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

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Genealogy and the Narrative Fallacy

The Flat Earth Model
One of the most important and influential books of our age was published in 2007. Here is the citation to my copy:

Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. 2010. The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks.

Quoting from the book:
The narrative fallacy addresses our limited ability to look at sequences of facts without weaving an explanation into them, or, equivalently, forcing a logical link, an arrow of relationship upon them. Explanations bind facts together. They make them all the more easily remembered; they help them make more sense. Where this propensity can go wrong is when it increases our impression of understanding.
Genealogists are particularly susceptible to the narrative fallacy. The distinguishing feature of a narrative fallacy is its believability. Even without realizing it, genealogists tend to be selective in the sources they accept and reject those that do not fit within their preconceived narrative. Once the genealogist has made his or her selection of the facts, the narrative becomes the new reality and any other interpretations of the same factual background are rejected.

In the course of writing this post, I received an email containing an extended and classical example of the effect of the narrative fallacy in the form of a narrative justifying an erroneous conclusion about one of my own family lines. I am not going to repeat the entire email which I received, but here is one statement that illustrates the thought process:
Yes, I know there is a written record for Nathan Tanner showing Elizabeth as his mother. Also in his will, he mentions Elizabeth as "my beloved mother." This is obviously wrong and I might add, is a very common occurrence in the very early colonial records.
The writer of this email is trying to justify rejecting both a birth record and a written will in an attempt to establish a different mother for Nathan Tanner. In effect, the writer is ignoring two separate and independently maintained historical records in order to justify a preconceived conclusion. This is, in essence, the narrative fallacy.

How do we avoid being caught in the narrative fallacy? I suggest that this may be one of the most difficult intellectual attainments. Our worldview is to a great extent determined by our cumulative experiences. While doing genealogical research, we have a tendency to place more emphasis on the documents and records we find supporting our preconceived viewpoints and therefore use those to reinforce our ongoing narrative. Interestingly, the email writer cited above derives support by quoting from a book which he/she acknowledges has no supporting sources and wish exactly contradicts his/her conclusions.

We find ourselves in this predicament whenever we try to justify a continued support of a cherished family tradition when the narrative is contradicted by historical records and documents.

I will be coming back to this topic from time to time as I discover examples supplied by accommodating genealogical researchers.

1 comment:

  1. Good article! At the college where I teach, we use Pearson's RED model for critical thinking: Recognize assumptions, Evaluate evidence, Draw conclusions. As your example illustrates, it can be very difficult to apply logical thinking when family mythology is involved.