What is Proof?

The tip objective of all genealogical investigations is to ascertain proof, by which we imply a convincing, credible case for a selected ancestral id, relationship, or life occasion. By thorough analysis in sources, we should discover adequate detailed, matching proof to uncover and reconstruct relationships and occasions regarding our analysis goal, and solely our analysis goal.

However how can we resolve when an accumulation of proof reaches a threshold that we name proof? How can we outline it? How can we resolve when it has been met? How can we assess what others have proposed as proof? Is there only one legitimate definition of proof or are there many? These are questions which can be central to the pursuit of family tree.

Why is a definition of proof essential for family tree?

As soon as, in these not so distant pre-Web days, many genealogists laboured away in close to isolation, uncovering household histories from public, personal or educational sources then sharing the outcomes inside their households. Right now, family tree is a collective exercise, nourished by straightforward on-line entry to many sources, supported by vibrant societies and on-line communities. We share concepts and information, we talk with and educate each other, and, crucially, we regularly share our findings. One want solely take a quick have a look at the 1000’s of revealed bushes on Ancestry and different giant subscription websites to grasp the ubiquity of sharing amongst household historians. Some, such because the LDS Church, have even gone so far as to recommend that an finish objective of collective sharing might be a single, complete household tree of everybody.

However, as many who’ve checked out shared on-line bushes in any element, one shortly realises that the revealed conclusions of some household historians can stretch credulity. At greatest it may be mentioned that there’s a variable interpretation of what’s required to ascertain a genealogical proof.

A regular definition of what constitutes proof is clearly essential for any critical genealogical endeavour, as with no constant measure of proof we are able to’t obtain constant outcomes. When collaborating with others, it’s a vital.

A Historical past of Genealogical Proof

Within the UK there has by no means been an official definition of genealogical proof – one thing which I’ve discovered troubling. Within the USA nonetheless, the Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG) has been a frontrunner in setting out formal definitions and, the place wanted, updating them over time.

The BCG’s unique definition of genealogical proof was primarily based on the authorized normal of proof as utilized in civil courtroom circumstances. This precept is known as the Preponderance of the Proof, which quantities to “once I weigh all the execs and all the cons, I believe that the professionals outweigh the cons.”

Sounds affordable, proper? However there’s a catch – the margin by which the professionals outweigh the cons could be tiny, even infinitesimally small. The place there’s a considerably bigger amount and high quality of proof on one aspect this may work, however in marginal circumstances this may result in conclusions which we would view in the present day with some suspicion.

Within the late Nineteen Nineties, the BCG recognised the weaknesses of Preponderance of the Proof and developed a brand new definition of known as the Genealogical Proof Normal (GPS), which they revealed in 2000.

The Genealogical Proof Normal

The GPS is a five-step course of which defines a effectively carried out genealogical investigation. It may be merely summarised as: search, cite, analyse, consolidate, and conclude. To have met the usual, the researcher should present that their complete investigation (not simply the conclusions) meets all 5 of the weather.

The Genealogical Proof Normal

1. Moderately Exhaustive Search

Full textual content: “Moderately exhaustive analysis – emphasizing unique information offering members’ data – for all proof that may reply a genealogist’s query about an id, relationship, occasion, or scenario.”

So, what’s a “moderately exhaustive search“? Merely put, it’s a search that has examined all probably related sources. It implies that we begin our investigation by discovering out what the doubtless related sources might be, listing them after which search all of them in flip, consulting the unique or a picture of the unique wherever doable. By doing so we minimise the chance of undiscovered proof rising later to overturn an preliminary, maybe hasty, conclusion.

2. Full, Correct Supply Citations

Full textual content: “Full, correct citations to the supply or sources of every data merchandise contributing – immediately, not directly, or negatively – to solutions about that id, relationship, occasion or scenario.

Thorough, correct citing of sources helps us to recollect the place we discovered the knowledge we depend on as proof and allows others to validate that our search has certainly been “moderately exhaustive”. Assuring others of the standard of our search is doubly essential, it allows them to:

  • replicate our steps; and
  • contribute their very own concepts about different related sources which might improve our analysis.

Quotation is the only only software for enabling efficient collaboration between genealogists.

3. Analyse and Correlate Sources, Data and Proof

Full textual content: “Checks – via processes of research and correlation – of all sources, data objects, and proof contributing to a solution to a genealogical query or downside.

What this actually means is that we have to make a sound interpretation of the proof at our disposal. Kick the tyres, make it possible for it stands as much as scrutiny, be trustworthy with ourselves about any gaps or deficiencies which may be there. That is the correct level to contemplate whether or not the proof we’ve collected kinds a full and coherent image. Is it the very best accessible proof? Is there another potential proof we might add to our search to strengthen our case? Is the proof adequate to assist our conclusions? Will our conclusions mirror all of the related proof, good and unhealthy, direct and oblique, constructive and unfavorable?

