Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The "True Source"

There are a few activities where it's socially acceptable to think hard in American society -- playoff contingencies, chess, and genealogy among them. Genealogy can be a window on what I like to call "folk epistemology" AKA how we think most of the time.

Elizabeth Shown Mills includes a list of "problematic concepts" in the indispensable first chapter of Evidence Explained, including "definitive sources, "direct sources," "final conclusions." In his blog Planting the Seeds Michael Hait recently provided us with an amusing tour of several classic fallacies and how they appear in genealogy.

On LinkedIn there has been a usually cordial discussion that never quite dies called "The only TRUE source . . . ", under "Genealogical and Historical Research." In addition to the usual confusions created by the obsolete and imprecise terms "primary and secondary sources," many commenters there seem irresistibly drawn to the notion of a "true source." The term is not defined but it's probably close to ESM's "definitive source." My guess is that -- no matter how often someone tells us the obvious, that any source can be mistaken -- we really really want there to be a source somewhere, like a will or an original marriage record or an official anything, that would supposedly allow us to lay down our burden of proof and stagger off the field.

IMO that runs deeper than actually making a fallacious argument. It's more like an assumption embedded in language itself -- and equally hard to uproot. Happy New Year anyway!

Harold Henderson, "The 'True Source'," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 2 January 2013 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]

1 comment:

Sonja Hunter said...

Thanks for posting the link, Harold! I just keep thinking how similar it is to analyzing scientific evidence. There are many things in my genealogy research that I'm confident in, but to consider some of them proven would be folly. I think it is more helpful to consider a continuum of confidence.