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

Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Elements of Research -- Part Seven: Can You Reproduce It?

Back in 1989, two scientists working out of the University of Utah claimed to have discovered a way to create nuclear fusion at room temperature. Once the supposed discovery was made public, hundreds of other scientists attempted to replicate the results. Eventually, their work was almost entirely discredited. See Wikipedia: Martin Fleischmann. The core of this scandal was the issue of a lack of reproducibility.

I have been looking at a few of the entries in the Family Tree going back on some of my ancestral lines. My interest was to search for the Data Problems icons and see if they could be resolved. As you can see from the image reproduced above, I didn't have to spend a lot of time looking. I had already solved two such situations by doing some additional research when I ran into this one. The husband here is listed with six different wives and a total of 37 children. Most of these appear to be duplicates. What makes this even more interesting is that there 14 sources listed.

If we did nothing more than count sources, we would have to believe that the research showed all 6 wives and all 37 children. It only takes a few seconds of review to discredit both the sources and the conclusions. What I find even more interesting is the he was christened 10 days before he was born!

He was not only christened before he was born, his mother traveled about 331 miles to New York to have the unborn baby christened. He was not much of a traveler after he was born, since he supposedly died and was buried only 32 miles from his birthplace.

As silly as it may seem, this example really points out an important lesson. If you are going to do research, in genealogy or any other subject, I suggest you may wish to learn to read and it wouldn't hurt to learn how to think either. I know. I am being very facetious, but facetious or not, there is an important thought component in the research process. Although Emerson observed that "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," despite that adage, consistency is the basis of reliably conducted research.

Now back to cold fusion. If we publish our thoughts and conclusions before they are adequately supported by our documentation, we are putting ourselves into the position of those poor souls who believe in pre-natal christening. There seem to be untold minions of genealogists who believe that any record that mentions the name of an ancestor automatically proves its contents. In the case above, this type of conclusion extends to similar names also. As a matter of note, I do not even know if I am related to this person, Joshua Whitney, since my own research on that particular line ends with Samuel Shepherd, b. 1732.

I feel I must also point out the on the Family Tree, that particular line continues back a dozen or more generations to Sir Baldwinus DeWhitney, b. 1140 whose father's name is Emrys, b. 1120. Oops, I failed to see one more arrow with more generations, I am now back to the Earl of Eygos Exroy who was born before 1060. It is comforting to know that based on that unsubstantiated entry of Joshua Whitney, b. 1635, we can assume to go back on that shaky foundation all the way to the 11th Century. Oh, did I mention that Joshua Whitney's grandfather, Thomas A. Whitney, b. 1563, has 69 children by one wife and his father, John Whitney, b. 1592, had 48 children and 8 wives. Prolific ancestors, no wonder I have so many cousins.

Let's just say that none of this has even a shred of resemblance to research. I note that there is not one substantiating source listed, legacy or otherwise, that connects any of these people together into a pedigree.

Why am I writing all this about research? Apparently, there is a limited amount of it around and what there is hasn't seemed to make much of an impact on our greater genealogical community. Maybe that is the reason.

Previous installments of this series include:


  1. This may be one of the myriad composites supplied by computer algorithm from new.FamilySearch. It is one of untold numbers of horrible items created in FamilyTree from that database. I have not looked at the person page, but aside from the possibility that the last-listed "source" may have been added by a person, yours may be the first human brain to look at this person's material in decades.

  2. I try not to be too judgmental on other people's trees. I know mine has errors. Some of my errors may be data entry. Some may be incorrect conclusions I came to early in my research. I know I don't have the number sense that most people have to see an obvious date issue. Thankfully my computer program has caught me more than once and I looked again to find I had mis entered a number.

  3. One more thought about messed up online trees. I think we need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. A tree may look like it has nothing to offer due to mistakes in it but if we carefully shift through the info we may find a clue of some where new to look and that clue might help us with our research.

  4. After reading all the parts of the series, the question I have is, when you have an example like the one above, how do you clean it up? Some are easier than others, like when there are just a couple sets of parents and two of them are incorrect, but when there are many parents it is sometimes difficult to know what to do and where to even start.

    My tactic has been to concentrate on the person I am interested in and clean the data up as best I can, working on making the data "better." In time, the data gets there, but it is so easy to get lost in the chain of "dirty" data that you forget how you even got where you are.

    1. Most of the issues with multiple parents are either duplicates or bad research. The key is making a positive identification of the people involved and cleaning out the rest.

  5. I understand, but easier said than done. Many are duplicates. So I combine. Then I see that some of the children are duplicates. So I go to them and combine. As i go, I try to add sources so at least there is something attached to them. Then there are duplicate spouses, which again produces duplicate children and it goes on and on.

    I have found though that once I get a family cleaned up with at least some sources, the data stays pretty clean and there aren't as many new duplicates that show up. It just is a long, long process.

    1. Yes, I have seen all that and worked with it also. It helps to start with the children.