Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Perils of Online Family Trees

I remember when I first got active again with Ancestry.com well over a decade ago.  I began working on my tree, and that of my wife Cynthia, late one night at work, and I was mesmerized by all of the little shaky leaves that kept popping up. It was so easy to just click, click, click and add new people to the tree. Before I knew it, I had hundreds of people in the trees, particularly Cynthia's.

The next day I looked at Cynthia's new online tree and I realized that some things didn't quite add up. It looked like fathers and sons with the same name had wives with the same names. Birth dates made no sense. I had fallen prey to the dark side of online trees - terribly bad information.

I started trying to correct the mistakes, but I had a busy life. I soon discovered that other people were copying from my mistakes and including them into their own trees. I received an e-mail from someone flagging a mistake that I had already changed weeks earlier. It was a mess.



As a newbie, I had no idea of the formal methods of genealogy, but as a scientist and lawyer, I had some good ideas of how the rules of logic might apply.  As I began to think critically about my online trees, I realized how much faulty logic I had applied.

For example, I assumed that someone who had a lot of details that I didn't know and which weren't supported by cited evidence must be based upon some undisclosed personal knowledge. For example, I know my own birthday and wedding information, and until recently none of that was available online.  Being a bit shy about contacting strangers, I just assumed the validity of such information without corroborating evidence.

After all, I was just trying to figure out who my ancestors were, and not to go to court to claim some lost inheritance.  If I had a detail or two unverified or just flat out wrong, what was the harm in it?


As I began to study genealogy, to attend meetings and conferences, to read periodicals, I learned just how easy it was to graft the wrong people onto a family tree, as evidenced in my recent post about Hillary Clinton's online family trees. I also learned about important tools, like the Genealogical Proof Standard, which help to keep research rigorous. (I will discuss those more in future posts.)



I now look upon those enticing, shaking leaves with skepticism. Are they giving me a useful hint, or are they like the snake in the Garden, trying to tempt me with the promise of forbidden knowledge?  Each such leaf has great potential value, but must be viewed with caution.

So why even bother with these trees? I will discuss that question next time.