What’s Proof?

The tip aim of all genealogical investigations is to ascertain proof, by which we imply a convincing, credible case for a particular 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 referring to our analysis goal, and solely our analysis goal.

However how will we determine when an accumulation of proof reaches a threshold that we name proof? How will we outline it? How will we determine when it has been met? How will 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.

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Why is a definition of proof necessary 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, non-public or tutorial sources then sharing the outcomes inside their households. At this time, family tree is a collective exercise, nourished by simple 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 hundreds of printed timber on Ancestry and different massive 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 aim of collective sharing may very well be a single, complete household tree of everybody.

However, as many who’ve checked out shared on-line timber in any element, one rapidly realises that the printed 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 obligatory for any severe genealogical endeavour, as and not using a constant measure of proof we will’t obtain constant outcomes. When collaborating with others, it’s an important.

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 authentic definition of genealogical proof was primarily based on the authorized customary of proof as utilized in civil court docket circumstances. This precept is named the Preponderance of the Proof, which quantities to “once I weigh all the professionals and all the cons, I feel that the professionals outweigh the cons.”

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

Within the late Nineties, the BCG recognised the weaknesses of Preponderance of the Proof and developed a brand new definition of referred to as the Genealogical Proof Commonplace (GPS), which they printed in 2000.

The Genealogical Proof Commonplace

The GPS is a five-step course of which defines a properly performed 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 entire investigation (not simply the conclusions) meets all 5 of the weather.

The Genealogical Proof Commonplace

1. Fairly Exhaustive Search

Full textual content: “Fairly exhaustive analysis – emphasizing authentic information offering contributors’ info – for all proof which may reply a genealogist’s query about an id, relationship, occasion, or scenario.”

So, what’s a “fairly exhaustive search“? Merely put, it’s a search that has examined all doubtlessly related sources. It implies that we begin our investigation by discovering out what the possibly related sources can be, listing them after which search all of them in flip, consulting the unique or a picture of the unique wherever attainable. By doing so we minimise the danger 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 info merchandise contributing – instantly, 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 “fairly exhaustive”. Assuring others of the standard of our search is doubly necessary, it allows them to:

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

Quotation is the one handiest software for enabling efficient collaboration between genealogists.

3. Analyse and Correlate Sources, Info and Proof

Full textual content: “Exams – by way of processes of study and correlation – of all sources, info objects, and proof contributing to a solution to a genealogical query or drawback.

What this actually means is that we have to make a sound interpretation of the proof at our disposal. Kick the tyres, be sure that it stands as much as scrutiny, be trustworthy with ourselves about any gaps or deficiencies that could be there. That is the precise level to think about whether or not the proof we’ve collected varieties a full and coherent image. Is it the most effective accessible proof? Is there every other potential proof we may 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 dangerous, direct and oblique, constructive and destructive?

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 no less than some conflicting proof. The corollary can be usually true, that in case you’ve failed to seek out any conflicting proof then chances are you’ll not have carried out a sufficiently exhaustive search!

Analysing and resolving conflicting proof is an important 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 will be unable 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 ingredient 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 is just not solely legitimate, however free from bias, preconception, or insufficient appreciation of the proof.

What the GPS is – and what it isn’t!

There’s little doubt that the Genealogical Proof Commonplace is a major enchancment upon Preponderance of the Proof. It units a far increased customary for proof to be achieved – no extra dodgy marginal circumstances – and roots its necessities within the language of family tree moderately 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 world wide, whether or not skilled or beginner. It units clear expectations on how we should always plan, execute, and doc our work. It creates a typical customary and helps frequent outcomes that may be scrutinised, replicated, or refuted. It’s a very important software that every one genealogists who’ve mastered fundamental sources ought to attempt to perceive and have interaction with. It’s the lacking hyperlink which will, sooner or later, enable family tree to be the actually collective expertise that it may and, many would argue, ought to be.

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But it surely has issues too:

  • it isn’t a single, cogent assertion in opposition to which a documented conclusion may be measured;
  • there is no such thing as a simple guidelines one can use to say “if this stuff are coated within the documented findings then it passes”;
  • to evaluate whether or not a documented end result has met the usual, the assessor should have entry to particulars of how the investigation was performed;
  • the 5 steps of the GPS every have detailed definitions which require some information and talent to grasp totally and utilise.

One can simply use the GPS to evaluate formal family tree stories, however it’s merely not attainable to make use of it to evaluate the principal type of communication in fashionable family tree – the web 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 customary for genealogical proof. It’s the greatest accessible and we should always all be utilizing it in order that:

  • we now have confidence in our personal conclusions;
  • we now have confidence within the conclusions of our friends and collaborators; and
  • we will 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 undeniable fact that within the laissez-faire world of shared on-line timber, one should re-assess all findings earlier than utilizing any ingredient for one’s personal functions. Consciously utilizing the GPS can cut back unnecessary rework and, most significantly, make us all higher genealogists.

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

It is a bit of daunting, however it’s the greatest framework and customary that the worldwide family tree group has. As soon as mastered, it may 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 under.


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

Private observe: This is among the single most necessary, but least readable, books within the historical past of family tree!

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