Applying The Scientific Method to Genealogical Research (Part 7)

As I have shown in the previous six installments of this series, The Scientific Method can be used to help answer genealogical questions.  The Scientific Method provides a logical framework to answer questions that can be addressed with a testable hypothesis.  Although the steps or stages of the scientific method, a summary of the steps that works well when attempting to answer a genealogical question includes the following steps:

  1. Define the question
  2. Gather information and resources (observe)
  3. Form hypothesis
  4. Perform experiment and collect data
  5. Analyze data
  6. Interpret data and draw conclusions (that may serve as a starting point for new hypothesis)
  7. Publish results
  8. Retest (frequently done by others)

But, don’t genealogists already have a standard for genealogical research?  Isn’t the Genealogical Proof Standard the genealogist’s equivalent of The Scientific Method?

The Genealogical Proof Standard includes four elements:

  • a reasonably exhaustive search;
  • complete and accurate source citations;
  • analysis and correlation of the collected information;
  • resolution of any conflicting evidence; and
  • a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion.

The Genealogical Proof Standard provides four elements that must be met in order to establish that a genealogical conclusion has been proved but does not provide a framework or plan on how to reach a conclusion.  The Scientific Method, on the other hand, does provide a logical sequence of steps that help the genealogist reach a conclusion and can also help satisfy the four elements of the Genealogical Proof Standard.

The genealogist does not need to use The Scientific Method in order to satisfy the four elements of the Genealogical Proof Standard but, in many situations, The Scientific Method can help the genealogist reach a soundly reasoned conclusion that includes analysis and correlation of the collected information and resolution of conflicting evidence.

I imagine that many genealogists follow The Scientific Method when trying to answer a genealogical question without even realizing it, mainly because genealogists don’t generally think about forming a hypothesis and performing an experiment.  Nonetheless, when a genealogist has a hunch about the answer to a genealogical question, he/she is forming a hypothesis, and when the genealogist searches a certain group of records, he/she is conducting an experiment.

However, The Scientific Method does not produce proof, but instead generates evidence, positive and negative, to support or refute the hypothesis.  In general, hypotheses cannot be proven, but can be disproven.  Furthermore, The Scientific Method by itself does not necessarily satisfy the Genealogical Proof Standard.

In Part 8 of this series I will examine some cases when The Scientific Method does not satisfy the Genealogical Proof Standard.

or other posts in this series, please see:

Copyright © 2010 by Stephen J. Danko

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