A few weeks back, a group of experienced genealogists gathered to dissect and discuss an NGSQ article. During discussion, the topic of Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS) arose when one participant asked about GPS. She was familiar with the “Preponderance of Evidence” principle (POE), but had not read anything on GPS. Another participant replied, “It’s the same thing, just a different label.” Others countered that there was a material difference between the two standards, but even these individuals varied on their explanation of the difference. It was not the first time that I encountered variable perspectives on GPS. This was just the latest.
Coincident to our discussion, I was reading various books and articles that describe GPS. Genealogy, as a discipline, is still in a transition period whereby it is moving away from a less reliable standard (POE) to one that better serves the nature of our research (GPS). As a result, it is rare to read anything that does not discuss both standards.
If you are somewhat a novice to genealogy, my advice is to focus upon how GPS is explained. Ignore any reference to POE. POE is not necessary for you to try to learn at this point. Trying to learn both in unison and to tease apart the differences, is likely to cause confusion and, perhaps, unnecessary anxiety. Understanding POE is not necessary for you to understand how to apply GPS to you present-day research.
However, if you “cut your genealogical teeth” on POE, then you have some reorienting of your mindset and re-engineering your analysis process. But this involves little more than changing how you examine or analyze your data—which, frankly, is sometimes easier said than done. The difference, simply stated, is that GPS seeks to eliminate or to minimize the potential for error inherent with POE. This shift involved adopting new terminology to distinguish the old way of doing things and to avoid confusion with the legal interpretation of POE. Thus, the label Genealogical Proof Standard was created.
That’s as much as I want to say about POE. Here, I want to discuss my general understanding of GPS and what has been written about it. I want to describe that understanding in terms of my background in research design and epistemology (how we know whatever it is that we know).
Some authors have written about GPS calling it a methodology. But their description is wrong. A methodology provides specific steps to reproduce an experiment or study. A simple analogy would be getting to work from home. There are specific steps that you follow daily to go from home to work (or other places). For some, it would might look like:
- Get in car.
- Start engine.
- Pull out of driveway,
- Turn left onto street.
- Arrive at work.
The nature of the sources that we use in genealogical research don’t allow the clear-cut step-wise traits of a methodology. GPS is more like a check list of features. As you look at your research, you take this check list (GPS) and answer the question: Does my research have this quality (feature) and, if so, to what degree does it have this quality? Let me explain by analogy: Suppose you want to purchase a new car. You develop a check list of features to help you decide which car to purchase.
- Does it get good gas mileage?
- How expensive is it to maintain?
- What is its resale history?
With each of these questions, you look for an optimal combination of those qualities. In a perfect world you want the best gas mileage, the least maintenance costs, and the highest resale value. You want the most for the lowest price. But let’s return to earth. The car that meets all these standards probably does not exist. Instead you seek an optimal combination of these qualities. Otherwise, you will never purchase a car.
In many ways this is true of our research. We seek the optimal combination of the features of quality research. If we waited until all the questions were answered, we would never publish anything of our findings. I will try to explore GPS in more detail over the next few postings.