On Certainty in Genealogy

In June, I wrote an article on collaborative genealogy for Avotaynu.[1]  In recent articles, Israel Pickholtz and Sallyann Amdur Sack-Pikus have responded by raising concerns about collaborative genealogy, especially as it is practiced on the leading collaborative genealogy platform Geni.com.[2]  Both authors suggest that genealogy on Geni is not for the “serious/accomplished/seasoned genealogy researcher.”  In his most recent article, Pickholtz uses the term “serious” no fewer than five times to describe his differing approach.  Elsewhere the authors describe their opposing genealogical method as producing results that are “authoritative,” “definitive,” “verified,” “proven,” “fully vetted,” “accurate,” “validated,” “correct” and “certain.”  The implication throughout these articles is always that the genealogy that I and others do on Geni is none of these fine things.  So certain is Pickholtz that his, and only his, method leads to truth that he defines his own mantra, and the lesson he would have us teach new genealogists, as “if it might be wrong, it doesn’t belong.”

In fact, the problem is a philosophical one.  The “serious” genealogist, as defined by Pickholtz and Sack-Pikus, is a positivist.  He or she believes that empirical genealogical facts can be conclusively verified as true by following prescribed rules.  The Genealogical Standards Manual of the Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG), and other such manuals propounded by groups of professional genealogists, is a positivist attempt to set forth such rules.  As a lawyer, I find the positivist approach very appealing.  It is comforting to begin with the rules set forth in code books and precedents and think of the practice of law as merely an application of the rules to the facts of the case.  But as a scientific approach to determining empirical facts, positivism leaves a lot to be desired.

Let me explain.  Positivists set up rules for interpreting evidence and assume that these rules lead to “verified” results.  In a court of law, a judge will exclude hearsay or documents that lack foundation (a verified source), in order to prevent consideration of evidence that might lead to an incorrect result.  Similarly, in the Genealogical Standards Manual you can read about “unsound presumptions – concepts that may be valid, but cannot be accepted as true without supporting evidence.[3]  As the first example of an unsound presumption, the BCG lists “A man’s widow was the mother of all (or any) of his children.”[4]  Now, a positivist following prescribed rules, and interested only in facts that can be “verified” according to those rules, might be able to dismiss and exclude for lack of corroborating evidence the possibility (even the likelihood) that a man’s widow is the mother of his children, but that isn’t necessarily the best scientific approach for a genealogist trying to make an educated guess at the mother of those children.

There is another approach, which I will call the “sophisticated” approach, to differentiate it from the “serious” approach propounded by Pickholtz and Sack-Pikus.  Genealogy is the science of assembling empirical genealogical facts such as “A is the son of X and Y” or “B is the sibling of C” or “X is the husband of Y”.  The sophisticated genealogist understands that there is no scientific method that can definitively determine the truth of any genealogical fact.  Rather, as the great 20th century philosopher of science Karl Popper, a critic of the positivists, suggested, the best that one can say about any posited empirical fact is that it has not been falsified, that there is no evidence suggesting it is incorrect.  Take, for example, the fact that “Y is the father of A.”  A serious genealogist, following a positivist approach, might say that this fact has been conclusively determined to be correct because it has been verified in a birth certificate, a document presumed under the Genealogical Standards Manual to be true and correct.  Of course, the sophisticated genealogist knows that paternity is a tricky thing.  Sometimes the father listed on the birth certificate is not in fact the biological father.  What appears true and correct to the serious genealogist is for the sophisticated genealogist merely a likely possibility, not yet disproved or falsified.

A sophisticated genealogist would never say “if it might be wrong, it doesn’t belong,” because the sophisticated genealogist understands that every assertion of an empirical genealogical fact might be wrong.  No matter how many genealogical research standards are applied, the empirical truth of observed facts can never be conclusively determined.  There is always a chance that the evidence has led to the wrong conclusion.  So, when someone asks me, as they often do with regard to genealogical profiles on Geni, whether I am certain that something is correct, I always answer: “I am never certain of anything!”  I am always looking for new evidence, open to the possibility that something I had believed to be true has been falsified in some way.

