Sunday, July 1, 2012

Essay: Wrong Information on the Internet Doesn’t Bother Me

If you read genealogy blogs for very long, you will encounter many discussions on what is perhaps the most common complaint in all of genealogy: Many people are putting up incorrect family tree information.  Blog posts suggest ways of dealing with this pariah, such as 3 Ways to Contend With Incorrect Family Tree Data Online, and Ancestry.com, and the spread of misinformation.  A Google search of “Incorrect Family Trees” returned 1,840 that use this expression.  Many have complained that sites like Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org encourage posting poorly done research and should remove inaccurate information from their sites.  I’ve even heard some say that they have “been forced” to make their information private to discourage people from using it incorrectly.  This week, there was an active discussion on the Genealogical & Historical Research group of LinkedIn entitled Incorrect information on the Internet--how do you stop that story? that caused me to reflect on why, exactly, it doesn’t bother me at all.
You can find misleading and wrong information everywhere, on topics ranging from how to clean a deck with a power washer to the best way to diet and exercise. From ways to “legally avoid paying taxes” to which medications are safest. How many people believe in Area 51, UFOs, and aliens? Remember Crystals and Pyramid Power? We read these things every day; most of us take it with a grain of salt. It doesn’t upset us that someone has published their theory that ancient aliens built the statues on Easter Island.  Why do the errors in family tree data rankle us so?

Now, there certainly have been unscrupulous “genealogists” who will, for a fee, trace your lineage to Alexander the Great or King Richard the Lion Hearted.  I’m not really talking about them.  I’m talking about those people who, by wishful thinking, by a desire to assemble a tree quickly, or even through a simple error, post trees to Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, or any of a variety of websites, containing erroneous information. Some people who have built their trees with great care sometimes simply make a wrong conclusion based on the information they have available, leading to entire branches of families attached to wrong trees.

One complaint is that once the incorrect information is “out there” it can’t be removed. The promulgation of incorrect information isn’t new, and it isn’t limited to genealogy. Incorrect information is published every day in every form of media. Sometimes these “facts” get taken up and replicated for a very long time. As an example, I was taught in school that Christopher Columbus’ crew thought the world was flat. Apparently (and I hope this isn’t incorrect information) this was an idea that may have begun with Washington Irving's publication of A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus in 1828. Historians now feel that virtually no one thought the world was flat in 1492. Yet the myth persists.

I spent the early part of my career in scientific research. Astrophysics, to be specific. A large part of research involves searching through published and unpublished works from others to see what they have done and how we can avoid common pitfalls. Expanding on existing work gives us a head start. A good researcher will use sound judgment when using another’s research though. Ideally, you should redo experiments yourself, but this isn’t always feasible as the experiments can be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming to replicate (not a lot of Hubble Space Telescopes lying around). We trust “peer-reviewed” journals, like The Astrophysical Journal because they engage a third party to review articles prior to publication. When using the research, the reputation of the scientist or team plays an important part in deciding how much faith to put in the findings. We look at the publication history of the scientists and look at how well regarded they are in the community. Ultimately, we make the best judgment we can and then cite our source. If they are wrong, then we become wrong. Sadly, that’s how research works. No one guarantees the accuracy. Less formal presentations, talks, and seminars aren’t controlled at all. Many articles have been written that have been shown to be in error. Yet scientific progress isn’t hampered.

Genealogy is no different. We seek out original documents when we can.  In my research I cannot always go back to primary documents. Some are lost, some are simply too expensive or difficult to get to (although I may keep trying). We are instructed to ask our oldest relatives about names and dates of ancestors long deceased  (Somehow we consider 95-year old Aunt Esther’s memory to be definitive). We look in published genealogies for mentions of our families, often with the feeling that anything written a long time ago must be accurate, even though we have far better access to records today than in earlier years. Books and journals may be available,  representing countless hours of research, and can give much valuable information.  But with all these sources, we must exercise our critical thinking skills and use our judgment, like a scientist, to determine how much to believe.

For Virgin Islands research there are a few sources I have found who are very reliable. The transcriptions of E. Gullach-Jensen published in Personalhistorisk Tidsskrift in 1916 are well researched and respected. I am comfortable using them although I have found an error or two. The articles on the De Windt Families by Henry Hoff (current editor of the New England Historical Genealogical Society Register) that were published in The Genealogist during the 1980s are of the highest academic standards. One old standby, Ryberg's Inhabitants of the Danish West Indies, on the other hand, has many errors and inconsistencies; I consider all information in it suspect, although it has proven to be about 95% accurate and highly valuable.

