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

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Comments on Becoming an Excellent Genealogist -- Chapter Four

This is an ongoing series of chapter by chapter comments on the book,

Meyerink, Kory L., Tristan Tolman, and Linda K. Gulbrandsen. Becoming an Excellent Genealogist: Essays on Professional Research Skills. [Salt Lake City, Utah]: ICAPGen, 2012.

I am now commenting on Chapter Four: Avoiding the Assumption Trap by Apryl Cox, AG.

This short chapter covers a very broad area of concern among genealogists, that is, making unwarranted assumptions based on unsupported traditions, rumors, lack of sources and any other limitations on credibility of the data. It sounds like the author of this chapter thinks like an attorney or a Cartesian philosopher. From Wikipedia: Cartesian doubt:
Cartesian doubt is a systematic process of being skeptical about (or doubting) the truth of one's beliefs, which has become a characteristic method in philosophy. This method of doubt was largely popularized in Western philosophy by René Descartes (1596-1650), who sought to doubt the truth of all his beliefs in order to determine which beliefs he could be certain were true.

Methodological skepticism is distinguished from philosophical skepticism in that methodological skepticism is an approach that subjects all knowledge claims to scrutiny with the goal of sorting out true from false claims, whereas philosophical skepticism is an approach that questions the possibility of pure knowledge.
 It is apparent that methodological skepticism is a healthy attitude for practicing genealogists. There is a difference between citing a source and accepting a source as evidence of the facts contained therein. From time to time I am confronted by a researcher who is distraught for the reason that he or she has encountered conflicting sources. However, conflicting sources, like conflicting testimony in a court case is inevitable. But unlike a court case, there is no third-party judge examining our genealogical research and giving us an opinion of its truth or falsity. Unfortunately, even in law where judges are very real and required to pass judgment, they may be wrong.

As we gain a measure of sophistication in our genealogical research we begin to appreciate how common it is to find unwarranted conclusions, not only in user contributed family trees, but also in scholarly journal articles. It is not unusual to find overwhelming documentary evidence rejected out of hand by those possessing the flimsiest of unsubstantiated opinion.

One insidious assumption pointed out by Apryl in her chapter is that our ancestors conformed to societal norms. Anyone who has traced their family lines back to a convicted criminal must realize that not all of our ancestors are going to be found in comfortable normalcy. They can very well be people of unusual habits and beliefs.

As usual, this chapter gives much in the way of food for thought. I am finding that this entire book so far should be read and studied by any serious genealogist.

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