MyCinnamonToast® Genealogy

How Speculation Becomes "Fact" in Genealogy Research

by Sheila Somerlock Ruth

When I was a child, I used to love to play the game, "Telephone." You've probably played this game, too; if you haven't, it goes like this.

The first person in a group whispers a phrase to the second person. The second whispers it to the third, and so on. Finally, the last person in the group says out loud what they heard, and everybody laughs, because what the last person hears is usually very different from what the first person says. The phrase has become a little altered with each retelling, so that the end result is hilariously funny.

The same type of thing can happen in genealogy research. Suppose you find records of a person who matches the criteria of an ancestor you are looking for. You haven't made a connection; you haven't found any source records that prove that this person is your ancestor. But everything fits, and you are certain that he or she is the person you are looking for. You don't want to lose the information, and you are sure that you will prove the connection eventually, so you enter it into your database, perhaps with a note that you are speculating as to the connection.

Then, some time later, you exchange GEDCOM files with someone else working on the same lines. Perhaps you tell him that particular connection is speculation, but it doesn't matter. The data is now out of your control. Some time later, that person exchanges GEDCOM data with someone else, and by now, your speculation has become firmly ingrained as "fact".

This actually happened to me. I was recently searching the databases at Ancestry.com, when I got a "hit" on the name of one of my ancestors, John Sommerlock, in the Ancestry World Tree. I looked at the data, and to my surprise, it included John's father, the immigrant ancestor we had been looking for! I was terribly excited. We had been searching for him for a long time, and here he was in black and white! Someone else had found our missing immigrant ancestor! But, as I looked more closely at the information, I began to get suspicious. The rest of the information matched too closely with what we had in our database. I began to suspect, in fact, that this data HAD come out of our database.

Eventually, I figured out what must have happened. We had found records on a man that we thought might be our missing ancestor, because a lot of things like dates and names fit well. But we have not found evidence of a connection, so at this point it was pure speculation. But, not wanting to lose the information, we entered into our database to keep track of it, so that we could continue to look for evidence proving or disproving a connection. Somehow this data was included in a GEDCOM file that we gave to someone else, and that person gave the data in a GEDCOM file to yet another person, who then submitted the data to the Ancestry World Tree. Although WE knew that the data was speculation, the researchers downstream didn't and assumed it was "fact." And, of course, anyone seeing it in the database will assume it to be true, because, after all, everyone knows that if it's on the Internet, it must be true, right?

What could I have done to prevent this? What can you do to avoid these kinds of problems? The safest thing, obviously, is to never include speculative data in your database. But this isn't always practical. Sometimes we want to enter information to preserve it in the event that we find evidence of its relevance. Here are some alternative ways of handling this situation:

  • Enter the person in your database, but do not link them to any other person unless you have evidence of the link. You can make a notation in the comments or notes section of your genealogy program that you believe a link exists.
  • Some genealogy programs, notably The Master Genealogist (TMG) allow you to rate the surety of every piece of information on a numeric scale. You can assign high numbers to information that comes from primary sources, medium numbers for information from secondary sources, and low numbers to indicate speculation or rumor. In TMG, you could enter the person AND add a link where you believe that a link occurs, but rate that link with a very low surety number.
  • If you do enter such information into your genealogy program, take steps to ensure that it is NOT included in any GEDCOM file that you give to anyone else. Remember that once your data leaves your hands, it is out of your control. Personal Ancestral File (PAF) has very flexible tools for filtering which people to include in an exported GEDCOM file.
  • Another alternative is to enter the source information in a special program designed to manage genealogy research. That way, you preserve the information and can call it up at will, but you haven't corrupted your ancestor database. One such program is Clooz. I haven't yet had the time to try Clooz, but I'm intrigued by it. It sounds like a good solution to the problem confronting all genealogy researchers after they have been researching for a while: how to manage the massive amounts of data collected. Clooz is not designed to record your family tree. Instead, Clooz allows you to catalog, locate, and easily retrieve the source information that you find.
  • Never submit data to one of the popular "world trees" or lineage-linked databases, unless you have good evidence for that data. Remember that someone viewing the data you submit may assume that it is correct.

Finally, be very careful about importing GEDCOM files you receive from someone else into your database. Never assume that the data you are being given is correct - take the time to verify it yourself. A good way of handling GEDCOM files that you receive is to put them into a separate genealogy database, and move the data over one name at a time as you verify the sources. Painstaking? Yes. But then, much of genealogy is in the details. After all, that's part of the fun of it, isn't it?

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