Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Law & Order: Research vs. Proof in Genealogy

Lawandorder01.jpgAs I mentioned in my last blog entry Book/Study Group: Mastering Genealogical Proof, I have been participating in a Google Plus study group for Dr. Thomas Jones’ Mastering Genealogical Proof.  We have been having interesting discussions and I thought I’d share some of my thoughts with you here.

In chapter 1, Dr. Jones lays out what he calls a “Research and Reasoning Cycle” for genealogy.  In this cycle, he states that research and proof are distinct elements and that analysis and proof is something that is done after the research is completed.  This caused a bit of discussion as most people feel that they do the analysis and proof while they are doing the research.  In fact, it is this very analysis that helps guide the research (where should I look next?). 

I don’t think Dr. Jones’ means to dissuade anyone from thinking through their hypotheses while they research. I don’t think he was referring to that type of analysis.  I think his approach is more like an episode of Law & Order.

If you were living under a rock for the twenty years from 1990-2010 you may not be familiar with the hit TV legal drama, Law & Order.  It was unique in its structure.  Each episode was essentially split into two parts: the first part was the police work and the second part the courtroom.   We can get a good understanding of the roles of research and proof in genealogy by drawing an analogy to this division.

Part I is the research.

It begins with the notification of the crime.  Then the question: Who did it?  The detectives collect evidence, interview witnesses, review documents.  Anything that can shed light on the answer or give a lead of some kind.  As they work through their evidence, they formulate hypotheses.  Perhaps it was a spouse, a drug deal, a business associate.  Each hypothesis suggests where they might look for more clues.  Some of the hypotheses don’t work out and are rejected.  Others are plausible, but not yet convincing. 

While they collect any and all bits of evidence or witness testimony, they know that only the most reliable can stand up in court.  They review the evidence they have to assess its reliability and correlate and corroborate any “less than reliable” testimony.  They resolve all cases of conflicting evidence.  They perform a “reasonably exhaustive” search for any missing pieces. Finally, after working through all the evidence, they arrive at a conclusion.  One that is fully supported by the evidence and explains all contradictions.  They have solved the case!  They know “who done it” and they have him “dead to rights”.  Book ‘em Danno! (Ok, wrong show, but that’s just how old I am.)

Wow, that was an exciting half hour.  On to Part II…


Part II is the trial. 

Of course, arrested is not convicted.  Now the case goes to the lawyers who need to try (or “prove”) the case.  They spend hours constructing a thorough and careful argument.  They write up detailed explanations of each and every evidentiary item.  How does it support the case?  How do we explain away the conflicts?  They need to have good answers to any possible objections, because that’s exactly where the Defense will attack, at the weak points, no matter how small.  Doubt is doubt. The Defense will attack the reliability of the witnesses, so the Prosecution needs to corroborate everything.   Multiple witnesses are better than one.  How many?  Three?  Five?  Can’t say.  It “depends”.   Are the documents valid?  Are they copies?  Are they derivatives?  Legible?  Does someone have a reason to falsify them?  Is there a bias?

Sometimes they find a conflict that the detectives didn’t see. That can mean trouble.  They need the detectives to do more research and clear it up.  The detectives need to chase down information to resolve the conflicts.  It’s critical that they get it just right, because you can’t “partially convict”, it’s all-or-nothing, and if they go to court prematurely and lose, they can’t try the defendant again. They need to have every aspect of their case fully thought through and properly documented.  They document the provenance (or chain of custody) of Exhibits A and B. In court, they explain their case and handle the defense’s objections so well that the jury has no doubt that they have found the right person. The verdict comes in:  Guilty.  The case is proven!  Locking him up and throwing away the key!  It’s Miller Time! (Again with how old I am!)

Of course, “proven” in law doesn’t mean “true”, it just means “tested” (think “Proving Ground”, “Innocent until proven guilty”, or the “proof of the pudding is in the eating”).  To “prove” something is to test it.  That’s all a court, or a historian, or a genealogist can do.  We can subject our work to tests and see how well it holds up.  Sometimes, years later, a critical piece of evidence appears.  Maybe a witness recants.  Maybe the murder weapon is found with someone else’s DNA.  Sometimes the defendant was really innocent.  The case gets reopened and the prisoner is freed.  Sometimes the real perpetrator is found. 

Just because something was proven in court doesn’t mean that it can’t be wrong.  Old conclusions must bow to new evidence.  Truth and justice prevail.

Wow! What an exciting hour. No wonder it did 20 seasons on TV.

Genealogical Proof is much the same

The Genealogical research and proof cycle that Dr. Jones describes is very much like an episode of Law & Order.  We do our research, guided by our analyses and hypotheses.  We collect and evaluate our evidence and draw our conclusions.  But until we get through Part II, the Proof, we can’t say our work is done.  We must carefully write up our case to account for everything and handle all possible objections.  We must demonstrate that we’ve done a thorough search and have considered everything. If there is a weakness in our logic, expect our peers (the Defense) to object and get an acquittal.  We’re not ready for trial until our case is complete.  Like in court, there is no such thing as “partially proven”.  Only “Proven” and “Not Proven” (also “DisProven”, but that’s another matter). Ultimately, the detective work is only half the battle.  Without the Proof, that is, the written argument, we only have belief.

But we don’t have conviction.


  1. I enjoyed your comparison, very well written.

  2. I am hoping to get Dr. Jones' book soon. This was such a great article. In this economy, I am expanding my Genealogy Research business into the forensic genealogy territory. Wow, everyone even considering it should read your article for a perspective they might not have considered. Thank you.
    Ann Royal @annroyal58