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The Fable of Either and Or

By Daniel Hubbard | February 8, 2010

I like to write about research skills and knowledge that are even more basic than what are normally thought of as genealogy skills. Before you can piece together a difficult family you might need to know the big difference between the 1880 census and the ones that came before it (it gives relationships between members of a household, earlier ones didn’t) and you could need to know that son-in-law might not mean a daughter’s husband. Everyone doing any sort of research needs to know how to think about evidence and hypotheses.

This fable popped into my head the other day. Maybe it will be helpful to someone. It is very general, not so specifically genealogical but I will try to point out a little that does tend to be different about genealogy from other research endeavors.

A Fable

Either and Or are friends, hungry friends, who would like nothing better than to catch a rabbit and make a stew. It was winter and the two foxes had been stalking a rabbit and now think they have cornered it near a fence.

Or said, “Either, the rabbit will tunnel under the fence.”

“Or, the rabbit will jump over the fence,” said Either.

Together, the two friends decided to cover the two possibilities. Or liked to be underground and so he took that possibility. Either stared up at the sky hoping to see the rabbit as it hopped over the fence and grab it in mid jump.

The rabbit went around the fence.

When Either and Or tracked down the rabbit they found themselves on a path through the woods.

Or said, “Either, the rabbit will head north along this path.”

Either and Or went hungry (Fox photograph from Wikipedia)

“Or, the rabbit will head south along the path,” said Either.

The two friends each looked along the path, one facing north, the other facing south, waiting to see the rabbit coming toward them.

The rabbit hopped across the path right between them.

When Either and Or caught up to the rabbit again it was approaching a frozen lake.

Or said, “Either, the rabbit will hop along the path around the lake.”

“Or, the rabbit will hop straight across the ice,” said Either.

Or positioned himself on a bridge that connected the path along the south shore to the path along the north shore. Either went out to the middle of the ice, more than a bit upset by Or’s insistence that the rabbit would use the path.

The rabbit hopped along the path until it got near the bridge and then it jumped along the edge of the ice to the opposite shore.

Either and Or went hungry.

The Problem with Either and Or

When I was a research physicist, one of the things that always amazed me was a simple observation about human nature, my nature included. People need to become emotionally involved in order to have the right passion, that mix of drive and obstinacy, to get an idea heard. The positive side of this is that a majority of people with the wrong idea end up hearing that one person or small minority that has hit upon the right idea. Of course, the flip side is that the minority is often wrong but refuses to give up and plenty of ill will can be traced back to these sorts of confrontations.  Perhaps the worst problem that can occur is when both sides are wrong and so involved emotionally that the correct idea slips through their fingers.

When many are involved in a single community, people can afford to take sides. Sometimes one of the sides is right, Other times someone will be led to the right concept by the intense exchange of ideas.

As genealogists, we often need to think about problems without the advantages of that kind of extensive community-wide debate. Our problems are so specific to us that, though we might be able to get advice on a particular point here and there, eventually, it comes down to what we accomplish in relative isolation. We need to be open-minded and creative to hit upon a set of ideas that might contain the solution to our problem. Then we need to work intensely but objectively to gather information relating to our ideas. In a sense we end up being a research community of one or perhaps a few.

Setting out to prove a hypothesis can be the wrong mindset. The risk is falling into the trap of thinking that an idea as correct, just not yet proven. Either and Or always had more than one idea but they were still trapped by thinking that one of their ideas was right.

The first problem in the Fable of Either and Or is the problem of thinking that we absolutely already have the right answer in our collection of ideas; it is only a matter of choosing. Either and Or forgot that even having two good ideas doesn’t mean that there isn’t another idea that is the correct one.

The second problem that Either and Or have is the problem of getting the right general idea and then making assumptions about the specifics. They were right about the rabbit needing to be on the path through the woods but the thought that the rabbit might not really use the path but instead just cross it, never occurred to them.

I’ve always thought that he last problem they have is the worst. We tend to pit ideas against each other as if they were rival teams or enemy nations. In reality, when there are several realistic explanations for something, it often happens that the correct explanation is a mixture. Just because idea #1 passes a test, doesn’t always imply that idea #2 is wrong. Instead they may both be contributing factors to something too complex to have either of them as its full explanation.

It’s always exciting to locate a family in the census but I always get a special thrill when I find that family in two places in the same census year. The idea that they were at point A and the idea that they were at point B are both partially correct, even though they might be assumed to be mutually exclusive.

Following the paper trail can show that one man is the father of another. DNA testing of the right individuals may point in a very different direction. So, who was the father? The best answer is quite possibly “both.” One man was the father in a genetic sense but the “paper trail father” may have raised that boy as his son, taught him, cared for him, passed on land to him. “Either this man or that man was the father” turns out not to be the best way to look at the problem.

Sometimes, it can be good to simply have the goal of thinking about a problem differently. Look at a conundrum from a different angle. Forget about either/or and come up with another idea or try to see if a few ideas might be combined into another possibility altogether.

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Topics: Genealogy, Methods | 1 Comment »

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One Response to “The Fable of Either and Or”

  1. Making History | Personal Past Meditations- a Genealogical Blog Says:
    September 27th, 2010 at 9:01 am

    […] forces acted upon them and their world? That question has launched many a debate of the “either or” […]

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