“Just how accurate are the memories that we know are true?” “All our memories are reconstructed memories.”
– Scott Fraser, in TEDtalksDirector, “Scott Fraser: The problem with eyewitness testimony,” online video, uploaded 10 September 2012, Youtube (http://www.youtube.com : accessed 12 September 2012).
As genealogists we often look for ways to categorize the records we are using. We call sources original or derivative, based on the generation of the format we are using. We call information primary or secondary, based on the involvement of the informant in the events being reported. These designations are arguably an important aspect of our analysis of facts and details that appear in the records we find about our ancestors.
But how important are these designations, really? How much do they affect a record’s accuracy?
Is primary information necessarily more reliable that secondary information?
Our first sense would be “of course.” Someone who was an eyewitness to an event would be a more reliable source that someone who did not witness the event. This may be true, but just how much confidence can we have in primary information? Can we consider the testimony of an eyewitness inherently reliable?
This is where we must be more careful in our analysis of records. As Scott Fraser explores in the video below, the memories of even eyewitnesses can be flawed in surprising ways. This is no less true in our family history research than in a murder trial. “The brain abhors a vacuum,” Fraser remarks. “The brain fills in information that was not there, not originally stored—from inference, from speculation, from sources of information that came to you as the observer after the observation. … It’s called reconstructive memory.”
Making the designation between primary information and secondary information is a useful exercise in our process of records analysis. It is important to consider the involvement of the informant in the event being reported. However, it is equally important to consider other factors, for example:
- how much time had passed between the event and the creation of the record;
- what was the mental condition of the informant at the time of the event;
- what was the mental condition of the informant at the time of the creation of the record;
- what potential biases may have affected the reporting of the event, either intentional or unintentional.
As genealogists, finding records may seem like the bulk of what we do. Yet I consider the skilled and knowledgeable analysis of these records to be just as important, if not more so. Finding a record is a small part of the process; understanding the record–what it says and what it doesn’t say, its reliability, its significance–is vital for us to achieve reliable and accurate results.
In other words, determining the reliability of even an eyewitness’s testimony is the only way to determine the accuracy of our conclusions. Part of this process is understanding and considering the nature of human memory.
Take a look at this video for a more detailed exploration of the subject:
If you would like to cite this post:
Michael Hait, CG, “Is primary information truly reliable for genealogists?,”Planting the Seeds: Genealogy as a Profession blog, posted 13 September 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.]