Sunday, March 25, 2018
Mistakes and Inaccuracy: How Accurate is the FamilySearch Family Tree?
This image of a bullseye target is a metaphor for the accuracy of the entries in the FamilySearch.org Family Tree. A great many of them are dead-on center, but there are a significant number that wander off the target and of course, you can't see the shots that missed the target altogether. But the fundamental questions about the Family Tree involve its present and ultimate accuracy. In addition, the accuracy of the Family Tree is inseparably connected to the overall limitations on the accuracy of any historical research. This is a serious concern because people contrive family traditions and become emotionally attached to an ancestral legacy no matter how historically accurate it might actually be.
Historical research and writing have traditionally focused on broad-brush accounts of nations with an emphasis on wars and other international conflicts sprinkled here and there with tales of a few notable individuals. In the last hundred years or so, the emphasis has begun to change and begun to focus on less prominent individuals and their place in history. Genealogy, on the other hand, has always been the story of families. It is important to realize, however, that genealogy per se has had a checkered past and it is still struggling to find acceptance as a valid historical pursuit. This lack of acceptance of genealogy as a valid academic pursuit lies squarely on its history of inaccuracy wrapped up in myth and legend.
The FamilySearch.org Family Tree is a recent innovation in the longstanding process of bringing family history out of the mists of myth and legend into a semblance of believability. Only recently, as I have noted many times in previous posts, has there been a concerted movement towards documenting family history and traditions in any meaningful way. My own inherited genealogical information is a prime example of a total disregard for accuracy in many respects with whole books published with only a modicum of acknowledgment of contemporary historical sources. Some of our most treasured family traditions have proved to have only a very tenuous connection to the actual historical records that are available and almost every one of my ancestral lines ultimately moves from believability to fantasy.
It is overly simplistic to blame this lack of accuracy on the "availability of records." Some of the information in my own family line appears to be intentionally inaccurate. This occurs when the "researcher" decided to choose a prominent or wealthy family line over one that was more obscure and decidedly impoverished. This phenomenon is also prominent among those claiming royal or noble European ancestors.
A recent comment to one of my blog posts also points out the reality of "confirmation bias." This is the tendency people have to believe what is repeated or appears to have the endorsement of authority. For example, there is a popular inspirational story about one of my ancestors that has been told and retold so many times that it has assumed the level of an undisputed historical fact. When, in reality, it was a story told by a descendant who never knew or talked to the original participant.
Is there really any hope that the information in the Family Tree can become accurate? The answer to this question is a qualified yes. The reliability of the information in the Family Tree is increasing at a rapid rate for recent generations, say within the last 100 to 150 years. Before that time, the accuracy is in a state of chaos. The main reason for this chaos is the lack of systematic genealogical research into the contemporary documents and records. A good example of this problem is the absolute shambles of the information about the original Mayflower passengers and their history in America. There is almost no controversy about the identity and descendants of the original surviving Mayflower passengers and yet this is one area where activity on the Family Tree has become rampant. Accurate and complete research on each of the passengers is readily available, but changes to individual passengers are in a state of complete disarray. Every week when I receive a report from FamilySearch of the changes to my watched people, my ancestor Francis Cooke, a Mayflower passenger, has dozens of unsupported and totally inaccurate changes. There is no rationally defensible reason why this person's history should have any controversy.
It would be easy to dismiss the Family Tree as a failure if you focus on what remains to be supported by sources and made consistent with historical records. Of course, historical records can disagree and people can disagree over the interpretation of those records, but the instances where this occurs are not as common as those instances when the only available records are clear to the extent they are complete.
There are some things we will never know in this life. Much of the information about our families has been lost or reported inaccurately. We just have to live with this measure of uncertainty. But to the extent that historical sources are carefully reviewed and added to the Family Tree, the accumulated information becomes more and more "accurate" in the sense that it agrees with the available historical records. Cleaning up the Family Tree is not just busy work, it is the basic activity of doing genealogy or family history. We may be surprised or even appalled at the loss of some of our cherished family stories or traditions, but ultimately the Family Tree is the solution, not the problem. We can no more expect that mistakes and inaccurate information will disappear from the Family Tree than we can expect a garden to stay weed free or our houses to stay automatically clean.