Friday, 16 January 2009

The rule of three

The February issue of the "UK" Ancestors magazine arrived today and includes an article well worth reading "How do I prove this ancestor is mine?" written by Helen Osborn. I was drawn to it by the editors comment that "Ideally, she suggests, we need to follow a "rule of three" producing three different documents that an event such as a marriage or birth took place."

I've heard this "rule" proclaimed before, notably by Mike More, chair of the Ottawa Branch of OGS in teaching a beginner session.

Helen Osborn is the managing director of Pharos Tutors so I was interested to read her rational for the rule. It turns out that while Osborn mentions the rule of three she doesn't advocate it. The article reads "The rule of three cannot settle the question of proof for us where there is conflicting evidence or lack of evidence. What is needed is a much more comprehensive and disciplined approach to our problems."

In the following section Osborn states that "genealogical facts can be established by the same basic principles of criticism as are used by historians." She suggests this as the British approach.

Osborn then summarizes the five American standards for genealogical proof for which "there is no counterpart (as yet) on this side of the Atlantic."

She points out that "as long as one source remains out there unexplored you have a potential bomb waiting to destroy your theory."

If evidence uncovered using the most common sources paints a reasonably consistent picture perhaps you can be reasonably sure you've got at the truth without worrying about those potential bombs.

Most legal disputes get settled without becoming court cases; the facts don't warrant further argument. Even when matters do get settled in court there is no 100% certainty that the truth is found, as indicated by the number of convictions overturned by DNA evidence.

Should the genealogist following the proof standard now be required to have explored the potential of a DNA bomb?

1 comment:

Helen Osborn said...

Hi John,

Thanks for reviewing my article. I think that the editorial piece misinterpreted the emphasis of the article which was trying to argue that the British genealogist needs something a lot more weighty and considered than the "rule of three" which I personally find too glib and potentially misleading.

Helen Osborn