By Daniel Hubbard | August 23, 2010
I’ve recently been reminded of a few things that seemed to fall together into a somewhat oddly named post.
What is the Logic?—Begging the Question
First, I was reminded of the logical fallacy that goes by the name “begging the question.” Nowadays, that phrase is often used to mean a statement that seems to demand that a question be asked, that is, a statement that raises a question. The “beg” in the name of the logical fallacy means not to ask or request, as one might think, but to avoid. I’m always disappointed when I’m reading or listening to something and the logic should be an important part of the whole but it is missing or clearly wrong. Do you ever get the feeling when reading something that it somehow isn’t really proving what it claims to prove? You may have run into one of many logical fallacies. The last one I encountered was begging the question.
The fallacy “begging the question” occurs when one of the premises that goes into a logical argument is for all practical purposes, identical to the conclusion that is being sought. In other words, the output is identical to part of the input. It is a bit like claiming that if the listener would kindly give you the following input, a roll of chicken wire, some live weasels, a flashlight, a Prius and a wheelbarrow of kitty litter, you could prove the concept of hybrid cars. It would be an impressive feat if it wasn’t for the Prius in the input. If the listener lets you have the Prius to start with, all your work with the kitty litter would be wasted time and if the listener tells you that there is no such thing as a Prius, you probably won’t make much progress in convincing them that there is such a thing as a hybrid car of any make or model—even with the help of the weasels.
Here is an attempt at a genealogical example of begging the question. It is a very short, imaginary monologue defending the correctness of the reconstruction of a particular ancestor. The person who has doubts wonders if the John Smith claimed by the researcher really was the researcher’s ancestor and gets the response, “I found my John Smith in Smith’s Chronicle.* That source is impeccable. Therefore, my John Smith is my ancestor.” Right there, hidden in the first statement is the assumption that a particular John Smith, found in Smith’s Chronicle, is the ancestor of the researcher. Even if you don’t doubt the second statement (and you should!) there is a problem here. This John Smith may have existed but that doesn’t automatically make him the correct John Smith to be the ancestor in question. The evidence and logic to show ancestry may exist, but here they are missing. We only have the hidden assumption that everything up to John Smith is correct—that is, that the conclusion is correct before the logical argument even begins.
What was the Source? What was Evidence? What was Conclusion?
Second, one of the biggest complaints made by and about genealogists is the missing or poor source citations in genealogical work. I’ve been looking at a secondary source for a client. It is one of those older works that frustratingly lacks source citations but that checks out far too often to be ignored. It is definitely better than nothing as a provider of clues but it could have been so much better. As I was reading, a thought came to me. The book wasn’t just often begging the question (among other logic problems). The author did such a good job of avoiding stating his sources that the book was also “begging the citation.”
Perhaps the most frustrating thing isn’t that a vast amount of time and effort were laid down with only hints about the origins of the information. It is that often there is no way to tell the difference between information that was found explicitly stated in some source and a conclusion drawn from several lines of evidence painstakingly pieced together with reams of logic.
If the logic that got from the evidence to the conclusion was only there, it could be checked. It might be sound, it might be faulty, it might be correct but lack the needed input. If wrong, it might be salvageable. If clearly correct, I could go off and worry about something else. The logic would even make it easier to figure out what sources had been used as input. Without the logic, why should anyone believe anything except perhaps the most obvious conclusions?
When an author does not include sources, when references are avoided, when the author “begs the citation” and doesn’t let you know the origins of the evidence that acts as input to their reasoning, you have a problem. How do you judge its correctness? How do you check the authors statements? As I read a secondary source that lacks explicit statements of how the author arrived at point B from point A, I can’t judge the validity of the conclusions.
Preserve the Logic Too
I think that one of the most important lessons to learn when doing genealogy (or really, any type of research) is that the logic you use is important. Not just getting it right, but writing it down. When I look back on a notebook that I started when I was ten or eleven, I often find notes copied from some source. I usually wrote down the source, perhaps not always a proper citation with a lot of detail but at least I can still tell what I was looking at. Then there will be what appears to be a conclusion. Sometimes it is clearly a conclusion drawn by someone else in a secondary source, sometimes it is clearly mine. Either way, the question is raised, why this conclusion? Just as it is important to be able to know what the evidence was that went into a conclusion, it is important to know how one makes that journey from evidence to conclusion. If later you see a fallacy in the logic, you might just understand why things aren’t fitting together as they should with research on related people. The evidence may be correct, the conclusion may seem acceptable at first glance but without the logical argument recorded in an easy to follow manner, all that evidence will need to be pondered all over again.
A difficult conclusion with only the input evidence recorded is something like a travel memoir that consists of, “Saturday, August 1: I pulled out of the driveway and made a big slow left turn without any real goal in mind except being somewhere else. September 12: Home at last! Now, only now, can I finally call this place home.” That the author returned and was apparently somewhat enlightened is a nice conclusion but the intervening month and a half, with all of its experiences, was left sadly unrecorded.
* A title made up for the example. Please, don’t go looking for it.Twitter It!