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

Saturday, July 5, 2014

What is a source? What is Proof? Why do we care?

Genealogical proof is a sticky subject. I have been writing recently about my opinions on the relationship of both legal and scientific proofs systems to genealogy and why I think that it is unfortunate that the terminology for both are imposed is a mistake. But that leaves the issue of the relationship of sources to genealogy and what we call the information derived from our historical investigation.

Let me start with a hypothetical male person born in 1935 in Utah. I could choose any state or even any country, but for convenience I will use the place of my current residence. In my first hypothetical situation, this man is still living and is now, in 2014, about 79 years of age. I say "about" because we have yet to ascertain his exact birthdate and he could be 78 waiting for his 79th birthday or already 79. This is easy because according to our way of counting birthdays, he does not have his first "birthday" until 1936 when he "turns one." It would obviously be more accurate to give his age in years, months and days (perhaps hours and seconds) since the time of his birth, but for convenience, we keep track of years in most cases.

Why do I start by making such a point about his age? Because we are talking about a historical fact, i.e. the date of his birth and then we are talking about a culturally imposed concept, age in years, that is calculated from that date of birth. Why is "age" a culturally imposed concept? For a number of reasons. Most basically because of our Western European imposed calendar system. We define a year as 365 days and so forth. I don't need to go into the entire calendar system, but we need to realize that there are other systems of counting "years" and keeping track of age. We arbitrarily begin and end our days at 12:00 midnight. For a completely different calendar, see Wikipedia: Hebrew calendar.

Back to my hypothetical. What if our hypothetical male person (HMP) was born on 5 July 1935, according to the Hebrew calendar, that date would have been 4 Tamuz 5695. According to our calendar, he would have been 79 on 5 July 2014. How old would he have been according to the Hebrew calendar? The point is that most of what we accept as "common knowledge" about people and their lives, is really culturally based. So let me ask a simple question, phrased in the way most genealogists today would put the question, how do I prove how old our HMP is today? You should be able to see now that there is not a simple, single answer to this question. If I think the answer is simple, then I am making a lot of culturally based assumptions, whether I know it or not.

But let's move on the next level of the hypothetical. In the most commonly used parlance of the day for genealogists, how do I "prove" my HMP's date of birth? Why don't I just ask him? So, I take out my cellphone and punch in a few numbers and in a few seconds, he answers the phone and I say, "How old are you HMP? What was your birthdate? So, I record this information in my genealogical record. In the most basic sense, that short telephone call becomes the "source" of the information I just recorded. But let's move on with the hypothetical. Let's suppose that what he just finished telling me on the phone was that he was 80 years old and was born on 5 July 1934. As I stated, my initial information had a different date. What now? My source (the telephone call) is from the actual person. Isn't the person himself the "best evidence." It is if you are talking about proving a law case. But what does a genealogist think about this question?

The answer depends partially about whether or not the genealogist has bought in to the legal/scientific world view of genealogy or is a historian who looks at historical records. As long as genealogy is mired in either legal or scientific proof systems, there will never be an adequate answer to the idea of proof. Was the response I elicited from the HMP evidence? Here we go again. The term "evidence" is another borrowed legal or scientific term. Don't we just accumulate evidence, evaluate that evidence and formulate a proof statement? Isn't that what genealogists do every day? Well, it is what they think they do in some cases, but in fact, that is an entirely mistaken way of looking at the process. Proof is a subjective term in most cases, but in law and science, proof is specifically defined and used in a way that is entirely foreign to genealogical or historical situations. Does my question to the HMP and his answer constitute proof of his birth date and age? The simple answer is no.

Because the concepts of legal and scientific proof have been so entwined in Western European genealogy for so many years, it is practically impossible to talk about genealogy without using the terms that come from these other unrelated disciplines. Let's go back to my hypothetical phone call to the HMP. What if I now tell you that he is a very conservative and traditionally oriented Jew. Would that change you view of the proof of the question of birth date and age? What if he had really just changed his traditional Jewish birthdate into our current Gregorian one by using one of the available online calculators?

OK, it is time to move on a little. How reliable was our 79 year old HMP's memory? Because I am an obsessive and compulsive genealogist, I keep looking for sources. What am I looking for? I am looking for historical records created at or near the time of the event I am investigating that will give me specific information about that event. So looking for a birth certificate jumps to mind. Because I am a meticulous and educated genealogist (speaking hypothetically, of course), I look at the FamilySearch Research Wiki for Utah and find the Vital Records link. By clicking on that link, I get a chart that tells me that birth records began statewide registration in 1905. So there is a very good chance I can find a birth certificate for my HMP. Why this step? Because we are looking for historical records (sources) that give specific information and we need to know if such a record even exists.

After a little bit of a search and spending a few dollars, I get a birth certificate after consulting the "Obtaining Birth Records Research Guide" from the Utah State Department of Health, Bureau of Vital Records. Assuming I qualify, I obtain the record. Low and behold, the birth certificate shows my HMP was born on 6 July 1937. Now what? What happened to my "proof?" Do I now call up my HMP and tell him he has been celebrating the wrong birthday all his life? Do I chock this discrepancy up to bad memory and go with the birth certificate date?

Let's bring this discussion to a close for the time being. I will have a lot more to say on this subject but this is enough for now. Neither the oral statement nor the birth certificate "prove" anything. Remember, proof is not term that really applies to genealogy. These two sources, the oral interview and the birth certificate, are just that, sources. I record the information they both show in my records and leave it like that. Am I upset or bothered by the difference in the two dates? Not at all. They are separate sources. Am I on trial and feel the need to evaluated my evidence and prove my case? Again, not at all. There are simply two different sources recording two different dates. Am I now forced to dig further and try and prove which date is correct? Well, if someone is paying you to do just that, maybe. But for genealogical purposes you record both sources with the different dates and I start looking for more sources about my HMP. But in the end, assuming I find a number of different sources with the HMP's birthdate, aren't I obligated to "draw a conclusion" and give my opinion as to a birth date? There is nothing stopping me from doing so, but why do I care and why would I spend my time doing that? 

The next post in this series will address the issue of conflicting sources and why that matters. 

1 comment:

  1. I particularly like the last statement of the blog "Why would I spend my time doing that?"