Casefile Clues

20 December 2013

Thinking of Genealogical Proof as an Infant

I'll be honest, I don't like the phrase "genealogical proof." There I said it. If I'm in trouble, so be it.

I use it, but I don't like it. I don't have to like it. I'm trained in mathematics, where when you have a proof, you have a proof. If your logic and your analysis is correct, it's done. Over. Complete. There is no changing the conclusion. Others may deduce other proofs that reach the same conclusion or others may find a more "sophisticated" or "elegant" proof, but if your conclusion is sound, you're done. And if you were the first, then you may even have a theorem named after you. And if your approach is clumsy you may be chided for it, but at least you got the job done.

But genealogical proofs are not quite like that. And it's not just that a genealogical proof won't be named after the writer.

A genealogical proof can change if new evidence, stronger and more reliable that was was originally known to exist, is located.  Two different genealogists may even use the same information to reach a conclusion. In mathematics, if the assumptions are the same and the reasoning is sound there are no alternate answers. A genealogical proof is not a mathematical proof. It is not the same sort of proof as a mathematical proof. And it should not be judged or viewed in the same way as a mathematical proof.

Of course, if the genealogical proof standard is applied completely and accurately, a change in the conclusion should rarely happen. Yes, genealogical proofs are more subjective than mathematical proofs. After all, we're dealing with humans and with records that don't always tell the whole story. The genealogical proof standard requires though that an exhaustive search be conducted and that an analysis be complete and clearly written (among a few others things). Is it hard to meet the genealogical proof standard? Sometimes. It is hard to meet the standard  if one gets bogged down in terminology and is unwilling to learn it, is scared of learning what one does not know or understand, refuses to search for every record possible that could answer the question, and is not willing to admit they could be wrong. A proof, even one written by an experienced and highly regarded genealogist could need to be revised.

That revision usually is the result of something "appearing." A new record could come to light in an old archives. A new finding aid could locate a reference that clearly contradicts previous material and that new reference contains "better information" that was originally discovered. However, if a new record "appears" in a place where one really should have expected it, then the exhaustive search was not applied.

If a researcher "knows the records of the area and time period" the chance that something is overlooked should be minimal. And creating a genealogical proof is not impossible or onerous. It is less so if one chooses not be be afraid of the terminology. Writing a genealogical proof is not like writing a proof in a geometry class.

Should the word "proof" even be used when there are other words, such as inference, that have a similar interpretation? Perhaps, but it's worth remembering that there are may words that are used in different disciplines and have different meanings in each. A legal document may refer to an infant. A medical document may also refer to an infant. The lawyer writing the legal document probably is referring to someone under the age of majority. The doctor writing the medical report probably means someone less than a year or so of age. Completely different things in different disciplines.

Do we tell the doctor that he can't use the word infant because the lawyer already uses it to mean something else? No.

Just because another profession or discipline uses a word is not reason for us not to use it. A discipline is free to use words of its choosing as long as the definition of those words is clearly agreed upon by members of the discipline. The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual defines these terms. It may be that various members of the discipline disagree on some of the details.

I may not think the word "proof" is the best word to use, but if I want to play genealogy with others concerned about standards, I'll have to use agreed upon terms.

Just like I had to write mathematical proofs "by the rules" when I took Sets and Logic all those years ago.

And sometimes I didn't like those either (grin!).