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

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Even More About Proof, Evidence and Truth

In an article from the Smithsonian magazine entitled "Mind Over Matter," I found the following statement:
Mathematical equations can sometimes tell such a convincing tale, they can seemingly radiate reality so strongly, that they become entrenched in the vernacular of working physicists, even before there's data to confirm them. See Greene, Brian, Mind Over Matter, Smithsonian Associates. Smithsonian. Washington: Smithsonian Associates, July/August 2013, page 27.
Even though this article deals with the discovery of the Higgs boson, the statement has relevance to genealogical research also. Unfortunately, there is no "mathematics" of genealogy. I have suggested in the past that we need to develop a standardized genealogical metadata that would serve approximately the same purpose, but have had little or no response to the idea.

If you think about it, much of what we posit as genealogical researchers falls in the category of theory. Although we may personally accept the evidence we have accumulated as "proof," there are no absolutes and, as I have posted recently, it is unlikely that any historical research, including genealogy, can achieve a significant measure of absolute truth on historical subjects. The statement above gives an insight into the workings of physical science that parallels the processes of historical inquiry. Just as in physics, stories and personal views of the past can become entrenched before there is adequate data to support them.

In the case of the mathematical equations that demonstrated the existence of the Higgs Field and ultimately resulted in the discovery of the Higgs boson, it took fifty years or so of research before the final confirmation. As is common in science, the initial theory was widely rejected and then slowly gained acceptance. As genealogists, we need to realize that some of our most cherished stories from the past may have no factual basis. In the case of the posited theory in physics, there is a peer review and publication mechanism for establishing valid theories. In genealogy, a similar process exists, but it is closed to all but a very small minority of genealogists. If I were to try and write an article, any article, for one of the established genealogical journals, it would likely be rejected out of hand. What is this?

Physics, unlike genealogy, is an established academic discipline. Publication is the way of advancing in the academic world. I am speaking from experience having participated in the process of publication in the field of Linguistics in the past. But genealogy has no established academic system. The accredited and certified genealogists have created their own closed system that is only very partially acknowledged and accepted generally among all genealogists. As a matter of fact, very few genealogists are even aware that such a system exists. The contrary is true in a physical science such as physics. All physicists are part of their own system. Because genealogy has no such centralized culture, the accredited genealogists act more like a social club than an academic culture.

Why would anything I wrote be rejected? Likely on purely formatting and stylistic grounds. So can genealogy achieve a breakthrough like those in physical science? No. Simply because there is no mechanism for this to happen. A widely related and repeated story, no matter how baseless, will never be corrected in genealogy.


  1. Interesting thoughts James. However, a theory in physics doesn't become more or less true simply as a result of peer reviews in journals. They may help with faulty logic, calculation errors, or failure to handle existing evidence. However, it's experimental evidence alone that should have the final say. If a theory contradicts the evidence then it is either faulty or totally wrong. In the case where multiple theories can explain the available evidence then they may be mathematically equivalent (like wave functions and sum-over-histories in quantum theory) or fundamentally different. In the former case, the more "elegant" tends to persist. In the latter case, the theories are asked to make predictions which the experimental physicists can then test.

    As I know you're about to say (smiling here), there is a strong genealogical parallel to all of this. What I would add, though, is that physics is not always the ideal it should be. Sometimes, a theory is rejected purely because the person is not "accredited" to the right level, or is so far out on a limb that the mainstream folks are deriding of it. There are historical cases of this, and some are very embarrassing. It's therefore all more surprising and welcoming that Albert Einstein, a patent clerk, was able to submit his Special Theory of Relativity as he did.

    As my father used to say when I was young, no one is guarenteed to be right simply because of the letters after his name, or the uniform he happens to wear.

    P.S. Where's this suggestion of a genealogical metadata? It sounds very interesting.

    1. I began a series of blog posts some time ago and got little or no response to the idea of establishing a common metadata for genealogy. I still think this is a good idea. In a sense the proponents of GEDCOM X and the Family History Standards Organization (FHISO) are both grappling with same idea in a different format. I think the metadata should extend to rating the level of genealogical proof achieved in any evidence statement.

  2. While I agree with much of what you say, I am unsure what you believe the long-term implications are.

    Does the lack of a mechanism like those in the physical sciences matter? Yes - because right now, "a widely related and repeated story, no matter how baseless, will never be corrected in genealogy". Should we therefore give up and go home? Certainly not - if you believed that, you wouldn't be teaching and helping in the library and I wouldn't be typing this.

    It seems to me that one critical aspect is the sheer lack of numbers. Do I really mean there are few genealogists? Yes - there are hundreds, if not thousands, of physicists involved in looking for the Higgs Boson. How many genealogists are looking for my 4G GF James Bruce (abt1754-1819) of Dundee? Based on my contacts, I reckon there have been four people doing original research into him - and two of those are dead. Certainly, I've been in contact with others of his descendants, so there are other potential researchers out there, but I've told them of my struggles to get beyond him and suspect that, as none of the others carry the surname Bruce, they've (sensibly) prioritised other lines. Of course, there could be others - I just don't know.

    It seems therefore that a genuinely collaborative platform allowing us to contribute and compare our work is the only way to take that first step towards real discussions rather than edit wars. So far I don't see anyone doing this.

    1. If FamilySearch Family Tree rises to its potential, it can act as a clearing house or collaborative platform. But right now, it is bogged down in resolving the shared data issues with

    2. Talking of collaborative platforms Adrian, I have a detailed design for a simple but novel one that I'm thinking of passing to a commercial organisation (for free). I would like to have invested effort into it myself but I have too many irons in the fire these days. I'm still thinking of who to approach, and how, in order to prevent it being simply junked.

  3. James:
    I believe you have used the word "theory" as non-scientists would: indicating unfounded or unproven supposition. Theory (as I understand it) in science actually means a view of how the world works that helps explain the phenomena one is studying. Hypotheses are cause and effect statements logically derived from theories. They enable scientists to test theoretical constructs.

    Thus far, there are no "theories" posited or used in genealogy nor are there any hypotheses that have been derived from theories. That could be one of the reasons genealogists generally get little respect in academia.