Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The fast-moving world of dead people

You do already know that one of the many aspects of Elizabeth Shown Mills's on-line presence is a series of QuickLessons at Evidence Explained. Right?

QuickLesson #8, "What Constitutes Proof?" is a careful eleven-step account of how you get from zero to a conclusion in a genealogically sound manner, based not on a single document but on an argument involving a body of evidence drawn from numerous documents. (Read the real thing.)

The other day I ran into someone who claimed to like QL #8. Having praised it, the commenter proceeded to disagree with its main point. He thought that there should be a twelfth step in which the researcher crowns the case by producing a document containing definitive proof. Otherwise it just didn't feel "proved" to him. (I may be doing him an injustice, but I can't check as his comment has since disappeared from that particular forum. I bring it up here because I know many people feel this way whether they choose to say so in public or not.)

The idea dies very hard that proof is out there and all we have to do is find the key document that tells us the unquestionable unvarnished truth. I suspect that this misconception helped draw many of us to this field in the first place -- a sense that in genealogy (unlike, say, history) we could find "real proof" of past facts, some solid ground that would not change with new evidence or interpretations. Well, good-bye to that. Like any other legitimate discipline, genealogy requires multiple independent sources, preferably original -- and when they differ, as they often do, then evaluating and analyzing each, correlating them together, and writing it all up in a convincing argument. And results can and do change with new information and new insights. Elizabeth says it shorter: "History offers no certainties. All it offers are relics."

These are not things we expected when we started out. They take some getting used to. I have written elsewhere (in NGS Magazine last year) about the need for genealogists to accept ambiguity and uncertainty in the process of research as well. Not so very long ago we could expect that we could do genealogy more or less forever without having to learn about genetics and DNA. Or that we would never be long away from the smell of old paper and rotting leather.
My daughter-in-law says it shorter, too: "Welcome to the fast-moving world of dead people."

What other things did you (consciously or otherwise) expect from genealogy that have turned out not to be the case? Is the reality better than the expectation? (I would say, yes. YMMV.)

Elizabeth Shown Mills, “QuickLesson 8: What Constitutes Proof?” Evidence Explained: Historical Analysis, Citation & Source Usage ( 20 June 2012).

Harold Henderson, "The fast-moving world of dead people," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 20 June 2012 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]


Sonja Hunter said...

The idea of uncertainty is not new to me as I was trained as a scientist. I actually see many parallels to science. You start with a hypothesis (i.e. I think John Doe is a brother of my gg-grandfather). Then you do your research/experiment and see if your results agree with your hypothesis. If they do, great, you are one step closer. If not, then it's time to re-evaluate the hypothesis. Eventually, you may accumulate enough evidence to strongly support your hypothesis. However, new information may force you to alter your conclusions. At least science is peer-reviewed. Too bad there is no feasible way to peer-review online trees.

Harold said...

Good points, Sonja. Actually we are getting there. The NGS Quarterly and a few other top journals do use peer review to judge and refine publishable articles. And those who want the benefits of peer review before reaching that level can and do form writers' groups where members critique one another's work.