Monday, September 29, 2014

Following the Evidence Part 3

Following the Evidence Part 3: Millenial Telephone Game

"Part 1: On Documentary Evidence" discussed several stories from my family history and the standards of evidence I use to decide whether those stories are true.

"Part 2: Staking Claims and Proving Names" explored the limits of following evidence and raised some questions about...questions.

Chances are that you've seen one of those places that sells plaques and books on "your family name" or (even better) "your family crest" or Coat of Arms - something that speaks to your noble heritage, perhaps? Here's one that I found for the Callin clan years ago:

These kinds of things can be fun, and when you're just starting out with your family history research it can be very motivating to put something like this in that big empty space above where your great- or maybe great-great grandparents names peter out. But you have to be careful not to take them too seriously, because... well... these things aren't exactly what you could call "real."

As that article points out, individuals were entitled to wear such heraldry, and in certain cases a father could pass his arms to a son, but the likelihood of anyone in your family tree having ever been one of those individuals is vanishingly small. Remember each generation further back you go doubles the number of people who are your direct ancestors; 5 generations back in my tree puts us in the early 1800s and involves 31 people (including myself). To get back to the glory days of feudalism, you'd need about 15 generations...about 32,767 people out of the millions living back then.

I can't prove that you AREN'T related to someone who was entitled to such heraldry, but when you follow the evidence it should become clear to you that you can't bear the burden of proof to support any such claim. And that's sometimes a hard pill to swallow.

It can be tough for people to give up on a story that makes them feel special.

Solid Anchors

Up to this point, I've told stories that were supported by several different types of evidence, though I've only given examples of one type of evidence. So far, we've been talking about all of the documents that provide a form of testimonial evidence, but I haven't talked at all about scientific evidence - like DNA or archaeological research - or the physical evidence of still-extant houses and public buildings in the places where my ancestors are said to have lived. Because I do most of my research online, I personally tend to take a lot of that for granted. But that's okay for what I'm trying to prove.

One common goal for family historians is to document an ancestor who fought in the American Revolution. If I want to apply for membership in an organization for descendants of Revolutionary War veterans, I only need to provide documentary evidence of my connection to them. I don't need to prove that the war itself happened. That war, and a lot of the details of who fought where and when are well documented. Physical evidence has been collected for two centuries, catalogued and tested, analysed and written down; so when we "prove" that one of our ancestors fought in that War, we aren't required to prove on our own, from scratch, that it occurred - only our connection to it.

When it comes to something that everyone generally accepts as fact, we tend not to question the details. It would be absurd to question the existence of the American Revolution every time it was discussed - but it's important to make this distinction: if you did question it, there is all of that evidence I just talked about supporting the Fact. Not just one document or one artifact, but multiple lines of study and chains of evidence.

The important thing to keep in mind is this: if I'm carrying on with my research and find evidence that shows that I'm NOT related to a Revolutionary War veteran, that can be a hard thing to accept. But even if I find that not one of my ancestors were in the colonies at that time, it doesn't make me any less American, and it doesn't call into question the historical fact of the War itself.

Life Rings

You may have noticed, too, that I tend to link to Wikipedia articles - perhaps when I reference a topic like the Revolutionary War - and you might have wondered why. A lot of folks have an unreasonable distaste for Wikipedia, in my opinion. Because anyone can edit it, it can be easy to dismiss it as being error-ridden or unreliable. But I've observed over the years that history itself can be unreliable. We find new evidence all the time that changes the way we understand what happened in history, whether that is a newly discovered fossil or new discoveries about Viking burials that change our assumptions about those topics.

Keeping up with the changes - and understanding which ones do and don't have merit - can be overwhelming. Wikipedia is not an anchor - it's more of a flotation device. If you're going to figure out which Facts are "true" and which things are "legend", you have to start somewhere, and Wikipedia represents a place where, if you happen to know about a subject, you can add it. If there is a mistake and you can provide a link to evidence that it is a mistake, you can correct it! (That link tells you how to change a page - this one tells you how to make your change credible.)

