15 June 2013

The gold standard for genealogy

James Tanner on his Genealogy Star blog posts an article Methodology vs. Proof in Genealogy worth noting.
His conclusion is that "Genealogy is methodology and cloaking it in the robe of proof does not accurately reflect the processes."
Saying that all proofs are tentative, as Tanner does in the article, is neither new nor especially helpful. It begs the question How tentative? If genealogy can go no further than present the evidence and say the result is tentative, without indicating how tentative, it makes the whole exercise impotent.
We can do better. Proceeding with conventional professional genealogical methodology may get you to a situation where all the evidence aligns and most would agree the issue in question, perhaps a kinship, is highly likely to be the case. Or perhaps the evidence is somewhat at odds. You have less confidence in the conclusion. There is a need for an agreed terminology to express degree of confidence in the result of applying the methodology. It should be expressed in probabilistic terms.
What's the standard? Helen O'Leary wrote in 1998 (http://www.bcgcertification.org/skillbuilders/learyevidencepf.html ) “Science and the law are in agreement: there is only one way to prove kinships beyond reasonable doubt — DNA testing.” Anything else does not meet that legal standard of proof, and as we know there are lots of legal cases where the beyond reasonable doubt standard was met and the person convicted only to have the verdict overturned by DNA evidence.
Genealogy should acknowledge DNA evidence as the gold standard.
Just came across this related article http://m.huffpost.com/uk/entry/3440006


Wayne said...

Most genealogists have encountered less-than-accurate family trees, whether online, in print or through discussion with others. But so what! We are talking about an engineered bridge design that has implications for the safety of those people crossing it. We recognize when conclusions or data do not fit, like death dates before a census that shows the individual still alive and well. We can choose to ignore any particular researcher's version. Genealogy is still a hobby for most people, other than those whose business is finding heirs or providing data. Anyone employing a genealogist is always cautioned to check out credentials and references, just the same as they would with a carpenter or plumber. But a mistake or sloppy work in family history won't make the house fall down. Lighten up people! Do keep striving for the best quality research, backed up with solid references and citations. But don't get caught up with trying to make everyone else perfect or made over in your own mould. It won't work. Pass over the material and conclusions that are not fact-based or reasonably presented and get on with having fun. I doubt your 5th great-grandfather will even care if you don't have the right spelling of his name.

Wayne said...

Sorry, that should have read We are NOT talking about an engineered bridge design...

Paul Jones said...

DNA is the gold standard only in so far as genealogy is strictly defined as the study of the biological relationships among people. For me, that stuff is just the scaffolding. Getting at the truth of family stories provides the most fun, and that almost never involves DNA. Further, DNA applies only to biological relationships. In many places at many times, kinhood has had as much to do with what was socially sanctioned and understood. The "father" who raised one's GGG-grandfather, say, and was recognized as the parent in the community, is of more importance to many of us than the man who impregnated one's GGG-grandmother.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes the "duffers" who put up a small tree at the end of one of my branches are dabblers or those who are just becoming interested. We can perhaps encourage them befriend them or maybe even find out more family stories. That is the fun for me. I have met people such as 3rd cousins whom I would never have otherwise encountered and they have become connections and friends. So much fun and kinship!

Anne in Ottawa