Friday, January 11, 2013

So You Want to Re-Invent Genealogy? Here's How

Maybe you think the internet has altered the fundamentals of genealogy research. Maybe you think BCG and ICAPGen and the Genealogical Proof Standard are boring and old hat. Maybe you have a new universal theory of everything family, unlike anything ever before thought of. Maybe you want "real proof." Whatever.

I think you're wrong, but you might be on to something. Certainly the Genealogical Proof Standard -- currently the only game in town -- is open to improvement, as is any specific genealogical conclusion.

Of course the odds aren't good. Over a couple thousand years, there were only two real game-changers in physics -- Newton and Einstein -- as compared to who knows how many bogus perpetual-motion machines.

But if you're still up for the challenge, I have a few suggestions that might make your life and everybody else's a little easier.

First, understand what's been done in the past, if only so that you can explain why it was wrong. Even a transformative theory, like Einstein's, included Newton's results within it. Even scientific revolutions don't start from scratch.

Second, don't wallow in outdated and imprecise terminology ("primary source," "preponderance of the evidence") without first acknowledging its issues and explaining how and why it helps.

Third, practice first, preach later. Lay off the endless theorizing and pontificating (at least in public). SHOW US how your new approach is different and better by applying it to a specific family or problem, writing up the results, and publishing them -- in one way or another -- for others to analyze and evaluate. (Actually, the odds that you have something to contribute to the field are pretty good. But in my experience the collective process of figuring out what that something is will go better if we can start with something specific.)

And don't quit your day job.

Harold Henderson, "So You Want to Re-Invent Genealogy? Here's How," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 13 January 2013 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]


Michele Simmons Lewis said...

Bwahahahahaha! You are on a roll this morning, Harold!

Unknown said...

Is this your definitive word? I like the idea of having tangible results first. I believe I will not be reinventing new methods of proof anytime soon. Thanks Harold.

Kenneth R Marks said...


I do not understand who you are upset with. Your tone is rather interesting. I hope that reasonably new researchers are not put off by this tone. The GPS provides for a rational, well developed and documented outcome that can be replicated, which is of course the goal. I am quite puzzled as to who or what writing has instigated this response of yours. There are thousands of people who follow the more experienced leaders of this industry of which you are one. I would hope that you would take that into account so that the newer folks are not intimidated (or confused). Thanks

Harold Henderson said...

Kenneth -- Thanks for your comment. I agree that most folks who know about the GPS try to use it, and that is fine. I had no intention of confusing them. There are also some who don't, who consciously or otherwise try to build their own system. This post was addressed to them and to those who are beguiled by them. Genealogy attracts all kinds, including originals and eccentrics. (It also attracts folks who don't do irony.) This post was definitely not directed at them, and if it just puzzled you please feel free to disregard it. In this case -- as we agree -- the mainstream is more interesting, more useful in solving our families, and more constructive.