Evidence is the key, there. Being able to defend what you write to the swarms of editors is what keeps it honest - depending on how many editors are in a given swarm, naturally. That's incredibly valuable to me, because I am not a scholar, and I don't have time to research everything myself. That should be valuable to you, as well, because if we're going to answer a difficult or controversial question, then ultimately, our goal is always to find a credible source that we can both count on.

And this is the important bit: we don't have to agree on the conclusions we reach. I may show you my flimsy evidence that my 3x great-grandfather's farm was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and it's okay if you aren't convinced. I may not be able to put it on Wikipedia, but I may still choose to believe it, and I will keep looking for other clues. But even if you reject my evidence of that fact, you won't be able to claim that he didn't exist, he didn't live in the right place at the right time, or that the Underground Railroad didn't exist - because those are established facts. There is plenty of other evidence that supports those conclusions, and roots them to the rest of our history.

A Few Words About Mormonism

The 12-year-old version of myself - from here on referred to as Believer Me - had already accepted the Bible as one of those anchors. It was established fact. There was no question. So it should follow that what he wanted more than anything in the world was to be able to prove it. But Believer Me had a problem: Mormons. Because this is already long, I'll let you watch this South Park episode, "All About Mormons" (which Believer Me would have adored) as background. 1

The problem was not simply that my Mormon friends believed different things than I did. The problem was that my Mormon friends made a lot of the same claims about their scriptures that I made about my own. They claimed archaeological evidence of their story (that a lost Israelite tribe settled ancient America), which never materialized outside of church-funded research; they claimed bias in the official criminal records of New York and other places that cast Joseph Smith as a con-man; and if I insisted on rejecting their interpretation of that evidence, they would offer various Special Pleading arguments - some of which struck too close to home, because I used them myself on non-believers.

I recognized at that age the importance of following solid evidence - and even though much of my faith was based on accepting what had been handed down to me without really questioning it, I naively believed that there really was evidence that would prove my faith to be the right one. After all, one of the things I was told all the time was that there were historical documents, physical evidence, and all kinds of archaeology backing up the Bible.

In this way, I was motivated by that uncomfortable realization - that these believers in a religion that I knew to have been fabricated in the 1830s could, after only 150 years have developed such an earnest apologia - and it drove me to question some things that I had always assumed to be Established Fact. If I was going to dismiss their claims, but honestly accept my own, I had to hold all of those claims to the same standard.

For that, I needed Evidence.

The Family Tree of Man (Biblical version)

Jump ahead 30 years to now. During that time, I looked for the evidence I needed to truly anchor the beliefs of Believer Me to the established facts of history. But there was a problem: there wasn't any.

(I apologize for that bald assertion, but that's what I learned. This took a long time for me to discover and come to terms with - if you're new to the idea, I don't expect you to just accept it. If you want to read more, there is a decent overview on Salon, or you can try Richard Carrier for a more scholarly research approach.)

Initially, I followed the advice of pastors and family, and kept looking; I literally kept the faith and for a long time, I convinced myself that I would find that evidence. Others tried to tell me it didn't matter - but it did. And this is one example of why.

Everyone who has ever tried and failed to read the entire Bible has joked about getting lost in all of the "Begats". When you hit certain books, there seem to be pages of them. "And Porcine begat Nadal, who begat Someguynamedezar, who begat Shumway by Alf who bade him lay with his porcupine..." you get the idea.

I tried several times over the course of the past couple of decades to map all of that out. I wanted to document all of it. Most recently, I started with Jesus Genealogies on Wikipedia and created a tree on Just as I had done with the George Callin Family History of 1911, I took it all at face value, and plugged it in as-is. If you've read that Wikipedia article, you already know what kinds of problems that caused me - but I wasn't done, yet! I tried to ignore all of that controversy and soldiered on - to 1 Chronicles 7:30-40.

If you want to see what I did, you should be able to visit this public tree and explore for yourself - this link should take you to Jacob (aka Israel). Look around. Wherever possible, I pasted in the passages that I got their information as sources. I put a few days' worth of effort into this, and when I started out, I planned to create citations and continue seriously as if I were doing my own family history. I can't stress that enough - I wanted to treat this project with the same rigor and skill that I bring to my own family history research.

But something dawned on me rather quickly. This was a pointless endeavor.

