By Daniel Hubbard | January 8, 2012
I’ve taken a bit of a holiday hiatus from writing about research. So far, I’ve written about repeatability, openness, goals, and searching the literature. Another important part of research is the logical path that connects the evidence signposts together and leads to the conclusion. Part of the research process is to pave that path and use it to move from one piece of evidence to the next in a way that leads you from the initial problem and to the conclusion. What is the thinking that connects a death notice to a census record to a land sale and so on to a baptism record that gives the name of the parents? Every piece of research, genealogical or otherwise, has a thought process behind it. The more difficult the research the more complex the thinking often is. I’ve written before about the need to record the reasoning that goes into a conclusion. Being able to look at the recorded logic is important for openness and reproducibility but it also lies at the heart of research. Research is an endeavor that is is based on logic.
Any conclusion in research has to be backed by both evidence and logic. Nevertheless, there are often two distinct paths through the evidence. There is the clearest and most concise path, the path that is both easiest to specify and easiest for another person to understand. This is set of steps through the evidence that one would follow to convince someone else of the truth of your conclusion. This is the path you are trying to build.
Then there is the path that was actually taken—the wandering path of evidence collection in which the birth record whose location seems so obvious in hindsight was, in actual fact, nearly impossible to find. We have all traveled the wandering path. The path that passes by the most likely possibilities only for us to discover that there is nothing there before it finally joins the strange but direct path that leads to the answer. This is the path that swings past all the negative results that lurk in our research logs. It covers the obscure possibilities that one just happened to be able to check once the obvious thoughts were all used up. There is usually logic along each step on this path but it is also dotted with serendipity. This is the path we actually take to get to the solution of our mystery. This path might not be the most direct, it might take lot of explaining but it is also often a fascinating story in its own right.
Off the Reasoned Path
One point about the progress of research, the often wandering path, is that it is not necessarily fully logical. People often proceed by following a “gut instinct.” In a researcher that really knows their subject, that instinct my not be backed by a full logical argument but it is backed up by knowledge of what tends to be the case, what usually works, what is most likely to pay off. All those experiences, tendencies and probabilities end up distilled in the subconscious in a place psychologists call our “adaptive unconscious.” (If you want to read more about an expert’s instinct try Malcolm Gladwell’s blink). We may not be able to express clearly why our instinct points in one direction or another but it often represents the automatic functioning of a vast amount of information. Nevertheless, gut instinct cannot be used in the end result, only as a means to reach the result. Someone might be happy with me if I told them I had saved many hours of work by following my instinct. Instinct in this case is just a shorthand way of saying that I used my experience of previously solved problems stored in my subconscious to identify the tactic that was most likely to pay off without consciously thinking though the whole process. Condensed and distilled knowledge and experience is what instinct means in this case. On the other hand, if the conclusion to a piece of research contains the words “My instinct tells me that the evidence means…” then no one should be happy. It isn’t open and it isn’t reproducible.
I’ve read in studies of problem solving that under the right circumstances the best way to proceed toward the solution to a problem can be picking at random. If presented with multiple possibilities that all seem equally likely to be correct, it can be that the best thing to do is to pick a possibility at random and work to check it. The alternative of hunting for more evidence to allow you to make a rational choice can take more time and effort than disproving a few randomly chosen mistakes. There is no logic involved in that step but it isn’t necessarily wrong to proceed that way and it doesn’t mean that the eventual conclusion is not logical.
A few days ago I was researching a man of some importance to a problem I have but he is not himself someone who is central to the problem. One can always wonder how much effort is the right amount of effort to put into someone like that. Since he plays a defining roll in an important event, I keep coming back to him. Eventually, I gathered some information about his dozen siblings. A few of them have provided a clue or two but not more. Then I discovered that one of his many sisters was a minor historian. There was nothing particularly logical about the way I discovered this. It was the kind of good fortune that occurs when you’re working hard to get down the path but still keeping your eyes open to the scenery along the way. His sister’s writings were just one of those oddly good roadside attractions that one sometimes stumbles upon. The process of finding her was not particularly logical but what I found can certainly be used in a logical argument.
I tracked down a promising book of hers and it provided some answers—information about their parents and upbringing that really helps. The path that got me to that point was winding and it might have taken much longer to find that she was an author. When it comes to reasoning through all that winding evidence, I’m sure a straighter path will appear, the path that will explain what the evidence means instead of how it was found. I can already see much of it. It is a set of well-defined, logical steps from one piece of evidence to the next that will prove the case. It will be correct and convincing and documenting it is an important part of the research process but it will lack a certain wandering charm. Luckily I can record that wandering path as well.