Simple and complex genealogical conclusions

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.

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:

Simple Conclusion

Complex Conclusion

A simple statement of fact A conclusion based on thorough research
Based on a single document

  • Providing direct evidence of the conclusion;
  • Created contemporary to the event being reported;
  • Created specifically for the purpose of reporting the event being reported;
  • Created by a participant or official eyewitness to the event being reported
Based on multiple facts in multiple documents

  • Providing both direct and indirect evidence of the conclusion;
  • Providing information of varied quality;
  • Created for various purposes other than the purpose for which we are using them
 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 (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.]

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12 responses to this post.

  1. Good point, Michael. I would venture to add that not every fact in dispute necessarily needs to be settled at all.

    If I have three pieces of contradictory evidence — one saying that my great-great-great grandfather was born on November 5, one saying November 7, and another saying November 9 — in *most* cases there’s no particular need to settle the question of his exact birth date. Having searched in reasonably exhaustive way for more information, I could write up a whole proof argument on the subject, but unless the exact date is crucial for some reason, why bother? It may not be decidable anyway, and it won’t add much to either the genealogy or the family history — certainly not compared to being able to identify his parents or describe the work he did.

    Harold

    Reply

    • Of course. If a conclusion cannot be achieved from the existing evidence–something that happens on a regular basis in genealogy–then it is not uncommon to make a statement that “The evidence conflicts so no conclusion can be formed with certainty.” However, if one chooses to do so, one must also note the information that was provided by each source, etc.

      This is far different from choosing a date arbitrarily and assigning that as a fact, because “it doesn’t matter.” If you state that a fact is a fact, then you must back it up.

      That’s why I say that every fact is a conclusion, and must meet the GPS. :)

      Reply

  2. Posted by Howland Davis on February 26, 2012 at 10:31 am

    Michael, I like others, would not be happy performing a full GPS proof as if for a genealogical journal. Your column has been saved and the table has been enlarged and printed for filing in a 3-ring binder containing important thoughts and information.

    Reply

  3. Posted by JG in MD on February 26, 2012 at 1:26 pm

    Isn’t there a middle ground where you don’t call the birth date a “fact” but simply say “was born about 1809″ and footnote the three dates and their evidence?

    In a recent project, the birth date on the tombstone wasn’t accurate. I based the conclusion for the most likely date on other records that were a) consistent, b) more nearly contemporaneous, and c) provided by persons in a good position to know. I stated the situation briefly, commenting that “set in stone” wasn’t. I also suggested further research to find out why.

    I have no problem with documented “circa” dates. Genealogy is hard enough without lengthy proofs for the sake of precision. Just my 2¢ worth.

    Reply

    • If you make the statement “John was born about 1809,” then you are presenting it as a fact–regardless of what you call it. However, the situation you describe in your second paragraph is exactly what we should be doing. We form our conclusions based on information provided by the available records and our own analysis of this information. This is why the Genealogical Proof Standard exists: because many facts cannot be determined by a single, reliable record. Most births prior to the twentieth century advent of nationwide state vital registration programs will have no better conclusion than a “ca. 18xx.”

      Reply

  4. I appreciate this article a lot. For better or worse, a lot of what makes for good genealogy involves extra work, so it is nice seeing how the concept of simple conclusions can save work.

    Reply

  5. I would like to add that using the GPS to perform due diligence is not just a task we must wade through to emerge clean on the other side. The process often leads to new discoveries that cannot be found by other means. That being said, it also does not need to be used to resolve every little conflict unless you’ve got time to spare, but can be extremely useful for knocking down brick walls.

    Reply

  6. Posted by Steve Williams on February 27, 2012 at 6:48 pm

    I have a question. Has anybody tried to prove or make a strong case that Abraham Lincoln was born on the exact date 12 Feb. 1809 that meets a strong Genealogical Proof Standard? I was wondering because there were no vital records in rural Kentucky at the time, the Lincolns were Baptists who didn’t practice infant baptism, and there are no known contemporary newspaper mentions of the birth.

    Reply

  7. Posted by Sheryl on February 28, 2012 at 4:27 pm

    Do you have some examples of how a well written up complex conclusion?

    Reply

  8. [...] My discussions of genealogy research conclusions have taken an interesting turn. (See “What is a conclusion?” and “Simple and complex genealogical conclusions.”) [...]

    Reply

  9. [...] hope that my recent posts defining conclusions and differentiating between simple and complex genealogical conclusions helped researchers to better understand the nature of what we aim for in our research. As scholarly [...]

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  10. [...] Michael Hait Simple and complex genealogical conclusions [...]

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