Thursday, July 26, 2018
Genealogy and Proof
The concept of "proof" would seem to be central to making advances in genealogical research. In some areas of genealogical research creating a "proof statement" is the goal of "real" genealogical research. One genealogical certification organization, the Board for Certification of Genealogists, has constructed a detailed "Genealogical Proof Standard."
Having spent a great portion of my life involved in the legal profession and representing clients in the U.S. court system, I have been constantly focused on the concept of proof in many different levels. However, in a genealogical context, the idea of "proof" takes on a whole different dimension.
If you read the publications from the Board for Certification of Genealogists, you will see that the definition of proof used is basically a "sound conclusion." There are entire books explaining how to arrive at such a "sound conclusion." Meanwhile, even genealogical writings that are not related to board certification contain an abundance of legal terms such as proof and evidence. If you take classes about genealogical research or read any of the hundreds of books available, you are likely to find references to the "research cycle" overlaid with references to proving your conclusions with a preponderance of the evidence. You may also find references to gradations of evidence, such as primary and secondary evidence.
As I have written previously, focusing on the legal or professional levels of determining sound conclusions or proof can be frustrating and in many cases less than useful. Meanwhile, through technology, we have developed a method to determine if our conclusions are valid or not.
Before I write about technology, let me propose a hypothetical situation. Let's suppose I am preparing to go to court for a trial. In preparation for the trial, I have gathered as much evidence as I can find. This evidence consists of documents, actual physical objects, testimony from witnesses and my legal arguments in favor of admitting the accumulated evidence during the course of the trial. My actions will be governed by the Rules of Civil or Criminal Procedure in force in the court where the trial is being held. All of this preparation is based on years of study in law school and further years of legal practice. When it is time for the trial, I go to court with my client and all the evidence and present my case to the judge or jury. Hmm. However, all the time I am preparing for trial and during the trial, there is another major factor. The opposing party is represented by another attorney who is just as prepared and trying to prove me wrong. The opposing attorney will present his or her client's evidence and make his or her's own arguments. Ultimately, the judge or the jury will decide my case. I may win or I may lose.
When we are seeking historical information about our ancestors are we trying to prove our case? Who is our client? Who is the judge? Who determines whether I am right or wrong? How can I prove anything in the context of historical genealogical research? When I ask questions like these, I am trying to show the difference between an adversarial proceeding in court and conclusions derived from historical research. There are no genealogical courts or judges. The underlying reason for constructing a "proof statement" in genealogical research is to convince yourself you are right. However, in a professional genealogical context, a proof statement may be used to support publication in a professional genealogical journal or to satisfy a paying client.
In my years of experience in the courts, I have been forced to provide the judge or jury with reasonable and well-supported arguments based on my personal conclusions. If I am successful, I have proved my case. Some attorneys claim they have never lost a case. I suggest that such a statement cannot be true unless the attorney has withdrawn from every case where an unfavorable decision was possible.
Likewise, even well reasoned and supported "proof statements" made about some ancestral relationship can be questioned and may ultimately be shown to be inaccurately determined. So how does this happen? When was the last time you read a well documented, professionally prepared, genealogical journal article? Have you ever taken the time to read all the footnotes and look up all the source citations? When you did this, did you come to a conclusion that was different than the author's conclusions?
Now, let me switch over to the present state of genealogical technology. Let's suppose that I decided to enter my genealogical data into an online family tree program such as the FamilySearch.org Family Tree. Depending on whether or not I support my entries with sources, documents, and photos will determine whether or not others agree with my conclusions. Should I be surprised that others might have different information and disagree? Let's further suppose that I think I am right. Isn't this merely a conclusion I have come to based on whatever level of genealogical research I have done?
The Family Tree is a forum where we can publish our genealogical conclusions and have them challenged by anyone who might be interested. It is an open forum with an unlimited ability to provide peer review. What about the "crazies" and the "ignorant?" So what? How many crazy people and ignorant people do you think I dealt with as a trial attorney? Including some judges and some juries? The important factor about having a venue such as the Family Tree is that it isn't a narrowly focused set of conclusions wrapped up in a journal article, although the same conclusions can be used in making entries in the Family Tree. By putting your information out there in the Family Tree, you are employing the ultimate forum for discussion and conclusions.
Will you get frustrated? Of course. That is the nature of publishing your conclusions no matter what the venue. What about all those people putting wrong conclusions in the Family Tree? Again, so what? If you want genealogy to be adversarial and conclusory, then put your information in the ultimate venue for review: the FamilySearch.org Family Tree.
Hmm. One more comment. If you are trying to make a living from genealogical research, then you still need to play the game by the professional rules. But if you are interested more in finding your ancestors as accurately as possible, then the best place to do this is in the free-for-all Family Tree.
One last note. In Arizona, where I practiced law, if you represented clients before the Registrar of Contractors, you immediately found out that they did not abide by the Rules of Procedure used by the courts. They had their own rules. It was always amusing to me to see how upset the opposing attorneys, who did not know about this change in the rules, could become when I did not "play by their preconceived rules based on the Rules of Procedure." I see the same reaction to the Family Tree from those who think they can prove genealogical conclusions.The concept of "proof" would seem to be central to making advances in genealogical research. In some areas of genealogical research creating a "proof statement" is the goal of "real" genealogical research. One genealogical certification organization, the Board for Certification of Genealogists, has constructed a detailed "Genealogical Proof Standard."
Having spent a great portion of my life involved in the legal profession and representing clients in the U.S. court system, I have been constantly focused on the concept of proof in many different levels.
If you read the publications from the Board for Certification of Genealogists, you will see that the definition of proof used is basically a "sound conclusion." All of these terms when used with genealogy are extremely vague and subject to personal interpretation.
However, in a religious context, the idea of "proof" takes on a whole different dimension. Obviously, much of my interest in genealogical research is religiously motivated.