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Monday, August 19, 2013

The Creation of Genealogical Myths

Although there is a meaning of the word "myth" that involves supernatural beings or events, a common use of the term mean a widely held but false belief or idea. In this sense, myths are closely related to propaganda or information of a biased or misleading nature that is used to promote a particular point of view. As genealogists we are not immune from this type of communication. Much of what we believe is manipulated and created by the media. Even if we isolate ourselves from TV and much of the printed media, we pick up the beliefs and attitudes of those that do watch and listen. Is this a problem? Yes, but only when we have accepted as true the biased or misleading messages.

For example, during the time period of American history called the "Cold War," Americans were constantly barraged with news about the menace of Communism. At that time, most Americans were convinced that Russia was the U.S's mortal enemy. When the Soviet Union collapsed beginning in 1989, few Americans had any concept of how this could have occurred and there were years of confusion about how Russia could now be our "friend." Although genealogy operates on a much smaller scale and has much less media penetration, genealogists are prone to accept widely disseminated ideas without actually examining the basis of these ideas, just as everyone else in the general population.

Because I talk to genealogists daily and follow dozens of blogs and newstreams, I am constantly aware of various issues that take the form of myths that move through the genealogical community in waves. Some of these deal with very local issues, but others approach national and even international proportions. The most prominent example of a myth that affects the genealogical community is the commonly held fear of "identity theft" that I wrote about recently. A search of the media on Google, will show, for example, claims from a DallasNews artcile that "Back-to-school is high season for child identity theft." A careful reading of the article makes the following claim:
According to a 2012 study by Javelin Strategy and Research, 2.5 percent of U.S. households with children younger than 18 experienced child identity theft. In reality, the number is higher because many young victims may not realize their identity has been stolen until they become adults.
If you read something like this, do you stop to check to see if the quote is accurate? Do the alleged statistics even make sense. What exactly is being talked about here? Why don't the children (or their parents) even learn about the supposed identity theft until the children are adults? If this is true, how did the research company find out about the identity thefts that will not be discovered for up to 18 years? Who or what is "Javelin Strategy and Research?"

Well, Javelin Strategy and Research is a subscription website that sells its services. Here is the company description:
Javelin Strategy & Research, a division of Greenwich Associates, provides strategic insights into customer transactions, increasing sustainable profits for financial institutions, government, payments companies, merchants and other technology providers. Javelin’s independent insights result from a uniquely rigorous three-dimensional research process that assesses customers, providers, and the transactions ecosystem. Javelin conducts in-depth primary research studies to pinpoint dynamic risks and opportunities in four coverage areas:
  • Omnichannel Financial Services
  • Payments
  • Security, Risk, and Fraud
  • Mobile Initiatives
The parent company is a marketing research company that sells its research. These people are in the business of making consumers and business owners believe they need their services. What is the core issue in the above article? The "theft" of children's Social Security numbers. 

Are we as genealogists manipulated in the same way? Do we get messages about genealogy that are as unsupported and ridiculous as the the Dallas News article? I talk to people regularly that are afraid to put the genealogy into a program on their own computer because they are afraid of identity theft, much less put the information online. 

If you go to the Social Security Administration you will soon find out that for the government, misuse of the Social Security number is identity theft. See Identity Theft and Your Social Security Number. How many instances of Social Security number theft are there in the United States each year? Do you know how to answer this question? Is there an answer to this question? If this is such a huge problem that little children need to be worried about it, why don't we come up with a new system of identification that avoids the problem? I can go back to the statistics if I need to, but for this post, I will defer that for a while. 

The point here is that we, even as genealogists, react to statements made by people who are acting in their own interests and making claims that are unsubstantiated. 

We hear statements such as "genealogy is the most popular pastime in America today" and accept the statements as fact when there is absolutely nothing to support such a claim. 

Whenever you hear someone say something that seems to apply to a lot of people, especially genealogists, take the time to think about the claim. See if what is being claimed is even remotely reasonable. 

1 comment:

  1. I couldn't agree with you more. I wish more people would apply a healthy dose of skepticism before they accept something as fact, make it part of their worldview, and then pass the misconception around like a virus.

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