Tutorial: 12 critical thinking skills for genealogy investigation

This tutorial is part of an article originally published in Family Tree Magazine's special issue "Discover Your Roots" in Summer 2014.

1. Prove it for yourself

The most basic rule of scientific investigation is to accept no information as true without proving it so using logical reasoning. A corollary is that no source of information on a subject can be presumed to be reliable. Use the experimental method to evaluate sources and authenticate information. What we call a fact is actually a claim or assertion that we have evaluated and determined to be likely true. Facts fit with other facts to form patterns that explain historical events. Then the truth is revealed.

2. Apply sound reasoning to eliminate three types of error

Observer bias. All investigators have points of view, cultural touchstones, and belief systems that can color their interpretation of evidence. A fair researcher must be aware of biases and tendencies as a necessary first step to correcting for them. Bias affects all stages of the research cycle—from posing the question to selecting sources, interpreting evidence, and writing the results. 

Experimental effects. In physical science, it is necessary to account for observational distortions that arise for many reasons, not least by the effect of the observation. A comparable problem in historical research is the mechanics of memory. How do we know if something is a true memory versus a received recollection or imaginary confabulation?

Logical fallacies. Researchers are prone to mistaken reasoning when processing information. Here are few practices to keep you out of trouble. Don't get stuck on your first impression or place too much weight on the last thing you learned. Always account for contradictory evidence. Resist conforming to conventional wisdom or unquestioned authority. Do not discount less likely possibilities. Don't invent connections between unrelated phenomena. Most important, don’t allow your desired outcome to influence your interpretation of the facts.

3. Use lore as the basis of research questions

Though oral traditions and family legends are known to be highly unreliable, they should not be disregarded. They may be the best starting point for your investigation. Since most stories contain a grain of truth, your goal should be to determine which parts of a legend bear further investigation. Begin by restating the legend as succinctly as possible. 

Break down complex legends having multiple aspects into discrete facts or assertions. Frame research questions that are testable using evidence in the historical record. As you are able to prove narrow claims, you can advance to proposing broader questions relying on your proved assertions.

4. Recognize common genealogical myths

One important skill is the ability to quickly identify false clues and blind alleys. There is no use spending time on something likely to be wrong (unless everything more probable has been ruled out). Certain legends are so common and so often regurgitated that a skeptical genealogist should be able to recognize them right away. 

Genealogist Kimberly Powell points to recurring genealogy legends about three immigrant brothers or relation to a Cherokee princess as typically bogus. Similarly, stories of a name change at Ellis Island, of a European town named for your family, or of a lost family fortune are most likely apocryphal.

Sites such as Snopes and the many Internet political fact-checkers are helpful as myth-busters in their own fields, but there is no equivalent arbiter for genealogical legends. You’ll have to make your own assessments.  

5. Access historical sources to gain subject matter expertise

There are no short cuts to learning your subject. Read all the important sources. Follow up beyond what you can find on the Internet. Go to research archives. Look for original documentation. Obtain full records instead of relying on indexed information. 

Since you are seeking to connect a historical pattern to a particular family history, you need to become an expert in both. Learn all the facts about the people and events that figure in your legend. If there is a famous person involved, there will be a wealth of material. Learn the period history—not just the historical events but about the social and economic factors that drove family decisions.

6. Consider the reliability and motivation of sources

Do not accept any source as trustworthy until you correlated it with other sources and your own analysis. Evaluate sources of information for their point of view and to assess the credibility of the information. Does the complier cite sources that support the conclusions are reached? Does the write-up of the results account for the evidence and explain the reasoning? 

Know the difference between primary and secondary sources. Ask how the reporter of a fact acquired that information, whether by first-hand observation or second-hand hearsay. Just because someone is expert in one subject does not make them expert in another. Consider the qualifications, reputation and motive of witnesses. Would they have any motivation to mislead? Be especially wary of anonymous sources.

