14 May 2014

Genealogy has lively moments ... for the sake of argument

For newbie and experienced researchers alike who thrash away doing our best to produce quality family history, it’s a good thing we have Thomas W. Jones and his ilk. Jones’ latest publication is called Mastering Genealogical Proof.[1] It's a welcome addition to genealogical studies, available from the National Genealogical Society’s (NGS) online store. And study it is; the workbook-like design was deliberate. The first printing sold out in less than a month, evidence of the high regard for Jones and his qualifications.

This is hardly a book review. I merely want to point out the excellent growing body of work that supplements Mills’ Evidence Explained[2] and the newly revised/published Genealogy Standards from the Board for Certification of Genealogists.[3]

The Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS), first delineated by BCG in 2000, is gathering increased international recognition. Jones has further refined relevant concepts and terms to reflect some twenty-first century nuances in the indispensable elements of sources, information, and evidence. For example, authored works are a source distinguished from original and derivative records; indeterminable relates to information from an informant who cannot be ascertained; negative evidence is "the absence of information that answers a research question."[4]

Although proof in purely scientific terms is an absolute (beyond a reasonable doubt), genealogists and family historians employ the word to make assertions about ancestral identity and relationships. Mastering Genealogical Proof discusses the word and its application to genealogy. "Like all researchers, genealogists require a multi-faceted standard to separate acceptable information items and conclusions from those that are unacceptable."[5]

Hence the "interdependent" steps of the GPS that are repeated with each new research cycle. "Meeting the GPS neither requires nor ensures perfect certainty. Genealogical proofs―like accepted conclusions in any research field―never are final."[6]

We should recognize that our "proofs," however careful the reasoning, are vulnerable to the possibility of new evidence surfacing, thus invalidating our result. Proof is a semantically and scientifically argumentative word in our case. Is it misused? Do we need a different word?

In a blog post, Tony Proctor of Parallax View said:
Just as genealogy strives to explain the past from the available evidence, so (pure-)science tries to explain the universe from experimental evidence. Their common evidence-based aspirations lead them to the same limitation: you can never prove anything absolutely, but you can certainly disprove something. ... 
I agree that historical research has a large element of precision in such areas as finding all available evidence, analysing and correlating that evidence, resolving any conflicts, and writing it up clearly and unambiguously. However, whereas science reserves the term proof for the absolute case, and doesn’t attempt to push any ideas beyond the status of theory, genealogy employs the word proof in the context of the less-precise disciplines. Despite attempts to define proof for the genealogical context, I believe this disparity of precision is at the root of many of our confusions.[7]

Tom Jones does not specifically address what some are recently calling "degrees of probability" (regarding how strong a genealogical assertion in our work may be). John D. Reid in Canada's Anglo-Celtic Connections raised the issue of measuring genealogical conclusions by using a “quantitative probabilistic approach.”[8] 

Another Jones, by the name of Paul, presented a very interesting paper this month at the Ontario Genealogical Society's Conference: "Determining how much confidence you should have in your genealogical inferences."
"This presentation illustrates basic probability calculations, corrects some common misunderstandings about probability and suggests how probability could, in some circumstances, augment but never replace the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS)."[9] 
Unfortunately I was unable to attend this highly anticipated talk. In it he spoke about basic probabilities, conditional probabilities, and Bayes Theoremtools of potential assistance to the researcher.

I submit that anything less than 50% "probability" in answering a research question is not of supporting value to a hypothesis nor does it make an acceptable conclusion. It probably means that I did not go deep enough into sources or analysis to draw a confident, reasonable conclusion; or else sources are disappointingly non-existent or inaccessible. Writing out the results is a work in progress. However, let's point out that unsatisfactory results can be worthwhile in disproving a hypothesis or inspiring new research tactics.

It's encouraging to see genealogists, from many different occupational skill perspectives, contribute to the ongoing discussion.

[1] Thomas W. Jones, Mastering Genealogical Proof (Washington, DC: National Genealogical Society, 2013).
[2] Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace (Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2007). The website Evidence Explained (https://www.evidenceexplained.com/) has a regular Quick Tips blog among many other features.
[3] Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG), Genealogy Standards, 50th Anniversary Edition (Ancestry.com, 2014).
[4] Jones, op. cit., 15.
[5] Jones, op.cit., 2.
[6] BCG, Genealogy Standards, 3.
[7] Tony Proctor, "Proof of the Pudding," 26 December 2013, Parallax View (http://parallax-viewpoint.blogspot.ca/).
[8] John D. Reid, "Probability in genealogy," 24 July 2012; "How to use probability in genealogy - part 1," 4 September 2012; "How to use probability in genealogy - part 2," 5 September 2012; "How to use probability in genealogy - part 3," 6 September 2012 (among others), Canada’s Anglo-Celtic Connections (anglo-celtic-connections.blogspot.ca).
[9] Paul Jones, "Determining how much confidence you should have in your genealogical inferences," Ontario Genealogical Society Conference 2014, Syllabus; it's unclear yet whether the Syllabus will be for sale at the OGS online store.

© 2014 Brenda Dougall Merriman

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