As I was going through Henry Hoff’s publications, I had some questions and sent him an email asking about one of his articles from 1980 that included one of my ancestors I have written about recently, Claudius van Beverhoudt (c. 1731).  The article stated that Claudius was the son of Johannes van Beverhoudt, Claudizoon and Anna De Nully, Johannes’ second wife.  Mr. Hoff wrote back telling me that, following publication, he determined that his published information was incorrect and the Claudius’ mother was actually Johannes’ first wife, Dorothea de Windt.  He sent me his argument and sources.  My facts are now updated, but the error is still “out there” in print.

A current researcher, Svend Holsoe, is a genealogist of the first order. He publishes a continual “Work in Progress” on his vifamilies.org website.  I have found these pages to be extremely helpful, but they are not considered (especially by him) to be definitive.  He is publishing what information he has found and what the data appears to show.  He is constantly updating and correcting it.  He welcomes additions and corrections.  I have sent him several notes with information and sources I have found that add to or correct these pages.  Mr. Holsoe feels that it is more important to put his work online, albeit flawed, where researchers, like myself, can use it and contribute to it rather than to hold it secret until it is “finished” and correct, which for a genealogist is a euphemism for “never”. I’d rather have flawed information today than perfect information in several decades.

Now I consider these two researchers to be among the best, yet I have never assumed that their work was gospel.  I patiently read their arguments, try to locate their sources, and compare their findings with information I may have that they do not.  Usually I agree, sometimes I do not. This process is how research works in academic disciplines and in all research fields.  This is how it is supposed to work.  You aren’t supposed to read and believe research.  A large proportion of articles for the National Genealogical Society Quarterly (NGSQ) are arguments of genealogical linkages that have not been proven definitively. Many of these may turn out to be incorrect once another piece of the puzzle is found.  That doesn’t make the earlier work bad and it shouldn’t be removed.  It is how knowledge grows.

Like everyone, I too have run across incorrect family trees. In going through St. Croix church records I found a baptismal record of Marie Westergaard, with parents recorded as Petrina van Beverhoudt and Christian Westergaard. Ancestry.com gave me a “shaky leaf” and pointed to another member tree who recorded a Christian Westergaard in St Croix but with a wife named Petrina O’Brien. Looking at census information, there was no way to tell which Petrina it should be, as they were both the same age, both lived on St Croix at the same time, and both disappeared from the census at the same time as Christian did. Subsequently, in the US, Christian reappears with his wife “Rena Westergaard”. I contacted the owner of the tree and asked how she determined Petrina’s maiden name. We compared our notes, and the baptismal record held sway. She updated her tree, thanked me, and shared her research on their descendants. I gave her my information on Rena’s tree. In fact, by posting her incorrect information, I found it and gave her Rena’s lineage back to the 1600s (fully sourced).  Had she not posted her “uncertain” information, I never would have contacted her.

Of course, this is the way it “should" be. We should all cheerfully correct our mistakes, insisting on accuracy at all times. Some people have complained about the intransigence of some people to accept “corrections” to their research. One member that I contacted about a contradictory tree said “Oh, that’s not my main line so I don’t care” and had no interest in updating it, regardless of the evidence I had. Others have “traced” their families to key historical figures and will not listen to any suggestion that their trees are wrong. The tree never gets updated and the incorrect information lives forever on the internet.  Yet this doesn’t really bother me.  I just consider the information in their trees to be “suggestions” and check them out.  Usually I’ll find good information in there somewhere.

The concern with this issue has important implications.  Those who insist that all genealogical information should be “correct” before it is published would make research virtually impossible.  They would reduce genealogical publication to simply the transcribing of primary sources without permitting the drawing of any conclusions not explicitly stated in the records. Sadly, many facts will never be proven.  Should we ask journals to withhold publication until all facts can be proven?  Should we ask Mr. Holsoe to cease and desist publishing his valuable work while it is still incomplete?  Family history writers warn against waiting until you are “done” before writing your family history.  The fact is you are never done.  Family histories go unwritten. This blog is a publication of my own research and my conclusions.  Sometimes I have to go out on a limb and speculate what the data suggests, but what is not proven. Some of my conclusions will ultimately be proven incorrect.  Should I stop writing because of it?  On the contrary, the research method invites peer review.  I want my readers to challenge my conclusions.

