Why Genealogists Make Mistakes

The new issue of the AARP magazine showed up the other day–the one with Sidney Poitier on the cover.  It’s just been recently that I’ve been able to admit publicly that I do read that magazine as I embrace life as “older guy.”

The magazine this month has an article entitled “Why Doctors Make Mistakes”, a very important topic for everyone to comprehend.  But as I read the article, it occurred to me that it could apply to any endeavor or profession that depends on the use of judgment and discretion to analyze facts to a conclusion.  That would include lawyers, judges, and . . . genealogists!

Of course, a genealogist’s mistake is almost never life-threatening. But if propagated through erroneous multiple publication, a genealogist’s error can have significant consequences for the people concerned.

The AARP article says, “Too often, physicians make snap decisions.”  Sound familiar? How does this happen in medicine or genealogy?

The article points out that doctors think through cases by arranging information into a pattern. Genealogists do the same thing.   The pattern is then “superimposed onto a template of the typical case that exists in [one’s] mind.” Think about that. Think about how you arrange information in your mind based upon your own template of the “typical case.”  Your template may have been built on your understanding of family naming patterns, your view of history of a particular era, your knowledge of certain geography, and so on.  But in genealogy as in medicine, pattern recognition sometimes fails us.  The genealogical reasons are the same as the medical reasons:

  • Incomplete or misleading information: this may be the result of a deliberate withholding by family members, or inaccurate reporting by a census taker, transcription errors, misplaced, lost, or destroyed records, etc.
  • The case might not be “typical.”

The AARP article identifies three cognitive errors that doctors make that are applicable to genealogists:

  • Anchoring: the tendency grab onto the first bit of plausible evidence and analyze the case from that vantage.  Genealogists may sometimes try to make the other evidence fit this first piece.
  • Availability: “the tendency to assume that an easily remembered prior experience . . . can explain the new situation . . . .”
  • Attribution: “the tendency to mentally invoke a stereotype” and to attribute a conclusion to that stereotype.  The problem is that this, like the other errors, causes one to overlook other possibilities.

How can we keep our thinking focused  and rational?  By asking ourselves these questions, similar to ones recommended in the medical field:

1.    What else could the evidence be suggesting?

2.    Could  there be more than one issue or anomaly here?

3.    Is there anything in  the evidence that doesn’t fit with your working hypothesis?

Just as is the case for physicians, “these questions may cause the [researcher] to go back and re-examine assumptions, to think again . . . .”

(The arictle “Why Doctors Make Mistakes,” by Jerome Groopman, M.D., is on  page 34 of the September-October 2008 issue of AARP–The Magazine)


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