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

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Check your sources or else

I had a pretty dramatic example of failed source checking today. I was in a class where the instructor used a document as the basis for the discussion. There didn't seem to be a heading on the document and it had no author. The instructor noted that the source was on the last page. There was an incomplete URL but I quickly ran the name on my iPad and immediately got a reference to the document as a fake with a rather simple explanation about why it was a fake. I guess it was poor form, but I raised my hand and explained that the document was a fake. I probably will not be invited back for a second class.

Unfortunately, in genealogy, when you "fake" a source, no one really seems too awfully interested in checking the sources and the false or fake source usually gets copied and recopied without comment along with the bogus ancestral information. This issue is particularly rampant in online family tree programs. There is a simple remedy -- check your sources. If there are no sources, that should be a dead giveaway. If there are sources, check them to see if they say what they are supposed to say.

I have noted this before, but I am still seeing uncounted thousands of family trees on the major family tree sites with no sources whatsoever. This seems to me to be almost impossible. Both and have programs that automatically suggest sources. Even Family Tree has a link that will semi-automatically search for sources for anyone on the tree.

My experience today was pretty dramatic. The instructor (who will remain unidentified) had based his entire presentation on the discredited document. He was taken in because he wanted to believe what the document had to say. We have abundant parallels in genealogy with people accepting bogus lineages simply because they would like to be related to royalty or some famous person. In my own family line, I was told we were related to Daniel Boone but was able to disprove that supposed connection with just a few minutes of research. The whole story was based on the fact that Daniel Boone's mother was a Morgan, our family has Morgan ancestors ergo we are related.

I always try to emphasize the importance of sources, but most of the people I talk to are seemingly unconvinced that sources are needed or even desirable. From my standpoint genealogy is either source based or it is rumor based. There is no compromise here. A lack of sources means no credibility at all with me. Every unsourced name, every unsourced date and every unsourced place is entirely suspect. Every fact, sourced or otherwise, is also entirely open to refutation by the discovery of further evidence. Hardline? Yes. I think this is what is left from being raised in the 60s (no, not as some of my younger friends might say, the 1860s, I mean the 1960s). I didn't reject the establishment per se. I rejected being told something was true until I had tested the truth myself.

I am fully aware that this type of attitude could be considered dogmatic. But to the contrary, it is entirely empirical. In fact, I would likely be considered to be an adherent of constructive empiricism. I am however, not an adherent to scientific realism.

OK, its time to get back to genealogical reality.


  1. "OK, its time to get back to genealogical reality."

    Nope. The previous *was* genealogical reality.

  2. Wow! That is a dramatic example. I'm just curious - was it from a discredited author? Or did you figure out it was discredited just from the source you found? I would love to continue honing my eye for this sort of thing and would love to know more about the process of qualifying these sorts of sources. I have a few in my tree listed for "notes" sake or as working documents, but I can't think of any that are completely discrediting.

    Your blog always arouses my curiosity, James.

    1. The article has a partial source name. I ran that on Google and immediately came up with the information discrediting the article. I hesitate to go into details because the instructor was likely already very embarrassed.