For good reason, Karl Popper’s approach of empirical falsification is today much preferred by scientists over the positivist approach.  If genealogy is the science of assembling empirical genealogical facts, then empirical falsification may be the best philosophical framework for a sophisticated genealogist.  I think of every genealogical fact I put on Geni as a hypothesis waiting to be tested by other genealogists.  If they find a fact that tends to disprove the hypothesis, it is easy to change the hypothesis to fit the newly discovered fact.  That flexibility is what I like about Geni.  Contrary to what those unfamiliar with Geni, like Pickholtz and Sack-Pikus, have presumed, Geni does not use an algorithm to merge or change any profile.  All changes are made by humans and are viewable by other users.  Each profile includes a “Revisions” tab that records any changes that were made, so prior hypotheses can be revisited.  Geni curators are not authoritarian arbiters of correctness, but rather facilitators who help other people discuss and resolve or preserve differing views on the Geni platform.  For example, to answer one of the criticisms of Sack-Pikus, there is a trick that curators can use for people who were adopted, so that you can have two sets of parents, biological and adopted.  I have used this for the poet Richard Beer-Hofmann, whose mother died in childbirth leading to his adoption by his mother’s sister, who was married to his father’s nephew/first cousin.  It’s a complicated family, but on Geni you can show all the relationships, a necessity for historians trying to figure out ambiguous references to family members in the poet’s biographical writings.

Pickholtz dismisses the analogy to Wikipedia, but he misunderstands the argument because he is stuck in the positivist philosophical framework.  Wikipedia and Geni are not mechanical arbiters of objective truth according to some positivist rule book.  Rather, they succeed because they are platforms that allow scientific collaboration by many millions of people, each presenting empirical facts and testing hypotheses.

The underpinning of the sophisticated approach is to always add ever more documents and sources so that others can retrace the steps and test the hypothesis. I have personally uploaded about 14,000 documents to Geni.  The ability to allow others to recreate an experiment and independently assess the evidence is at the heart of the scientific method.  The results of this type of scientific collaboration on a shared platform are clearly superior, leading to more discoveries and more correction of mistakes.  From his website, Pickholtz is thrilled to receive a note from another researcher “every few months.”  On Geni, I receive about five messages per day related to work I have done.  The work on the tree is never-ending and continuous.

Genealogy can be done in many different ways and collaborative genealogy on Geni is not meant to supplant or replace other forms of genealogy.  If you like, you can and should keep your own file, whether written or digital, for keeping certain types of records and work in progress.  I have nothing against websites like Pickholtz’s, or even the obviously silly way he attaches percentages of certainty (30%, 50%, 90% etc.) to various speculative connections.[5]  I find all types of assertions of genealogical facts interesting and useful.

So, as a sophisticated genealogist, if I were asked, as Pickholtz was, what advice to give to new genealogists, I would say: have fun.  Don’t be dour like the serious genealogists.  Make the best guesses you can, based on the facts at your disposal.  But don’t fret too much over whether every fact you set forth in your tree is correct or not, or whether it is verified according to someone’s rule book of standards.  No one, not even the serious genealogists, can conclusively determine the truth.


[2] I. Pickholtz, “Getting It Wrong,” Avotaynu XXIX, No. 2, p. 21; S. A. Sack-Pikus, “As I See It,” Avotaynu XXIX, No. 3, p. 2; I. Pickholtz, “Concerns about Geni and Other ‘Collaborative Genealogy’ Websites,” Avotaynu XXIX, No. 3, p. 14; S. A. Sack-Pikus, “Collaborative Genealogy: Some Cautions on an Exciting and Useful Advance,” Avotaynu XXIX, No. 3, p. 13.

[3] The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual (2000), p. 11 (emphasis in original).

[4]  Ibid.

[5] See http://www.pikholz.org/General/TreesIndex.html (viewed November 28, 2013).

Leave a Reply