Contradictions and discrepancies
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Contradictory evidence and discrepancies are normal in genealogical research. A novice researcher tends to ignore discrepancies. Experienced researchers tend to embrace them.
The best way to analyze information is by thoroughly researching and comparing ALL sources against each other. Understanding how to interpret the sources cannot happen until a researcher has detected and analyzed the differences and similarities between sources.
Any contradictory evidence must be resolved
The best researchers always openly acknowledge, analyze, and attempt to explain discrepancies. It shows the thoroughness of their research, their openness with all the evidence, and their analytical and reasoning skills. Knowing and admitting the weaknesses of a case leads to better analysis and conclusions. It strengthens the genealogical community by setting an example of honesty, and pointing the way to better interpretation of the evidence.
If a researcher hesitates to use sources with contradictions or discrepancies he may overlook important evidence. If he hesitates to mention discrepancies it makes his case look weaker. Other researchers may come to believe evidence was overlooked, or that such research is unreliable.
Weigh these factors
As you analyze a contradiction or discrepancy, weigh the following factors from the Wiki article Evaluate the Evidence to help determine which sources are most trustworthy, and to help explain possible causes of the problem:
- Relevance of the Record
- Category of the Record
- Format of the Record
- Nature of the Information
- Directness of the Evidence
- Consistency and Clarity of the Facts
- Likelihood of Events
Explain the problem and its resolution
In some cases the discrepancy may be so minor it need only be mentioned. Minor spelling variations of a name usually only need to be acknowledged in the source notes.
Any past controversies researchers have had over the evidence should be acknowledged and the resolution of the problem explained.
When genealogical research is significantly affected by conflicting evidence, or which lineage to follow hangs in the balance, a formal statement is in order. State the problem—explain how the evidence seems contradictory. Explain which version you believe is most reliable and why. Give one or more reasons why you believe the less reliable evidence was created.
Types of contradictions or discrepancies
These are some of the contradictions and discrepancies a genealogist typically faces:
Personal and geographic names are frequently misspelled in names.
Names are spelled in unexpected ways, the birth date in the parish register may differ by seven months from the birth date on the tombstone, the censuses may list a birthplace in two different states, there may be too many or two few children listed, a child may have been born before the parents were married, or an event may be listed in a place that did not exist at the time. These are just a few of the typical contradictions and discrepancies a genealogist faces.
- The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual (Orem, Utah: Ancestry Publishing, 2000), 1-2, and Thomas W. Jones, "Proved?: Five Ways to Prove Who Your Ancestor Was" (printed handout for a lecture presented to library staff, 23 October 2003, Family History Library, Salt Lake City), 1.