate the existence of a rigorous, professional level genealogy? Should we be looking at hobby genealogy as something different than professional genealogy?

After much thought on the subject. I reject the notion that genealogy is analogous or dependent on the legal methodology of proof. I also reject the analogy to natural science. If genealogy is anything, it is social science i.e. history. But it also differs from the current methodology of academic history in some significant ways, but this is a topic for another post.

My question is therefore simple: is there such a thing as genealogical "proof." I fully realize and am well acquainted with the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS). But the Genealogical Proof Standard is essentially methodology. It requires a "reasonably exhaustive search" which is not a method for determining the "truth or falsity" of any proposition but merely a subjective way to encourage investigation. In an absolute sense, I could follow the Genealogical Proof Standard exactly to the letter and be entirely and completely wrong, especially if my initial premise was wrong. I say this notwithstanding the existence of elaborate and well-drafted proof statements that are unassailable.

Before we can go further in investigating proof, we need to know how genealogy defines the truth. So how do we define truth in the context of genealogy? Do we even care about truth? If we don't care about the truth of any genealogical relationship, that is, an exact correspondence with reality, then what do we call the truth and what do we mean by proof?

If you can answer those questions, then you are on the way to understanding what it means to prove something in the genealogical context. If you rely on methodology alone, you will never be assured that you are even seeking the truth.

More later.


  1. Sven-Ove WestbergJune 7, 2013 at 12:55 PM

    It would be very interesting to know how Mills prove a parent child relation. With this statement I do not see how you can do any genealogy
    "Unlike science, however, genealogy accepts no margin of error." . DNA tests has a margin of error, small but it is there.

  2. Color me unimpressed with the Mills Cult of Citation. I edited law review. I know very well how easy it is to fall in love with the form of a citation. But when I started actually practicing law, I quickly learned that citation forms are just a tool. If you can point the reader to where they can find the information to review themselves, that's enough.

  3. Oh, thank you, James! I've been feeling left-out lately with all the hoopla about the Jones book. I agree totally with your GPS views. Following the "standards" and presenting conclusions in a fancy format does NOT guarantee them to be more valid than those in another format or in fewer words.

  4. I once heard someone say "All study of genealogy is founded on the truthfulness of women." That was before DNA evidence, of course.