The Case for Being Careful

William Shanks (1812-1882) was an Englishman and amateur mathematician.  He spent 17 years of his life calculating the digits of the mathematical constant π.  In the days before computers this was a laborious pencil and paper calculation.  As he made progress, and raced against others for how far he could take the calculation, he reported his results in updates to the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London.

Shanks William and Stokes George Gabriel, “On the extension of the numerical value of π,” 21 Proc. R. Soc. Lond., 1873.

In 1874 Shanks achieved his goal when he broke the record, achieving 707 digits in his calculation.

As genealogists we can see in Mr. Shank a kindred spirit of sorts.  We as well try to extend our results, building one generation on another, growing our tree over time, sharing updates on our “calculations” and taking pride in how far we can take it

Continuing with the story of William Shanks’s magnum opus. His record stood until 1944, when D.F. Ferguson, working with an early electrical desk calculator, exceeded Shanks’s calculation.  In doing so, Ferguson discovered that Shanks had made an error in his calculation after 527 decimal places, which caused every digit beyond that to be incorrect.  All of his labor after this first error was in vain.  It was error compounded on error.  Shanks wasted years of his life calculating meaningless numbers.

Similar risks exist in genealogy, of spending hours, months and years trying to extend a line back more generations, only later to find (if you find out at all) that you made an error earlier in the research, and have been wasting your time doing exquisite research… on someone else’s family!  A single error in your tree, a single slip, can lead you to spend years compounding error on error.

To avoid problems like this, careful genealogists follow the genealogical standards promulgated by the Board for Certification of Genealogists, including the Genealogical Proof Standard, the “gold standard” for genealogical research.   This standard is aimed at reporting credible findings, after undertaking reasonably exhaustive research, analysis, correlation and reconciliation of the evidence, leading to a logically argued conclusion.

Don’t be William Shanks.  Be careful.  Learn about, and follow the Genealogical Proof Standard, and hire professionals who promise to as well.

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