Do you believe everything you read in a newspaper? Of course not! You use your cognitive and analytical skills to assess what is published there. These are often referred to as "critical thinking skills."
Quality genealogical research involves much more than simply gathering document copies and entering names, dates, and places into a database program. It also means treating each piece of information as if it is evidence in a forensic investigation. You have to couple all of your knowledge and experience with critical thought processes to reach scholarly, plausible hypotheses. You then have to weigh all the evidence you have in order to prove your theory to be factual – or to refute your hypotheses in whole or in part. The critical evaluations you perform will involve a thorough examination of a number of criteria:
- What type of evidence is it?
- Where did it originate and when?
- Who created it and why?
- Is the evidence original or derived from another source?
- Is it primary or secondary in nature?
- Was content been transcribed, extracted, or simply abstracted?
- Was the originator or creator an authority? And how do you know that?
- Is there any bias or hidden agenda that influences the quality or truth of the evidence?
- Is there any reason to doubt the authenticity of the evidence?
- Can you corroborate or refute the evidence with other independent sources?
- How does the evidence relate to or with other facts already proved or disproved?
- How will you record the information and create a source citation?
Critical thinking is so much more than scanning a document or someone else’s purported evidence. It is using all your experience with the record types, your understanding of history and sociology of the geographical area, your knowledge of boundary and governmental changes, and applying a huge dollop of common sense to your analysis process. You are building context through solid documentation and analysis, developing rational hypotheses as someone involved with forensic research. And by doing so, you are getting to really getting to know each person and bring them back to life.
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