In evaluating eyewitness testimony, consider the possibility that the observer made an error in observation or that the recollection of the event has changed over time. The Lenzen study shows that sources like heritage books that might seem most credible are often among the least reliable. She argues that publication of such histories without proper sourcing performs a disservice to future researchers who will be led astray by unverifiable claims.

7. Do your own digging to find famous ancestors

A lot of people do have famous ancestors. Many more imagine that they do. If you are going to make the claim you need to find the precise relationship and then document your claim using verifiable sources.

Beware the seductive surname. Seemingly unusual names situated at the same place and time can be coincidental. Mistakes are so common that it is wise to assume that kinship claims are wrong until proven otherwise.

Tracing direct descent through patrilineal lines is always easiest. If the connection involves cousin relationships, you must go to earlier generations to find the common ancestor. The availability of shared and universal family trees on the Internet makes a tempting target for finding famous ancestors. While these projects are worthwhile, don't trust any family tree data you encounter online unless it is properly sourced and you have checked the sources. 

Steer clear of automated “famous relative finders” that you sometimes see promoted on genealogy sites. These tools draw on any of the various universal family tree projects to return search results showing distant family connections with historical figures. Ancestry.com dropped its support of that feature in 2008 when it was shown that its universal tree implementation contained a high percentage of unreliable information. Garbage in, garbage out. 

8. Use visualizations to interrogate the facts

Now that you have collected evidence, you must test it to see if it is reliable. Compare data from multiple sources if possible. If two or more independent accounts agree on a point, that increases your confidence in the accuracy of the information. 

If there are discrepancies, you must reconcile them. It is not enough to determine that one version is wrong; you should also understand why it is wrong. If you can make an accurate explanation of how an incorrect legend came into being you will have gone a long way towards debunking it. 

Make maps, trees and timelines to visualize and find patterns in the data. Chronology is a particularly useful dimension in reconstructing migration patterns. To investigate a possible match of individuals out of context, trace their movements in space and time. 

9. Trace the provenance of artifacts for a chain of evidence

Be sure to understand the provenance of any artifacts that you are lucky enough to possess. Ascertain that the object is authentic. Trace manufacturer’s marks to determine its origin. Collect documentation that shows its connection to the family.

10. Connect facts in context to draw conclusions

Once you have established the reliability of your facts, you are now in position to draw valid conclusions. Now is the time to use intuition, even reasonable speculation, as you interpret the data. Link facts together into patterns. Place them in the historical context. Let the conclusions emerge from the facts, not the other way around.

You may or may not find a smoking gun, a critical bit of evidence that points conclusively to one interpretation. Unresolved questions are to be expected, setting the stage for future research by yourself or others.

11. Document your results in a sourced presentation

The last phase of the proof standard is to present your results in a write up or presentation of some form. It does not have to be a footnoted academic paper. Family stories can be shared on genealogy websites, family blogs, photo slide shows or myriad other formats. In whatever form you use to present your findings, make sure that the key facts are sourced and your reasoning is explained.

Follow National Genealogical Society standards for sound research practice, especially its guidelines for publishing information. Be prepared to revise your published research when new evidence comes to light.

Go ahead and write about a family story that has currency or interest, but make sure to identify it as “legend” or “lore” and acknowledge that it is unproven. Tell the story of the story. How did the myth come to be? If parts of the story are ongoing mysteries, identify what facts are known and what is conjecture. 

12. Recast the legend as history

Honor the legend by placing your family story in the larger historical context. Tell your story with as much color, style and panache as you dare, but always make sure to stay true to the facts. Your scientific approach may offend some in your family who want to cling to cherished mythologies, so be prepared for conflict with those who don't accept your analysis.

Whether your research ends up bearing out or debunking the family legend, or somewhere in between, you will have performed a blessing—a mitzvah, Rabbi Spektor would say—for future generations of your family and other interested parties. By enabling a rich new understanding of the facts, you will have succeeded in transforming the stuff of legend into the stuff of history.

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