Kill the Dandelions
14 April 2016 by Leah Klocek
Trust no one's research but your own.
Bad research is not the internet’s fault. It predates the internet by many, many years. When the first university student was finishing the first research paper and double-checking his citations, lo those many centuries ago, no doubt a classmate of his was busy thinking, “Who needs sources and proof? My argument sounds good enough to me!” …Or whatever the medieval Italian equivalent would have been. The internet had nothing to do with it. The internet, however, makes the propagation of bad research much easier.
"No, Giuseppe, a dream you once had would not count as an acceptable source for this paper."
(Actual image: Mid 16th century, A meeting of doctors at the university of Paris. From the "Chants royaux" manuscript, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.)
In order to understand the problem, think about dandelions in your yard (unless you’re a crazy person who likes dandelions; in that case, think about stinkhorns instead). You want your yard to be neat, attractive, and filled with grass. But then a single dandelion plant shows up. You get rid of it and think that you’re fine. And then another insidious yellow flower rears its head… and another… and another. Before you know it, your beloved yard has been overrun by dandelions.
The same principle applies to bad research on the internet. All it takes is one person, one blogger or reporter or plain, simple nutcase to throw a crazy statement out there. Other bloggers pick it up, and then news organizations; it doesn’t seem to make a difference to anyone that the original statement isn’t based in fact. Even if the original source of the statement does something very unusual and says, “I realize I was wrong about this, it isn’t correct,” it’s too late. Too many people already believe it and will insist that it’s true with their last breath. The dandelions have taken over.
This picture may actually cause me physical pain.
It reaches a point where you feel helpless. You can’t seem to stop the dandelions, no matter how many dandelion plants you terminate with extreme prejudice. You wonder if it’s even worth it to keep trying; after all, your neighbors’ yards are filled with dandelions, and the seeds are blowing right into your yard and taking root. Why bother, you wonder? Because even if the rest of the world is filled with dandelions and no one else seems to care, it’s your duty as a homeowner to keep your yard clear of noxious weeds. Even if other people’s yards are a sea of yellow, yours can still be green. Even if everyone around you is using bad research, you can still get it right and perform your research with integrity. It takes additional effort and care, but it’s worth every second.
(On a side note, can you guess how I spent my morning?)
I won’t single out online genealogical research as a particular offender, as the ‘net is stuffed full of dubious theories with even more dubious evidence, ranging from misinformation about vaccinations and the moon landing to, frankly, insane conspiracies about the shape of the earth and the existence of shape-shifting lizard people who secretly rule us all.
My Family Portrait.
I might argue that poorly researched and cited genealogy is, in a way, even more insidious, since educated and reasonable people with well-developed critical thinking skills who would scoff at the very idea that water fluoridation is a scheme concocted by the government to mind-control the populace for whatever reason throw their critical analysis and skepticism straight out the window when it comes to believing other people’s previously compiled genealogical research. You don’t know who this person is, you don’t know where they found this information or whether they interpreted it correctly, you don’t know if they had an agenda in doing their research… So why are you so eager to believe everything they say about your family that you didn’t already know?
I see this often on Ancestry.com family trees: one person inputs a piece of information about a deceased ancestor into their tree (say, a birth date), but has no source for this information. Other people just believe it with no proof and integrate very possibly incorrect data into their own trees. Or, even worse, one person connects an online source to a person in the tree. For the sake of this example, let’s say it’s a 150-year-old baptism record. And this baptism record gives the names of the baptizee’s (is that a word?) parents, which, on the face of it, would seem to be great, because you don’t know the names of that baptizee’s parents (it probably isn’t a real word, so let’s just call this child “Charles”). At this point, nine out of ten people researching Charles on Ancestry just make the assumption that the baptism record is referring to the correct Charles and attach it to that person in their respective trees. And then they work backwards (which is proper genealogical practice, by the way) and begin researching those parents.
That tenth person, however, actually decides to take five minutes and look at the record. And what does that tenth person find? That the last name of the family doesn’t quite match up (it could still be correct at that point)… and that the baptism date is the same date as Charles’ birth (which would be very unusual, but still somewhat possible)… and that the baptism takes place 50 kilometers away from his birthplace in Hungary in January 1875 (when there was a much closer church of the correct religious denomination). Sounds a lot less likely to be correct now, doesn’t it? Unless the original researcher who connected the record to Charles can offer evidence to show that this hours-old child was taken 50 km to be baptized on a likely frigid day when transport between these two places was decidedly slow and primitive, then person #10 has discovered a very serious inconsistency. And person #10 keeps their yard free of dandelions. But what of persons #1-9 who have attached this record to Charles in their tree? And what of persons #11-19 in the future? They’re now researching the wrong person’s parents! They’re researching the wrong family tree! And it all starts with one person’s carelessness.
None of this is to say that everything on the internet is wrong. There are family history researchers out there who do good, solid work. A couple of the ways that you will know them are that they always cite their sources, they always attempt to find at least three pieces of corroborating evidence before they consider a single fact sufficiently proved (barring future discoveries of conflicting evidence, naturally), and they never try to make the facts fit their preconceptions of someone’s story, but rather, are open-minded to whatever the evidence shows.
Other people’s research can still be useful to you, but you should never take it as gospel truth. Rather, try to tease out the details that you feel might be verifiable, and see if you can duplicate their research. If you manage to verify their work, that’s terrific! If not, it’s definitely a disappointing experience, but at least you’ve managed to keep yet another dandelion from sprouting.
Always keep your yard clear of dandelions.