If You Can’t Prove It, It Ain’t a Fact

I recently had a conversation with a fellow researcher that I thought was a mutual complaint about undocumented research.1 I’m sharing the gist of my remarks because I think they’re relevant to the problems encountered when sharing information with other researchers.

Now, I want to start this off by saying that I’m just as guilty as the next researcher of making statements of “fact” without having adequate evidence…or was, when I was beginning researcher, a stage it took me a long time to leave for a variety of reasons I shan’t name here. Unfortunately, and much to my present embarrassment, some of those statements are still hanging around, although I’ve retracted as many as I could and am correcting what I could not.

Secondly, it’s difficult in certain forums to give specific documentation, message boards being the one that comes to mind because that’s where the above conversation took place. So, please do not read this as a criticism necessarily of those who have not named sources with their message board posts. I understand how difficult it is to do so. As long as you’re willing to share that documentation when asked, that’s probably the best one can hope for (although I know many professional researchers who would disagree with me).

The problem I have, then, is not necessarily with people who don’t name sources, but with people who refuse to name sources when asked. I’ve encountered a number of those, including the person I was ranting about the other day. I find it particularly hypocritical when someone complains about the circulation of undocumented lineages in one breath, but in the next won’t name, specifically with identifying details, the record from which he or she gleaned a piece of information he or she is touting as fact.

Here’s the thing, though: If you can’t prove it, it ain’t a fact.

Now, I’m not trying to be a hardliner here. Believe me, I understand about research foibles, having made plenty of my own with enough left over for two or three others. But when someone asks you for documentation, be prepared to man up (or woman up, if you prefer). You don’t have to share the actual document, but you should be ready and willing to share enough information about that document that someone else can chase it down. Citing a “birth record” found in a “newspaper from Virginia” doesn’t tell anyone diddly squat. What newspaper in what location? What issue and page number, and where is that newspaper held? Or if you took it from microfilm, what was the title of the film and what was the agency that filmed it, or where did you access the film? And so forth. I’m not talking about academically correct citations here, but about giving enough identifying information that a document can be retrieved by someone else.

If you’re not willing to share the documentation, then, respectfully, don’t share the information. Withholding the former while spreading the latter only makes the problem of undocumented lineages worse. It’s certainly not helping anyone with their research, particularly those who don’t understand what does and does not constitute proof, let alone the differences between proof, evidence, information, and sources.2

So please, share your sources when asked for them. If you have no intentions of doing so, then perhaps you should think twice before “helping” the unwary with undocumented assertions.

* * * * *

1. The other person apparently was in another conversational realm entirely. S/he thought I was demanding that s/he turn over all of his or her research, which of course I was not. (I’m being gender-non-specific because this person refuses to attach his or her name to any message board posts, etc.) I merely wanted to know exactly where this person obtained the information s/he was widely purporting to be fact, which s/he only did after a great many requests, and then only in the most vague manner possible.

2. Many thanks to Elizabeth Shown Mills for making discussions about proof (linked to above) freely available online through her web site, Evidence Explained: Historical Analysis, Citation & Source Usage. The web site is a companion to her book, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, 2nd Ed. I highly recommend both to all researchers.

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