Evaluating Evidence in Your Genealogy Research

If you've been doing genealogy for any length of time, you've probably heard the advice that you need to evaluate evidence, but what does that really mean? How does that fit into our genealogy research? Let's see what it really means to evaluate evidence. 

Evaluating Evidence in Genealogy


What Is Evidence, Anyway?

Evidence is when you take information and apply it to a question. There are two basic types of evidence:

  • Direct
  • Indirect

Direct Evidence

Direct evidence spells out the answer. There is no ambiguity. If you ask, "When did your grandfather die?" and I answer, "He died 15 December 1980," that's direct evidence.

Indirect Evidence

Indirect evidence requires us to make an inference to arrive at an answer. If you ask, "When did your grandfather die?" and I answer, "I wore my heaviest coat and gloves to his funeral," you would infer that he died in the winter. However, other possibilities exist. He could have died in the fall and his funeral was held on a cold, blustery day. He could have died in the spring and his funeral was held on a day when there was a late snow. 

Information vs. Evidence

Evidence is applied information. Without a question, you only have information. Let's take the statement, "I wore my heaviest coat and gloves to my grandfather's funeral." It's indirect evidence of when he died. However, it's direct evidence of what I wore. 

An Example

Here's something that you might come across in your research. If Elizabeth Henderson left a bequest in her will "to my granddaughter Rose Smith, I leave $100," that's direct evidence that Rose Smith is Elizabeth's granddaughter. 

However, that information by itself doesn't answer the question of how Rose is Elizabeth's granddaughter. She could be the married daughter of one of Elizabeth's sons. She could be the married daughter of one of Elizabeth's daughters. She could be the unmarried daughter of Elizabeth's daughter who married a Smith. Bottom line: We need more information to apply to that particular question.

Is Direct Evidence Always Best?

"Always" is a loaded word. Direct evidence does eliminate ambiguity. However, direct evidence doesn't mean that the answer is correct. You have to evaluate the underlying information for accuracy. (Check out my post "5 Things to Ask About Genealogy Information" for tips on how to evaluate that.)

Case in point, if you ask me when my grandfather died and I respond that he died on 15 December 1980, that's direct evidence, but it's wrong. (Neither of my grandfathers died on that date. I just used it as an example for this post.) You have to evaluate the information. 

Evidence is Part of the Picture

There are three basic things that we have to evaluate in our research: the source (essentially the container that holds information), the information (what the source says), and evidence (how that information is applied to a question). They are intertwined. We have to evaluate all three if we want to make accurate conclusions.

Are you trying to make sense of sources, evaluate evidence, and find more information? Check out my membership called "Generations Circle Cafe," designed to help you navigate your genealogy research with confidence. Click here for more information.

Evaluating Evidence
Posted: May 10, 2018.

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  • I read a few of your posts on genealogical research this morning, and this one really resonates with me. I so appreciate the reminders to slow down, evaluate, and think.

    Here’s a question that comes up for me: do you think there’s a potential for mistakes in thinking based on search results? Here’s an example. Let’s say I’m looking for ancestors for whom I have very little corroborating evidence. I do a search and get two census records, one of which is right. Do you think there’s an urge to accept both because they both fit the search criteria?

    Thank you so much for these posts!


    • Thanks for stopping by, Linda! Glad you’re enjoying the posts.

      I’m not sure if there’s an urge to accept both because they both fit the search criteria. What I have seen is confusion about trying to determine which one is correct.

  • I would be very cautious about “accepting” information from ancestry trees because some folks are not judicious about “accepting” info nor cleaning up mistakes. Then an error gets perpetuated in your tree and that propagates more errors when someone uses your tree as a hint…
    There are many ancestors that if I don’t have solid evidence, I don’t do anything with their hints.
    Just my two cents worth.
    Pam Baker

  • Pam hit the nail on the head! There are posters and there are researchers. In just one family I can show you thousands of trees littered with incorrect information because of careless sharing. After a few decades of accepting something as fact, it creates quite a stir when one goes shaking trees. Borrowing without verifying is one of the deadliest sins a family researcher can make. If I can’t first prove it to myself, how can I ever prove it to anyone else? This is a question I continually ask myself no matter how factual a piece of evidence appears on the surface. Maybe it pays to be somewhat of a skeptic?