What is a conclusion?

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 (https://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.]

19 thoughts on “What is a conclusion?

  1. Thank you, Michael Hait, for sharing your no nonsense wisdom. I have reached the point in my online trees where I am vigorously pruning all duplicate, undocumented, debatable information from my files. Your guidelines are helpful and much appreciated.

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  3. Starting with a definition of Fact:

    “1. “something that actually exists; reality; truth: 2. something known to exist or to have happened: 3. a truth known by actual experience or observation; something known to be true: 4. something said to be true or supposed to have happened:” (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/fact)

    And the definition of an Assertion:

    “1. The act of asserting. 2. Something declared or stated positively, often with no support or attempt at proof. ” (www.thefreedictionary.com/assertion)

    It seems to me that we find an “assertion” in a record or statement from a source without knowing the veracity of the assertion, A collection of assertions forms the body of evidence that define an “event” like a birth or marriage or burial.

    If we have done a reasonably exhaustive search for all of the assertions for the event, then we can apply the GPS to drive to a “Conclusion.” That “Conclusion” becomes the basis for the “Fact” – the true date or place or name for an Event in a person’s life history.

    In reality, many researchers reach a conclusion for each event based on a non-RES and enter the “best” (most likely or most convincing) assertion into their genealogy management program and move on.

    Why do they not perform a RES? Almost all of those conclusions were reached before the GPS was defined and learned. Sadly, 95% of the genealogical community has never heard of the GPS nor reads the peer-reviewed journals that use GPS principles to solve difficult research problems.

    • Exactly! Thanks for the comment.

      The only resolution, of course, for those who have not heard of the Genealogical Proof Standard, is to push for more promotion. One of the best things about Genea-Musings is your frequent mention of the Proof Standard, especially since you are not a “Professional Genealogist.” I think hobbyist/nonprofessional genealogists connect more with your blog than they might with mine.

      Nevertheless, I think that the more that people discuss the Genealogical Proof Standard–not only in blogs but even in society journals and monthly newsletters–genealogy can eventually reach a tipping point where that 95% number is far smaller.

  4. One of my problems with the Genealogical Proof Pudding is how does one write up a family history using that? 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.

    • A family history does not need to contain every aspect of one’s reasoning. That depends on your purpose for writing and the audience for your history.

      Consider one of the case studies in NGSQ (pick your favorite). The case study may detail in painstaking detail how one determined that James was David’s father. Your family history may only contain the conclusion that James was David’s father, without all of the reasoning behind it.

      However, I disagree that genealogy is merely proving relationships. In my opinion, genealogy is the history of a family in the context of its community. Every fact is relevant to this end.

      Dates of birth and dates of death–at the least–are events that are commonly reported as facts in the course of family histories. If one has not met the GPS in one’s assertions on these facts, then how can one be assured that the dates being reported are accurate?

      The same then goes on to other facts being reported. At what point is it acceptable to say, “This fact does not need to be accurate, based on research in all relevant records”?

      • Well then genealogical research comes to a grinding halt. It’s already labor intensive enough. The average researcher wants to research all their lines, all 1,024 10th generation grandparents, etc. I just see this putting undo pressure on the entire enterprise. Each relationship, yes, each fact, no.

      • I agree that the average researcher may want to research all their lines, but *in my opinion* meeting the GPS is necessary to ensure that he is truly researching his lines (and not some unrelated lines caused by research that was not thorough nor accurate).

        I completely disagree that this puts undue pressure on genealogists. After all, the first condition is called a “reasonably exhaustive” search because it must be reasonable. If one has sought all records that he has a reasonable assumption exist, then one has met this condition and can move on to the next problem. I regularly meet the Genealogical Proof Standard–at least in regard to some research problems–in my client research within a relatively short period of time.

        However, I would also like to take a step back. I used the example of a date of birth, which may not be the best example. In most cases, a date of birth cannot be determined with any real accuracy. As you mentioned, the evidence often conflicts, etc. It is perfectly acceptable to conclude that the evidence suggests a date range, or is inconclusive.

        The Genealogical Proof Standard does not require that we reach a specific conclusion. It only requires that we reach a logical conclusion based on the evidence. If the evidence does not lead to a specific conclusion, we cannot force it to do so.

        Of course, we cannot ignore evidence either. The date of birth does not exist as the only item of information in any record of which I am aware. We will normally collect all relevant information about our ancestor’s life in records relating to other aspects of his life. I would hope that no researcher would consciously ignore the evidence sitting in front of her because she didn’t want to go to the trouble of evaluating the information to form a logical conclusion. I am sure that this is not what you are suggesting.

    • One last thing that I realized as I was thinking about this:

      Is it enough to conclude that ages in censuses vary? In some cases, yes, we have to do that. But only after a careful analysis of the evidence that exists–not only in the censuses, but in other records as well.

      When proving a relationship, if this is your sole goal, however, would not the date of birth be significant evidence?

      After all, how would your conclusions about relationships change if you discover that two children were allegedly born to the same mother just 5 months apart?

      Obviously, this is an impossible scenario. There are only two possible explanations for this. Either (1) the dates of birth are wrong, or (2) the children did not have the same mother.

      Isn’t it important to know which of these two explanations is correct?

  5. Most family genealogists do not have either the time or money to do an exhaustive search of each ancestor’s “facts”; we can only do the very best possible. Once we’ve learned about the Genealogical Proof Standard, we need to use it to the best of our ability…including pruning some of those ancestors!

    • This may be a case where “family genealogists” (as you term them) have to decide what is most important: ensuring accuracy or expanding the list of names. Jumping from ancestor to ancestor may be cheaper, but we have to be honest about what we are producing. Is this work that we can be sure is an accurate representation of our families, or are we avoiding doing thorough research for the sake of time and money? Is the result acceptable to us? (For some, the answer to this last question may be “yes.”)

  6. This may be the single most important point here: “It is important to note that the likelihood of new information emerging that will contradict your conclusions will never fall to 0%.” Keeping an open mind to the bery real possibility that everything we think we know may turn out to be wrong is essential.

    • Last year, I found a document the provided last name of the wife of one of my male ancestors. That discovery contradicted what had been published and what her descendants have believed for 90 years. With the exception of facts that are known about living and recently living persons, very little in genealogy can be known for certain.

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