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

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Does it all boil down to accuracy?

I got quite a storm of comments and blog posts from my recent post on inclusion or exclusivity. One comment in a post entitled "Inclusive or Exclusive? How About Just Accurate?" from Blogger Jenny Lanctot pointed out that "In my opinion, exhibiting professionalism in genealogy doesn’t mean that the folks who are researching only for themselves need to run out and get a degree in history. It means that researchers WANT their research to be accurate." She made several other statements that are starting me thinking, but I thought it interesting to address the issue of accuracy.

Presenting the dichotomy between the professional and the beginning genealogist as an issue of accuracy is overly simplistic. Part of the reason for this simplification is the assumption that professionals are de facto more accurate than beginners. Once again referring to my long background in a certain profession, I can say that a professional license does not guarantee accuracy. This of course, brings up the question of who defines a professional. Are "professionals" simply anyone who does good work at a high level of "professionalism." Or is this merely a circular argument?

I use lawyers and doctors as examples of organized professionals. In the not too distant past, neither of these current "professions" was at all regulated. In essence anyone could become a doctor or a lawyer by studying for a while and putting out a sign. The process by which these "unregulated" professions became regulated is long and involved, but the end product is that many states have "unauthorized practice" statutes that prevent non-professionals from practicing those "professions." Talking about professionalism in general begs the issue. My point is that genealogy is basically different than either medicine and law and I disagree with those who would move towards the legal or medical type of certification for genealogy. I have also pointed out that this type of regulation is extremely unlikely to happen because of the vanishingly small number of "professional genealogists" compared to other regulated professions.

Now, back to the issue of accuracy. Anyone who has looked carefully at a few dozen online family trees immediately realizes that accuracy is a major problem in genealogy. But isn't this just an artifact of a basically populist movement? There is absolutely no threshold of accuracy for submission of any information at all to an online family tree. In fact, if you search some of the online family trees carefully and know what to look for, you will find all sorts of contrived and imaginary family trees, some of which were created simply as teaching examples. I also know several "genealogists" who have been doing research for years that claim pedigrees back to Charlemagne and Adam. Is this accuracy? Now if you equate professionalism with accuracy, you can make the argument that accuracy is good, professionalism promotes accuracy, therefore professionalism (however it is defined) is good. Of course, to get to that point, you have to accept the inherent and assumed definitions of accuracy.

Accuracy is a slippery term. You can be completely accurate and completely wrong. The term is used in, at least, two completely different ways. Accuracy in the historical sense means reflecting or conformity to the facts. Accuracy also means precision or exactness in measuring. The second definition does not necessarily relate to genealogy as much as the first. The reason accuracy is slippery is that history doesn't always present us with the facts in a nice, neat package. It is not uncommon that names, dates and even places are recorded inaccurately. So do we copy inaccurate information accurately? Who determines what is accurate and what is not? Don't we come back to the Genealogical Proof Standard, rather than accuracy per se?

Focusing on the issue of exact measurement for accuracy, in science and specifically in quantum mechanics, the uncertainty principle is any of a variety of mathematical inequalities asserting a fundamental limit to the precision with which certain pairs of physical properties of a particle known as complementary variables, such as position x and momentum p, can be known simultaneously. See Wikipedia: Uncertainty principle. Accuracy has its limits in science as well as history.

Promoting a movement towards accuracy in genealogy is tantamount to promoting motherhood and apple pie, it is a goal no one would rationally disagree with. I preach, teach and expound on accuracy every time I get a chance. But simplifying the issues I raise about elitism to a basic argument about the need for accuracy ignore many of the issues I am concerned with.

Genealogy needs more emphasis on accuracy. But accuracy has nothing to do with what was for me the core problem that started this discussion, that is claiming ownership of genealogical information.

There is never a last word.


  1. James, I read both of your columns with interest. I have been working on my family's history since I was a young lady, and I have tried to do good, solid work on my tree (backing up as much as I can, gathering suspicious data and trying to prove it one way or the other, drawing the kids of the family in, collecting the family stories, and generally trying to catalogue all of those nameless photos and trying to figure out who they are). I've given a few speeches, been hired a few times to gather data, and even volunteer for some genealogy organizations, and many, many people have encouraged me to become a "professional" genealogist or join an organization such as APG.

    But...there are two pieces of the argument to become a "professional" that really hold me back. 1-is I can't be 100% sure of everything in my tree being pristinely accurate. I'd probably say its 75%, 10% in need of documentation, and 15% family story that we're still unraveling. It seems like the air of the professionals around me is that their work is better than my own, even though I would be willing to bet that their accuracy ratio isn't much better than my own.

    2-is that I have seen how the "professionals" act around one another, and I can't say that I want to be a part of their group. With all the elitism, arguing, and what I would generally call undignified behavior turns my head away from them.

    I like the idea of a professional credential, in order to be able to tell what's the "gold standard" in the field and give me some way of judging qualifications when hiring someone. In nursing, the field I most often interact with, it is said that the certifications that a nurse can get give their employers an idea of their level of professionalism. I could easily see that same idea being used in genealogy, with a standard set of credentials rather than forcing folks to become licensed. A genealogy credential should be permanent, like MD for doctors - you keep it as long as you earned it, not because you pay some association for the right to use their name.

    If the "professionals" are really worried about their dwindling numbers, I think that would be the model I pursue, and go to some retreat for a week, hammer out the terms, and be done. This endless arguing is what turns me, and I'm sure other people, off from pursuing it.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment. You express this issue much better than I could have done.