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Thursday, February 20, 2014

How to Avoid Magical Thinking in Your Ancestral Research

Magical thinking in the research realm can be defined by the term "causal fallacy."  Now I have nothing against magical thinking.  The fruits of our imaginations can lead to happy lives, a constant renewal of hope, even good choices in our life partners (don't ask me to explain this, but picture sharing your morning cup of coffee and toast with an extremely cynical breakfast-mate... forever. Not magical. Advice: go for the mate with a great imagination.)

**As I mentioned in my previous post, NPR  aired a news piece about people posting fake family trees on public ancestry websites.   These cheeky folks knowingly publish a false family tree, linking them to a King or some other noble (or ignoble) personage. Not mistakenly, but for the sole reason of drawing attention to themselves!  The grasp for celebrity is reaching desperate heights.**

I love this image from the Gala Darling blog


 "What we SEE depends mainly on what we look for."

Perfectly true.  And here, in a few short steps, is how this phrase applies to you and your family research - and where it can go from magical thinking to delusional thinking, complete with research gone very badly astray.

1. Let us say that you have heard via family lore, that there is an elusive Italian Count lurking somewhere in your family tree. You must find him. Oh, to be related to a Count!

We all enjoy finding unique or unusual characters in our lineage.  Whether discovered with pride or chagrin, these people can provide the fascinating, unique blossoms on our family Tree.

2. You have spent hours/months/years tracing your ancestral roots.  Using all available sources - local findings, online databases, family stories and documents - you seem to have exhausted all clues and hit a brick wall.

Here is where magical thinking (the fun of finding a possible Italian Count in your tree - hoping against hope you actually have one!) can take a turn into erroneous research results.



Step Three is important.

3. After all your hours of fruitless searching, a NEW family tree posted publicly by an Ancestry.com or FamilySearch.org member, suddenly appears in your search results for Italian Count So and So.  Eureka!  You do a quick comparison of your family tree with New Person's family tree and, well....it seems applicable.  Maybe there are few extra spouses.  Or, maybe the mother's maiden  name is just a tad...different?  But mostly it looks pretty good.

Proof!  You can now say with no Magical Thinking involved, that you are related to the Italian Count.

Step Four:  Get Real.

4.  Go back to the adage above:  "What we see is mainly what we look for."  Keep that in mind, and then ask yourself:  Was New Person's family tree adequately sourced and documented?  Or, am I just maybe a wee bit tired of detective work, and up against a brick wall, and just really WANT this to be true ??

Next, is the key to avoiding major misleading mistakes in your family research.  You may have to bite the bullet and be ready for the conclusion that you are NOT related to Italian Count So and So.  But it will be worth having the truth of your real family tree.

The Key:

5.  Always check for Sources of information when perusing the family tree (usually posted online) submitted by someone outside your family.  (Actually, don't hesitate to question your own family members! Bless their hearts - they can be dotty about facts.)

Are there any Sources included at all??  If so, did New Person cite traceable, original Sources?  Even if they have not posted an image of a document or record, is there a citation for it which can lead you to the document or record, on your own? 

The Uncomfortable Truth.

Unfortunately, all it takes is one undocumented source  - or a lack of a source of information altogether - to lead you astray.  In your passion and fervor to make the link to Italian Count So and So, you are just oh so ready to pounce on New Person's family tree and make it part of your own. And Voila!, you are part-Royal.

The maddening and uncomfortable truth (*sigh*) is that you  must be able to PROVE every fact, story, tidbit, record, person, that you find shoring up the branches of your family tree.  Simple.

Without abandoning the delights of Magical Thinking in other areas of your psyche and life, when it comes to research, be aware that it is going to lead you down a path possibly strewn with "rotten blossoms" fallen from the undocumented family tree of a stranger.


I hope you do find a link to that Italian Count So and So, I really do.  How cool!  But, remember, everyone's family is remarkable, somehow.  If you only "see" the magical thing you are looking for so desperately - you are bound to miss, and fail to appreciate, the truer magic of your real ancestors.


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