Earlier this week I posted, “What is a conclusion?,” in which I discussed the application of the Genealogical Proof Standard to every research conclusion that is stated as a fact.
In a comment to this post, Martin wrote,
… Does every event need the GPS now? How boring and tedious do we make a genealogical write-up? Most ages do not agree visa-vis the census. Do we really need to GPS every single person, or can we just conclude that ages in censuses vary? Genealogy is proving relationships. I can understand that proving a relationship might incur the GPS, but every fact or event? I think you’ll run off everyone involved with genealogy including me.
My immediate response to Martin’s comment concluded with the question:
At what point is it acceptable to say, “This fact does not need to be accurate, based on research in all relevant records”?
Ultimately, we do need to ask ourselves this question. My goal in researching–and I assume that many of my readers will agree–is to create an accurate account of my family history. My work for clients also reflects this ideal. However, I can also recognize that for some, genealogy has other purposes and priorities.
On the other hand, I think that it is important to recognize what the Genealogical Proof Standard truly entails. You can read the full definition in my post, “The Genealogical Proof Standard: an introduction.” In short, the Genealogical Proof Standard requires that we:
- Search for all records that could potentially hold relevant information.
- Cite the sources we use.
- Evaluate the information.
- Reconcile conflicting/contradictory information.
- Form a logical written conclusion.
As I stated in my last post, every statement that we make as factual is a conclusion based on our research. As such, every fact should meet the above conditions.
However, one will note that I did not state that every fact needed to look like a case study in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly or one of the other scholarly journals.
There is a difference between a simple conclusion and a complex conclusion.
These are not terms one will encounter in genealogical literature, as such. However, in my assertion that every fact is a conclusion, it may serve to define these two kinds of conclusions in this sense.
A simple conclusion is a straightforward statement of indisputable fact.
A complex conclusion, by contrast, is a conclusion based on a proof summary or a proof argument.
The following table explores various qualities of simple and complex conclusions:
|A simple statement of fact||A conclusion based on thorough research|
|Based on a single document
||Based on multiple facts in multiple documents
|A single citation to a single record will suffice||Each document used to form the conclusion must be cited individually|
|Corroborating information is not necessary to prove the statement (but may exist)||Corroborating information must be examined fully to form the conclusion|
|Conflicting evidence does not exist||Conflicting information may exist, and must be reconciled|
|May form part of a more complex proof argument||Comprised of simple conclusions; may form part of an even more complex proof argument|
|Example: Person A purchased land from Person B, citing the deed that recorded this sale.||Example: Person X was the son of Person Y as illustrated by a proof argument, citing several pieces of evidence supporting this conclusion.|
Now I am not the type to reinvent the wheel for no reason. Defining these terms serves a clarifying purpose.
The proof summaries, proof arguments, and case studies that we read are complex conclusions comprised of a series of simple conclusions. If we are to trust the conclusion, we must be able to trust the facts being reported as evidence of this conclusion.
We must therefore recognize the difference between a simple conclusion and a complex conclusion. Many of the proof arguments or case studies that I read are actually comprised of a mix of simple conclusions (statements of fact) and complex conclusions (proof summaries or proof arguments in their own right).
Both simple conclusions and complex conclusions can meet the Genealogical Proof Standard. For a simple conclusion, meeting the Genealogical Proof Standard requires no more than conducting full analysis of the single record being used. Some of the statements in that record would qualify as simple conclusions. Other statements in the same record will not qualify, due to the quality of this record as a source for that information.
For example, stating that Person X lived in County Y on a specific date based on his appearance in a federal census record would constitute a simple conclusion. On the other hand, stating that Person X was born in 1847 based on his age as reported in this same federal census record would not constitute a simple conclusion. The census record is not a high-quality source for this information.
As my last post opined, every fact that is reported as a fact must meet the Genealogical Proof Standard. If you report a fact based on high-quality evidence (as described above), then you have met the Standard for this fact. However, if no high-quality direct evidence exists, then a proof summary or proof argument must accompany this conclusion.
Any genealogical conclusion (whether it relates to kinship or some other aspect of an ancestor’s life) based on a series of complex conclusions that do not individually meet the Genealogical Proof Standard cannot itself meet the Standard. Like the old computer adage said, “Garbage in, garbage out.”
If you would like to cite this post: Michael Hait, “Simple and complex genealogical conclusions,” Planting the Seeds: Genealogy as a Profession blog, posted 26 February 2012 (
: 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.]