Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Possible vs. Probable

When it comes to genealogical research, we sometimes see tension between two types of people: those who want something to be true and those who want to prove something is true. I think some confusion comes in when people throw around words like "probable" in magazine articles or research. Possibility and probability mean very different things.

Possibility is simply a matter of "yes" or "no." Take for example Miles Standish, whose origins before he journeyed to Plymouth on the Mayflower are obscured, perhaps intentionally, as some researchers have suggested.

Is it possible that Miles Standish is the son of Standish family #1 in England? Yes. Is it possible that said Miles Standish is the son of Standish family #2 in England? Again, yes. At this time, until proven, Miles Standish could possibly be the son of any Standish man old enough to have had sons about the time Miles was born.

It's the possibilities that researchers want to narrow down into probabilities, or the likelihood that Miles Standish is descended from a specific family. If we can say an event is possible, our next step is to look into whether or not it is probable or likely, given the circumstances of the situation.

For example, did Standish family patriarch #1 leave a detailed will laying out recipients of the father's estate? If so, is Miles one of those who inherited? If not, then we need to keep family #1 a possibility, rather than a probability. Does Standish family #2 indicate that a child of theirs left for America or is no longer residing in England? Yes? In that case, there's a lead that should be pursued, as it may indicate - but not prove! - the likelihood that Miles belongs to that family.

Keep in mind this is just an example. Thus far, researchers still lack proof of the parentage or origins of Miles Standish, which is why I chose him as an example, because while there is a great deal of speculation and possibility, all of it remains inconclusive at this time.

I believe that, in particular, surname societies need to hold themselves to a much higher standard. We should not be perpetuating information that is possible as fact, let alone even probable. If anything, a surname society should put out information that is trustworthy and shows them as an authority on the ancestor whom their society honors. It's also not fair to genealogists who rely on the information found on surname society websites and it certainly reflects poorly on the society itself when the Genealogical Proof Standard is ignored.

The term Genealogical Proof Standard comes from the Board for Certification of Genealogists, which lays it out thus:
  • reasonably exhaustive research;
  • complete, accurate citations to the source or sources of each information item;
  • tests—through processes of analysis and correlation—of all sources, information items, and evidence;
  • resolution of conflicts among evidence items; and
  • a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion. 
The purpose of this is, of course, to ensure your family tree is as accurate as possible. It's a pretty straightforward standard, and while it may sound as daunting as writing a research paper, I believe all of us - individual researchers, surname societies, etc. - should strive to meet it.

The Genealogical Proof Standard reminds us that possibility is not proof. It is not enough to simply say that an immigrant ancestor's name and estimated year of birth matches the name and year of birth of a person in his or her country of origin, and thus the two must be one and the same. All other evidence must be taken into account.

If we read an article and get excited to see that we might finally have a connection for someone such as Mile Standish, we also need to remember not to ignore writers if they specifically state that the research shared within the article remains inconclusive. Even if they appear to put together a good argument for a particular lineage, if they include a caveat that they have proven nothing, then please heed it and accept the lineage as another possibility vs. a probability!

Copyright (c) 2016 Wendy L. Callahan

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