Friday, September 23, 2011

Undoubted doubts

This afternoon I am taking notes from a book I am consulting for background information and perspectives on St. Augustine at the end of the First Spanish period (the decade or so leading up the the transfer of Florida to the British in 1763).  The book is a Ph.D. dissertation, the title and author of which I will not divulge.  I do not want to embarrass anyone, but there is something in it that bugs me.

The author has several places in which, in the absence of concrete evidence, she says something "undoubtedly" occurred.  Now, this dissertation was finished in 1980.  Standards have become more rigorous in the intervening years, in history and certainly in genealogy.  But I think we need to stop from time to time and examine the assertions we make and the words we use to make them. 

As I have developed as a genealogist and historian over the past four years at the University of North Florida, being exposed to the latest in historical research and writing, as well as to many works from prior decades and prior centuries, I have become more keenly aware of the requirements of clarity and logic in our writings. And beginning next fall, I will be using a good deal of the research I have done, as well as being involved in more and new research, in the writing of my master's thesis.  I want to be sure that the statements I make in my master's thesis will be supportable.

Speculation is fine, as long as we are sure we label it as such rather than presenting it as something no longer open to debate.  To say that something is "undoubtedly" the case is not proper labeling, to my mind, unless there is good, solid, incontrovertible evidence to back it up.  However, the author of this dissertation does not adduce such evidence to her "undoubtable" statements.  It would have been better in these cases to use words such as "possibly" or even "probably" rather than to be so final in her assessment.  Even with speculation, we have to have something to base it on.  What we are doing when we speculate, with some foundation, is saying that here is some circumstantial evidence which seems to indicate that a certain thing may have been true.

Of course, the other side of that coin is that it may not have been true, and we also have to acknowledge that.



Marian Pierre-Louis said...


This isn't exactly what you are talking about but sort of along the same lines. There is nothing more confounding than reading history/genealogy and saying where did that come from, on what basis is that said and finding no footnote. Some authors are astounding in their ability to footnote every sentence while others leave so much to be desired. The statement "something undoubtedly occurred" would definitely have me scrambling to find a footnote.

Karen Packard Rhodes said...

Yes, indeed. And with these "undoubtedly" so statements, there were no footnotes. It got to the point it was driving me up the wall, so I decided to write a blog post on it! Thank you for taking the time to comment, Marian.