“Genealogy Pointers” continues with its practice of excerpting sections from Professional Genealogy: Preparation, Practice & Standards (Progen PPS), edited by Elizabeth Shown Mills. Today we have lifted the beginning pages of Chapter 12, “Reasoning from Evidence,” which was prepared by Dr. Thomas W. Jones. We are sure you will agree that even in these scant few paragraphs, Dr. Jones successfully conveys the nature and importance of evidence in genealogical research.
“Evidence, a core genealogical concept, refers to the critical application of information to problem solving. Genealogists detect and collect evidence. We assess it, assemble it, test the assemblage, and transform it into a conclusion. We reject the opposite approach, to blindly believe what sources say. There is no middle ground. No competent genealogist accepts any source or information item without assessing the qualities of the evidence it provides and determining its accuracy.
The Essence of Genealogical Reasoning
Genealogists use information items to answer questions about people, events, relationships, and status—usually in the past. Those information items are perceivable. We can see or hear them. We can examine and re-examine them.
In contrast to perceivable information, the concept of using information items to answer questions refers to mental processes. As researchers, we execute those processes to understand otherwise unperceivable lives. The term “evidence” refers to this mental use of the perceivable to understand the unperceivable. Genealogists work toward the goal of understanding people of the past as accurately as their contemporaries understood them.
THE NEED FOR EVIDENCE
No evidence exists in isolation. Evidence is evidence because it evidences something else—i.e., it shows or indicates something. Evidence is valuable to genealogists not because of what it is, but because of what it points to.
Throughout human history, people have formed kinships within and across generations. These connections may be based on custom, genetics, law, private or public agreements, religion, or any combination of those factors. Kinships involve specific people in specific places at specific times. Kin and the people who observe them know their identities, relationships, and statuses as concrete realities, not as abstract or theoretical averages, possibilities, tendencies, trends, or variables.
Genealogists seek to understand those realities. We are more interested in the actions of individuals and families than larger groups. The patterns and trends we seek, study, and reconstruct are more biographical and psychological than historical and sociological.
Kinships manifest themselves through the actions and interactions of family members. People observing those activities know when and where, and they can name or recognize the people involved. Witnesses may tell others what they saw or record their observations.
Genealogists attempt to discover specific identities, kinships, and events, often decades or centuries after they occurred and were observed. As family historians, we seek the truths—the facts—that participants and observers of relationships know or knew. We cannot, however, travel into the past to observe those events. We have only three meaningful options: (1) interview observers of events; (2) analyze narratives told or retold after events occurred; and (3) study records of events.
All three options contain enormous shortcomings. Living people observed only a minuscule fraction of past events. Not all past observers recounted events they witnessed. Not all listeners retold the stories. When observations were told or retold, tellers likely altered their stories with embellishments, exaggerations, misinterpretations, and omissions. Many events reflecting kinship went unrecorded. Many records no longer exist. Records that survive contain accidental and intentional errors.
Thus, we face a daunting intellectual challenge. We attempt to understand specific truths that we cannot observe, and we work with records and stories that survived fortuitously and contain hidden errors. We meet these difficulties by working with the concept we call evidence, defined for common usage as “an outward sign,” “indication,” and “something that furnishes proof.”
THE NATURE OF GENEALOGICAL EVIDENCE
As an “outward sign,” evidence is neither conclusion nor proof. The three terms are confusable, but their technical definitions—as defined by the field of genealogy—make them distinct:
- Evidence. A research question’s tentative answer, which may be right or wrong, complete or incomplete, or vague or specific.
- Conclusion. An answer to a research question that has passed tests of analysis and correlation but has not been explained or stated in writing and documented.
- Proof. A documented statement, summary, or argument that explains or shows why a conclusion is proved; also, a description of a genealogical conclusion that is acceptable because it meets the Genealogical Proof Standard’s five components—i.e., reasonably exhaustive research; complete and accurate citations; analysis and correlation of evidence; resolution of conflicts; and a soundly reasoned, written, conclusion.
Obviously, without testing evidence, we cannot establish a conclusion. Although genealogical evidence is intangible, it provides the raw material, the building blocks, with which we construct provable conclusions about past lives.”