Monday, February 20, 2012

Events, Assertions, Evidence, Facts, Sources, Analysis, Conclusions, Software, Oh My!

Michael Hait posted What is a conclusion? today on his Planting the Seeds blog (one of the very best in geneablogging, by the way!). Please read his entire post for context.  In the post,  he stated:

"In actuality, every fact reported as such is a conclusion reached through research into that specific research goal.

"Each of these conclusions/facts may provide evidence that leads you to a “big picture” conclusion, a more complex research goal.

"If you accept that every fact is a conclusion, then it should follow that every fact is subject to the Genealogical Proof Standard, and all that it entails."
I understand what Michael is saying here, but I have a quibble with his definitions.  Here is what I commented on his post:

"Starting with a definition of Fact:
"1. 'something that actually exists; reality; truth: 2. something known to exist or to have happened: 3. a truth known by actual experience or observation; something known to be true: 4. something said to be true or supposed to have happened:' (
"And the definition of an Assertion:
“1. The act of asserting. 2. Something declared or stated positively, often with no support or attempt at proof. ” (
"It seems to me that we find an “assertion” in a record or statement from a source without knowing the veracity of the assertion, A collection of assertions forms the body of evidence that define an “event” like a birth or marriage or burial.
"If we have done a reasonably exhaustive search for all of the assertions for the event, then we can apply the GPS to drive to a “Conclusion.” That “Conclusion” becomes the basis for the “Fact” – the true date or place or name for an Event in a person’s life history."
I want to expand on my logic here - my logic string goes likes this:  
1)  A historical Event happened (e.g., a birth, marriage, death, census return, obituary, burial). 
2) An informant created, or another person created, a record of the Event based on an eyewitness or hearsay account.  The informant may or may not be identified in the record.
3)  The record of the Event is an Assertion - an informant said the Event happened and provided details of the Event (e.g., a birth date, a birth place).  The Assertion has a Source (written, verbal, image, video, etc.).
4)  The collection of one or more Assertions creates a body of Evidence about the Event.
5)  The body of Evidence for an Event can be evaluated by applying the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS) to the evidence at hand - performing a Reasonably Exhaustive search; creating a Citation for each assertion; analyzing the quality of each piece of the body of evidence; resolving conflicting evidence; and drawing a sound written conclusion from the evidence at hand.
6)  The Conclusion drawn by a researcher for a specific Event, after applying the GPS, becomes their "best estimate" of the "truth" or "Fact."  As Michael points out in his post, that Conclusion (and therefore the "Fact" in my construct above) can be altered by finding and evaluating more assertions and adding them to the body of evidence.
I also noted in my comment on Michael's post that:
"In reality, many researchers reach a conclusion for each event based on a non-RES and enter the “best” (most likely or most convincing) assertion into their genealogy management program and move on.
"Why do they not perform a RES? Almost all of those conclusions were reached before the GPS was defined and/or learned. Sadly, 95% of the genealogical community has never heard of the GPS nor reads the peer-reviewed journals that use GPS principles to solve difficult research problems."
This is, of course based on my own experience working on my own research and in the genealogical community for many years.  When I mention "Genealogical Proof Standard" at my talks or in my research group, the response is almost always MEGO (My Eyes Glaze Over).  
In my own research experience, I was (and still am) a Name (and data) Collector - from books, periodicals, manuscripts, microfilms, websites, databases, etc.  I typically add newfound information for specific Events, from any source, subject to a quality evaluation) on persons that fit my research interests (my ancestral families and my one-name studies) to my RootsMagic database, and then go hunting for more assertions in other resources.  I also try to capture as much family history information and records for persons in my database, but there are thousands of persons in my database that have no or few Events on their list (typically, parents of spouses of siblings of my ancestors).  My collection is, and always will be, incomplete. 
If I find additional assertions of events, I add information to my Research Notes about those persons and will add an "Alternate Event" (e.g., Alt. Birth, Alt. Marriage) to my database with the information that is different from my Conclusion for the Event.  If the additional assertion corroborates my Conclusion for the event, then I add the Source for the additional assertion to the Conclusion.  If I am convinced that my Conclusion for the Event should be changed, based on my informal or formal analysis of the evidence, then I select the new Conclusion for the Event to be the one displayed in the RootsMagic database.
Unfortunately, throughout my research history, I have not done this consistently, and my database shows this inconsistency.  Too many of my Conclusions are based on the mental evaluation of the available evidence and not on a rigorous GPS evaluation.  
I will try to review how the genealogy management programs I use address this issue of Events, Assertions, Conclusions and Facts.
Copyright (c) Randall J. Seaver, 2012.


Michael Hait said...

Mental evaluation is still evaluation. If you are searching for all available records (and citing them), correlating the relevant information and evaluating it, and reconciling conflicts, then you are doing "GPS evaluation." The only step missing is the "written conclusion." Entering the information in a database is partial completion of this condition. Adding notes to the database would be a little better. Writing out a full report for your files would be the best.

But don't sell yourself short in your research process.

Dr. Bill (William L.) Smith said...

Thank you, Michael, and Randy, for this valuable and useful discussion. It gives some of the rest of us 'hope' as well. Keep up your great works and discussions. ;-)

Mister Tolley said...

Don't sell yourself short, and don't beat yourself up about it. And importantly we shouldn't beat anyone else up over it either. We all "do family history" in our own way. We all learn how to do it differently (maybe better) as we do more of it. And for most of us - it's a hobby; it's FUN, or else it's not worth doing. So perhaps lots of folk don't know/understand or care about the GPS, but that's not a crime. And what if your/my conclusions are mistaken - there are worse things in the world than marrying one long dead and buried name on a census schedule to another equally long dead and buried name. If they were still around they might just enjoy the joke.
In fact, thinking about it, I've been wrong about most things my whole life.

Cousin Russ said...


Great post. Looks like you and I were on the same page, just a different take.