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

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Is Genealogy the Search for Historical Truth?

One of the first things you learn as an attorney is that there are lots of different levels and aspects to the concept of truth especially as you deal with conflicting sets of facts or evidence. Most of the time in litigation, you are dealing with events that occurred in the past in varying degrees. There is really no difference whether or not the event you are dealing with occurred yesterday, last week, a month ago, or even years in the past. To reconstruct the event, you have to rely on evidence, facts and the imperfect memories of clients.

It may well be that in a historical context dealing with facts and evidence; the ultimate Truth (with a capital “T”) may not be obtainable. As an attorney-advocate, you have the truth told to you by your client (or clients). At the same time, the other attorney (or attorneys) in the case is being told another version of the truth by his or her client (or clients). When the case goes to the court, you have the truth as perceived by the judge and if there is a jury, the truth as it is perceived by the jury.  In the end, the truth of the case is whatever the judge or the jury (whoever decides the facts) decides that it is and the decision may not have any resemblance whatsoever to any form of absolute Truth. In addition, the decision of either the judge or the jury may not agree with either your client or the opposing attorney’s client.

As an attorney, if you start to get hung up on the issue of absolute truth in the context of litigation, you quickly lose your objectivity and the ability to adequately represent clients. Your education begins the day your realize that your client is lying to you.

In genealogy we face exactly the same type of predicament. Your perception of the truth may be different than mine and we both may be miles away from the real or absolute Truth of what happened or the relationships involved. If a complete understanding of Truth (the capital letter version) is largely unobtainable, then what is the point or purpose of trying to prove it?

A classical definition of Truth, is called the “Correspondence Theory” where something is defined as true if it corresponds to the way things actually are, that is to the facts. It may well be that truth is the knowledge of things as they actually are or exist, but who determines what actually exists and who determines the facts? The existence of the ultimate Truth, makes genealogists intensely pragmatic. Everything we believe to be true is based on evidence. Prior belief and preconceptions become unnecessary and unneeded baggage. The neo-classical view of truth considers that the correspondence theory of truth is at its core an ontological thesis: a belief is true if there exists an appropriate entity—a fact—to which it corresponds. If there is no such entity, the belief is false.[1]

Because we rely on evidence, we have to make judgments. Because we make judgments, we are forever seeking, and rarely finding, the ultimate Truth, literally because the next piece of evidence we find could refute everything we have previously believed to be the Truth. It is this tentative nature of historical (including genealogical) research that is frequently (almost always) ignored. As an example, those who wish to be inclusive of newly minted researchers are deathly afraid to tell the neophyte that their first lovely U.S. Census record may be totally inaccurate for fear that they will become discouraged before they ever get started. But every one of us, at some point in time, has to deal with the preliminary nature of every piece of historical evidence we can muster. Just as an attorney has to face the fact that his client is lying.

If I begin to question the accuracy of closely held and emotionally involved beliefs about my ancestors, I am branded as a skeptic at best and a cynic at the worst. Notwithstanding the criticism of other researchers or unknowledgeable family members, the only practical way to advance in research is to be a skeptic.

Let’s face it, we would rather cherish our beloved myths than accept the Truth, even when the evidence for that conflicting Truth is overwhelming. Myths are usually stronger than the Truth. We can accommodate this dichotomy by selectively incorporating those sources that we personally feel are “reliable” and conveniently ignoring those that we consider irrelevant. Our proof statement then becomes the method by which we attempt to perpetuate our version of the myth we create, of course including the appropriate disclaimers about changes in the event of subsequent discoveries.

Am I correct when I suggest that in the context of historical inquiry, Truth is unobtainable? Isn’t there a basic flaw in my reasoning? Do you recognize the flaw? This is what it is: as genealogical researchers what we individually believe is immaterial. Genealogy operates in a “free market” system. Your ancestors and my ancestors are likely the same people. Despite my earlier arguments, as genealogists we live in a naturally occurring advocacy system. Why? Because we operate as independent researchers and ultimately, we must reach a consensus. But is that consensus the Truth? Not necessarily, but until that further evidence is discovered, it must be considered to be the Truth in order for the whole system of genealogy to operate. But this still does not mean that I accept the concept of a “proof statement” when such a statement proves nothing but your own opinion based on your selection of the facts.

Asserting that you have proved your historical hypothesis carries no more weight than the conclusions and assertions made by a trial attorney in closing argument. There is always an opposing and sometimes equally appealing argument from someone with a different conclusion.

Despite all this, I do believe that genealogy’s ultimate goal is to establish the Truth of any given set of historical or genealogical facts. At the same time, I believe that achieving that goal is difficult simply by nature of the fact that there may always exist some contradicting evidence, but that collectively, we can achieve a working knowledge of the Truth as long as we retain the ability to keep that Truth from becoming myth.   

[1] Glanzberg, Michael, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Truth, viewed 19 July 2013.


  1. Your definition of truth applies to things in today's news as well. It also applies to history, which can be objective or subjective, it depends on what "side" of the fence you are on.

    My husband and I were living in Europe and we were having a discussion about ethnicity. I told the woman (from England) that I was German and Irish and she replied that being Irish was nothing to be proud of. My reply to her was it depends on your perspective, I never did speak to her again, I though she was very rude.

  2. Welcome to the world of scientific research James :-)

    This is basically the way that science works too. There is an ultimate Truth but all we have to work with are experimental results and observations. The scientific description of the physical world is overwhelmingly mathematical, although physicists often have an intuitive model of how things work. It may well be that the ultimate Truth is outside of our comprehension, as with some unchanging Permenidian universe ( but a mathematical description avoids metaphysical questions. Some physicists believe we should be content with a working mathematical description.

    The genealogical analogy is that we may have a working theory that correctly explains the available evidence. That may get revised in the light of new evidence, or deeper thought, but it is still a working theory, analogous to a scientific theory. The ultimate genealogical Truth would require knowledge of what was in the minds of our ancestors but that is not going to be accessible, even if they left an autobiography. It is therefore analogous to metaphysical questions..

    In summary, a working theory is as good as it can get (IMHO).


    1. Yes, I can see you point. Unfortunately, some genealogical researchers believe their view of the facts to be the only possible one.

    2. Oops, typo! I should have said "Parmenidean" there. I'm using someone else's keyboard but it feels like someone else's fingers too.