Thursday, February 14, 2013

Elizabeth Warren "Truthers" and their Genealogical Fallacies

While reading about fallacies in genealogy, I remembered the arguments used in order to give Elizabeth Warren a pass on her unsubstantiated claim of Cherokee ancestry. These arguments were made by people I call "truthers". They used common genealogical fallacies in their effort to make excuses why Warren should not be held accountable for having no documentation to support her claim. Most used no facts, sources or documents to come to a conclusion, but instead, wanted people to simply believe what they said was "the truth", thus the term "truthers".

In the article, "Genealogical Fallacies Project: Pitfalls in Research Methods," by Kory L. Meyerink of ProGenealogists, "The word fallacy has different meanings to different people." Meanings include:
  • A false or erroneous idea, (generally misleading or illusory) (Webster’s International)
  • Plausible but invalid reasoning (WordPerfect Thesaurus).
At the end of the article is a list of "Selected Genealogical Fallacies Arranged by Class." It is in this list that we find the reasons so many arguments supporting Warren's Cherokee claim fell apart under scrutiny, whether the general American public (and Massachusetts voters) realized it or not. Though many fallacies are listed below the article, I will only focus on a few of the erroneous and misleading ideas that were used to protect Warren from having to admit the truth.

Fallacies of Misconception - Misunderstandings about Genealogical Research

Ancestors as islands - An ancestor is not affected by the events surrounding them. 
Indians did not exist in a vacuum. If Warren had an Indian ancestor, then at some point in time, she would have had an ancestor living as Indian among Indians. Truthers were willing to accept Warren's family lore of Cherokee ancestry even though, in records and documentation, Warren's ancestors are never found living among the Cherokee UNTIL the influx of white intruders overran Indian Territory, eventually outnumbering the Indians nearly 9 to 1. The events surrounding the time Warren's ancestors moved into Indian Territory strongly suggest her ancestors were non-Indian. After all, Indians already lived there. They were not moving into Indian Territory at this time, but non-Indians were.

Fallacies of Tradition - Unquestioned acceptance of family traditions

Native American - An ancestor was a Native American; possible benefits are due
For this to be included in a list of genealogical fallacies, it has to be fairly common. But remember, this is a list of fallacies, not truths. Also, notice the additional statement, "possible benefits are due." Remember Warren seems to feel she did nothing wrong by allowing herself to be used for diversity purposes by Harvard, nor does she feel she did anything wrong by listing herself as a minority in the law directory. She felt entitled to do this because of her unquestioned acceptance of family traditions. Her supporters also felt she did nothing wrong because if her family lore said she was Indian, then she had the right to benefit from affirmative action - basically, both Warren and her supporters felt she was due that "benefit."

Fallacies of Sources - Misunderstanding sources, including their origin, content, and availability

Missing records - Can't solve a problem due to lost or destroyed sources
Repeatedly Warren's truthers have said the issue of her ancestry could not be solved because Cherokee or Indian ancestry was hard or impossible to prove due to lack of records. Time and time again, I have explained why that is a fallacy. Cherokees have records. We have lots and lots of records. This might not be true for every American Indian tribe in the United States, but it is true for the Cherokees. Warren didn't just claim to be a generic American Indian. She claimed to be Cherokee. It is important to know what sources and records are available for the Cherokee, not just Indians in general, before saying there are no records.

Fallacies of Credibility - Improper or unwarranted acceptance of information
(This was the most common area of fallacies used by the truthers and Warren.)

Honest informants - Grandma would not lie, therefore her statements are true
Warren's supporters blindly accepted the family story of Cherokee ancestry because they believed neither Warren nor her mother would lie about it. When Scott Brown questioned the accuracy of the story Warren said she was told, she became angry and said he should not question her parents' honesty. This gets right to the heart of the "honest informant" fallacy.
Ready acceptance - Accepting a conclusion because of the proponent; Aunt Mabel knew the situation
The truthers accepted the story because they believed "Aunt Bea" would know the truth. I don't think anyone will ever forget the "high cheekbones" story.
Family tradition - Giving it too much weight
Despite the documentation on Warren's ancestry posted in my blog and elsewhere, truthers valued her purported family tradition and lore more. They gave entirely too much weight to the tradition, while ignoring the documentation.

Fallacies of Hypothesis - Erroneous theories that researchers assume and/or try to prove in their research

Best/only hypothesis - Rigid determinism to prove a first hypothesis 
For those truthers who attempted to do Warren's genealogy, they had one goal in mind - to prove she had a Cherokee or Indian ancestor. They would not accept anything less. This led them to ignore the standards for sound genealogical research and instead, make outlandish claims that Warren was Indian because her white great great grandmother's second cousin married an Indian woman. 
Fallacies of Proof - False understandings of the nature of evidence and proof

Insufficient proof - Not compiling sufficient evidence to substantiate the theory. 
This was a biggie, for both truthers and the media. When the New England Historic Genealogical Society said there was a document that might suggest Warren was 1/32 "Cherokee", the media ran with it, often repeating the story even after the statement was retracted. The genealogical society never saw the document, but instead, read about it in a family newsletter. They accepted the information as true. The media never saw the document, but instead, heard about it. They accepted the information as true, too. The problem was the document did not say what the newsletter claimed it said. This caused embarrassment and confusion  and it all could have been avoided if the genealogical society would have compiled additional evidence before forming a conclusion.

Truthers had an even bigger problem understanding the nature of evidence and proof. Some believed (and still believe) one could "prove" Cherokee ancestry by using family pictures. Pictures are not a good source to use in genealogy, no matter the situation, but in no way, shape or form can a picture prove one is Cherokee.

Quantity of proof - Greater number of similar statements equals stronger proof
The Boston Globe article, Warren's family has mixed memories about heritage, is a good example of this fallacy.  The Globe seemed to believe that because Warren's cousins and brothers repeated the story of Cherokee/Indian ancestry, that made the family lore more credible or offered stronger proof to support it. This goes back to giving family tradition too much weight. A family story is not true just because a lot of people repeat it. It is only true if it is based in fact and supported by evidence and documentation. Though a lot of people tell the story that Warren's family was Cherokee, no one has yet produced a single document to support that story.

While there are many other examples of the genealogical fallacies that floated around during the Massachusetts Senate race, I think I have made my point. During the campaign, a lot was said about genealogy and family history, but very little truth actually made it to the headlines, news stories, and social media because the truth was buried under fallacies. 

Those are my thoughts for today.
Thanks for reading.

copyright 2013, Polly's Granddaughter - TCB

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