The final condition of the Genealogical Proof Standard is that we arrive at a “soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion.” This may seem to be the simplest part of the GPS and a part that many take for granted. Yet in my experience this is really the most important part of the Standard. It is also often confused and therefore I will take the time to address this further here.
To understand this last condition fully you must ask yourself “what is a conclusion?” How one defines conclusion has a profound impact on one’s understanding of the Genealogical Proof Standard as a whole.
Professional genealogists often consider the term conclusion in the professional context, in the sense of the conclusion (or end) of a research project or agreed-upon time frame. Even for non-professionals, it is too easy to think of meeting the Genealogical Proof Standard only in terms of our long-term research goals, or the “big picture,” as opposed to the many facts that lead to that “big picture.”
If I state that my great-grandfather was born on 24 October 1897 (not the real date), as if this was a fact, then I am stating a conclusion based on my research, right? In actuality, every fact reported as such is a conclusion reached through research into that specific research goal.
Each of these conclusions/facts may provide evidence that leads you to a “big picture” conclusion, a more complex research goal.
If you accept that every fact is a conclusion, then it should follow that every fact is subject to the Genealogical Proof Standard, and all that it entails.
When I reported my great-grandfather’s date of birth, have I:
- conducted a reasonably exhaustive search for all records that may contain pertinent information?
- fully and accurately cited every source used in my research?
- analyzed and correlated the information provided by the sources that I have located, assessing their quality as evidence?
- reconciled any conflicting or contradictory information?
If I cannot honestly respond that I have met each of these conditions, then my statement of the “fact” of my great-grandfather’s date of birth can be called into question.
It is far more likely, for example, if I have not searched for every record that might hold relevant information, that additional information might arise in the future that contradicts my conclusion. This new information might be more accurate, and it might force me to completely abandon my original conclusion. Had I evaluated my conclusion based on all of the conditions of the Genealogical Proof Standard, it would have been a more reliable conclusion, and the likelihood of its being contradicted by a newly discovered record would have dropped significantly.
It is important to note that the likelihood of new information emerging that will contradict your conclusions will never fall to 0%. This always remains an open possibility–no matter how slight–and an honest genealogist will not dismiss emerging information simply to protect one’s earlier conclusions. Even if it means that hours of research on “former ancestors” (to borrow a phrase Martin Hollick used in a comment to another post on this blog) will be lost.
In other words, a conclusion does not equal the end.
The points addressed here also raise another important question: how do I cite a research conclusion?
I will respond to this question in a future post.
If you would like to cite this post: Michael Hait, “What is a conclusion?,” Planting the Seeds: Genealogy as a Profession blog, posted 20 February 2012 (http://michaelhait.wordpress.com : accessed [access date]). [Please also feel free to include a hyperlink to the specific article if you are citing this post in an online forum.]