Applying The Scientific Method to Genealogical Research (Part 2)

I started off this series with a description of The Scientific Method and posed two questions.  When should a genealogist apply The Scientific Method to a genealogical research problem?  How does one go about doing so?  What follows is a description of how my cousin and I used the scientific method to answer a question about our own family:  Where is our Aunt Bertha Danko buried? 

  1. Define the question:  Where is Bertha Danko buried?
  2. Gather information and resources:  Family members related that Bertha Danko is buried in an unmarked grave in Hope Cemetery, Worcester, Massachusetts.  She died as an infant in Worcester, Massachusetts probably sometime between 1910-1915.
  3. Form hypothesis:  Bertha Danko is buried in an unmarked grave in Hope Cemetery, Worcester, Massachusetts.
  4. Perform experiment and collect data:  Joseph Danko went to Hope Cemetery and asked for burial information and grave location for Bertha Danko.
  5. Analyze data:  Records for Hope Cemetery include no information on anyone with the surname Danko.
  6. Interpret data and draw conclusions:  Either Bertha Danko is not buried in Hope Cemetery, there is an error or omission in the cemetery records, or the clerk at the cemetery did not conduct an accurate and thorough search.
  7. Publish results:  Information was communicated to other family members.
  8. Retest (frequently done by others):  Several years after Joseph Danko went to Hope Cemetery, Stephen Danko visited the same cemetery and inquired about the burial information and grave location for Bertha Danko.  The results, interpretation, and conclusions were the same as reported by Joseph Danko.

It’s not difficult to define the question.  Genealogists generally have an infinite supply of questions they want answered:  When was John Smith born?  Who are his parents?  When did he come to this country?  What was his occupation?

But, when can a researcher apply The Scientific Method to help answer a genealogical question?  The answer is simple.  The Scientific Method can be applied to any genealogical research problem for which the researcher can develop a testable hypothesis.  First, one needs to have some information and resources from which to form the hypothesis.  This information may be in the form of some anecdotal evidence, in the form of primary information obtained from an original source, or in the form of any one of many other sources.  The hypothesis should be expressed as a statement of fact, so that one may later determine whether or not the results support or refute the statement.

When one performs the experiment and collects the data in a genealogical study, one doesn’t generally go into a laboratory and conduct an experiment on the laboratory bench top.  The experiment in a genealogical sense is usually a search of the relevant records, although other methods such as interviews or mathematical calculations may also be appropriate.  The genealogist then analyzes the information obtained, interprets the information, and draws conclusions from the information.

The results should be published, even if only to other family members, so that others can determine whether the information obtained justify the conclusions.  Other genealogists may wish to retest the hypothesis using the same or different approaches.

Well, in the example above, the result was negative.  We did not answer the initial question and it appears that the hypothesis may be false.  Part 3 of this series will examine the formation of a new hypothesis and beginning a new iteration of The Scientific Method.

For other posts in this series, please see:

Copyright © 2010 by Stephen J. Danko

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