4. Resolve Conflicting Proof

Full textual content: “Decision of conflicts amongst proof objects pertaining to the proposed reply.

It’s a genealogical truism that any sufficiently exhaustive search will uncover a minimum of some conflicting proof. The corollary can also be typically true, that when you’ve failed to seek out any conflicting proof then you might not have carried out a sufficiently exhaustive search!

Analysing and resolving conflicting proof is a vital step. Can we perceive what the conflicts within the proof would possibly imply? Can we account for them? Or does the conflicting nature of the proof put our conclusion into doubt? If we’re unable to resolve conflicting proof satisfactorily then we won’t be able to formulate a reputable conclusion.

5. Soundly Reasoned, Coherently Written Conclusion

Full textual content: “A soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion primarily based on the strongest accessible proof.

At first look, this factor of the GPS looks as if a non-sequitur. Conclusions have to be:

  • soundly reasoned – as no-one would settle for a conclusion that relied on unsound reasoning;
  • coherently written – as no-one would settle for a conclusion that was written incoherently; and
  • primarily based on the strongest accessible proof – as no-one would settle for a conclusion primarily based on partial, weak, or inaccurate proof.

What this actually means is that our conclusion have to be primarily based on a sound appreciation of what proof was accessible, that we precisely interpreted and collated the proof, and present how the proof results in the conclusion. It allows us to exhibit that our conclusion isn’t solely legitimate, however free from bias, preconception, or insufficient appreciation of the proof.

What the GPS is – and what it isn’t!

There may be little doubt that the Genealogical Proof Normal is a big enchancment upon Preponderance of the Proof. It units a far greater normal for proof to be achieved – no extra dodgy marginal circumstances – and roots its necessities within the language of family tree somewhat than a authorized framework which has uncertain relevance to our pursuit. It’s relevant to all family tree work, not solely within the USA however all all over the world, whether or not skilled or novice. It units clear expectations on how we should always plan, execute, and doc our work. It creates a typical normal and helps widespread outcomes that may be scrutinised, replicated, or refuted. It’s a very important software that every one genealogists who’ve mastered primary sources ought to attempt to perceive and interact with. It’s the lacking hyperlink which will, sooner or later, permit family tree to be the actually collective expertise that it might and, many would argue, ought to be.

However it has issues too:

  • it isn’t a single, cogent assertion in opposition to which a documented conclusion could be measured;
  • there isn’t a easy guidelines one can use to say “if this stuff are lined within the documented findings then it passes”;
  • to evaluate whether or not a documented final result has met the usual, the assessor will need to have entry to particulars of how the investigation was carried out;
  • the 5 steps of the GPS every have detailed definitions which require some information and ability to grasp totally and utilise.

One can simply use the GPS to evaluate formal family tree studies, however it’s merely not doable to make use of it to evaluate the principal type of communication in fashionable family tree – the net tree.

So, if it has shortcomings ought to we be making efforts to make use of it? Sure! Sure! Sure!

The GPS is the one agreed normal for genealogical proof. It’s the greatest accessible and we should always all be utilizing it in order that:

  • we have now confidence in our personal conclusions;
  • we have now confidence within the conclusions of our friends and collaborators; and
  • we are able to share our work within the confidence that it may be used as the idea for additional investigation with out the should be re-verified from high to toe.

It’s a unhappy indisputable fact that within the laissez-faire world of shared on-line bushes, one should re-assess all findings earlier than utilizing any factor for one’s personal functions. Consciously utilizing the GPS can cut back unnecessary rework and, most significantly, make us all higher genealogists.

The GPS isn’t good – even investigations that observe it totally and precisely can’t guarantee good certainty of their final result. (We’re engaged in household historical past, not arithmetic, so there can by no means be good certainty!)

It is a bit daunting, however it’s the greatest framework and normal that the worldwide family tree neighborhood has. As soon as mastered, it might and can prevent time, effort, vitality, and tears!

Have I persuaded you that the GPS is the easiest way ahead for your family tree? Please let me know within the feedback beneath.


  1. Board for Certification of Genealogists, Family tree Requirements (Board for Certification of Genealogists, 2nd Version 2019).

Private notice: This is likely one of the single most essential, but least readable, books within the historical past of family tree!

  1. Anderson, Robert Charles. 2019. Instruments for Testing Genealogical Proofs. Discuss delivered at RootsTech London, 24 October.