Remember the first post where I talked about "James 1st"? In my own tree, when the evidence I found didn't support his existence, I changed my records. They no longer said the same thing that the George Callin Family History said - and that's a good thing. That's how Wikipedia works - hell, that's how history works!

I use George's research as a starting point, and verify (or reject) what I can based on established facts. Evidence from multiple angles, disciplines, and sources told me that it is far more likely that my family descended from Patrick Callen than from James. Evidence from various places told me that Rosemary's "impression" that her grandfather William might have fought in the War of 1812 was wrong, and that it was probably Patrick - William's likely grandfather.

This is how evidence, scrutiny, and facts are supposed to work. You are supposed to change your story to fit the facts... but there is no way to do that with the contradictory Biblical accounts of the genealogy of mankind. Because as soon as you "fix" the Biblical account, you are breaking the Law - of the Bible, at least.

This isn't just a theological problem, either; it's a problem of basic scholarship. If you don't allow me to "fix" problems and correct the text as new information becomes available, then it is no longer history; it is just another legend I can't use. If you do allow changes, then it begins to unravel, as there is too much in the book that is fantastic, self-contradictory, and contradicted by things that we have learned in the last couple thousand years. In short, if you follow the evidence, there is no way to tie the Biblical accounts of anything - particularly the genealogies - to established fact.

The problem for Believer Me wasn't ultimately in the evidence, though; I would have been perfectly happy to throw all of the evidence away if I could just have my Anchor back. But after finding that there isn't any reliable evidence to support my faith, I had to admit that there wasn't any more compelling reason to adhere to my childhood faith other than that was what I was told to believe.

Where Does It All Lead?

For me, it took a long time to go down the path that the evidence pointed me to. Even though I resisted for a long time, and tried to ignore the obvious for even longer, one by one, the problems with all of those claims caught up to me. All the claims of infallibility and inerrancy gave way in the face of unavoidable realities about translation, transcription, and simple human error combined with two millennia of wishful thinking.

Having pored over the U.S. Census, I have gained a great appreciation for the number of mistakes that can crop up, and for how they can throw you wildly off base. It's possible to sift through it all and make sense of some of it - but you have to learn to recognize what to keep and what to throw away. You have to use the tools of logic and be willing to give up on a story that can't be true - no matter how cool you think it would be if it were.

The eighth or ninth time I saw that they claimed to have found Noah's Ark, it occurred to me that they were desperate to do so - enough to ignore the obvious reasons why it hadn't been found yet. The seventh or eighth time I saw the Shroud of Turin go on tour, I looked into the disturbing world of religious relics - and that story is unfolding again with a new corpse! Start peeling away the obvious layers, and they all start to disappear. And I sympathized, because I know how hard it was for me to give up on my family "coat of arms" and the idea of Irish immigrant James 1st bravely fighting in the American Revolution.

I hope no one thinks that I put the Jesus Family Tree together to mock or to stand as "disproof" of anything. (No one can ever "prove" a negative.) But it illustrates the problem of ignoring contradictory pieces of evidence and of not being allowed to follow that evidence where it leads. If you're a believer, I know how scary that can feel. But the burden of proof is on the person making bold claims.

Anchors are the worst thing to throw to someone clinging to something as an Established Fact in an ocean of misinformation. The best thing you can do is to let go of the assumptions weighing you down. Start asking questions, test the answers against each other and start building anew with the evidence at hand. If you're going to build something - maybe a raft? - you need three things:

You need a toolbox .

You need to find a stable location to work.

And you need to be willing to start over.

I did it, eventually - and I didn't have to throw away everything - because there is always a place for poetic imagery.

26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”
Matthew 7:26-27New International Version (NIV)



1. I am sorry if stating my opinion about the validity of the Mormon faith so plainly causes offense. My intention is not to mock Mormonism here, but to highlight the fact that my younger self was highly motivated by that opinion to embrace a neutral, reason- and evidence-based approach to proving his faith to be the correct one. If it is any comfort, that strategy obviously backfired - as the rest of this essay should demonstrate.

To paraphrase Dennis Miller:

"I think so little of [our differences] that I refuse to treat you like a Fabergé egg. You are part of the human collective. Come, join us in our reindeer games. You too can be poked fun at."

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