Perhaps I look at genealogy differently than most.  I see it as fundamentally a research activity, not as a “look up the information” activity.  I don’t expect all the information I find to be correct.  I don’t expect it to be wrong, but I don’t ever take it at face value.  Since I never have, I never felt mislead by mistakes or poor research.  The mistakes don’t bother me one bit.  Over time, I try to retrace all the research, building a tree that will, hopefully make my work the kind of work that someone will one day cite with confidence. 

And then I expect them to go look for all the original sources.

So, what's your opinion on this divisive topic?  Agree?  Disagree?  Let's talk about it.

8 comments:

  1. I agree. Any information found can help further one's research. Confirm or contradict, offer another possiblity, another avenue that the researcher would not have considered.

    A lot of people peruse the web, copy the first info found, and call it done and move on. Not everyone has the same level of involvement into genealogy. For my site, for a long time I told people that what was found on my site must be considered as a starting point to start their research and as time goes by, I try to be more rigid with sources, etc.

    But in the end, genealogy always has a certain lvel of uncertainty. Even documents are not always right, censuses incorrect and so forth.

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  2. I appreciate your scrutiny of this subject. I am a lot less disturbed by unsupported erroneous assertions in trees (many of which have been drawn from published material) than by their context. The commercial and other sites which assert that genealogical research can be done by copying from trees, or that genealogy is easy and requires little dedication to finding documentary evidence, in my view just lead folks down the primrose path. While many are not inclined or unable to expend the resources of time, energy and money, and unwilling to experience the sometimes steep learning curve, I hope that learning resources will become ever more available and easy to find for those willing to drink them in.

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  3. Oddly enough, I have found in my family research that the people most resistant to discussing inaccurate information are the ones closest to me. I have a few cousins also working on their own versions, who have taken family stories as "gospel". I understand no one wants to think their family could have been less than honest about their pasts, but people need to realize that times were different when grandma was growing up. Being divorced or having a child out of wedlock was a very scandalous thing that would ruin the lives of everyone involved, so stories were invented to explain fathers who were no longer there, for instance. In my own family, I have a child who was born to one unmarried sister, but raised by another who was married. There were no adoption proceedings back then, they used his father's surname for a couple of years but then dropped it and took the surname of the new family. For this reason, I have learned to keep family lore in mind, but not accept it as fact without documentation to back it up. There are points in my branches where I cannot do anything but make an educated guess, but I try to keep notes associated with those ancestors on why I feel x is y's father or why I believe they moved from point A to point B. I want those who come after me to know my line of thinking, what I've tried, and where I was headed.
    I have had much better luck with those I've shared with online. Most seem open to corrections, and to sharing their corrections to my research as well. I have seen a lot that keep their research private, but I am of the opinion that the more the correct info is shared, the better chance there is that people will proliferate the properly sourced and fact checked trees. I realize it is the researcher's hard work and expense, but it is a labor of love. We all love doing this or we simply would not be here. At times, I think we all need to remember that it may be "our" work, but it is our family's history. As such, it should not be hoarded and secreted away, it was meant to be shared.

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  4. Thanks for this really interesting article and view point. I am inclined to agree with you having thought more about this as a result of reading your blog. I have occasionally found myself slightly irritated when people refuse to acknowledge info may be wrong. I have shown they have attached my family photos to completely (as I see it at any rate!) wrong trees and also included my parents wrongly in their trees.

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  5. Those tree hints have a mind of their own sometimes. When trying to add a hint, some of the other info gets added too if you're not careful.

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  6. I disagree that inaccuracies on 'family tree' sites should be accepted as a simple error. A very distant (by marriage) family member began researching the family tree for her grand-son and printed and published that document detailing my maiden name, my married name, the names and dates of birth of my two sons and then had added a third son which has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with me or my husband but unhappily this document has been seen by someone who firmly believes that either my husband had an affair or that my husband and I did have a third son whom we had adopted! Even the production of a birth certificate for that supposed third son has not convinced that person of the error. I am distraught.

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  7. By Herb Patterson: The bottom line is that about 95% of the many trees on ancestry.com, that I have reviewed, contain numerous careless and gross errors. Family trees by non-descendants that include gross errors are an insult to living descendants. Such tree editing cannot be defended in any way. Ancestry.com contributes to family tree errors by making data bases available that were created in recent years and therefore without proof. Most tree owners use this data as if factual.

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  8. Agree with comment that genealogy is 'fundamentally a research activity, not a “look up the information” activity' because if it were a legal requirement tasked to each family, no doubt the family system would dwindle to avoid such a responsibilility! This Blog is truly inspirational in the way it explains so many topics in anectdotal format.

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