Page 3  

Editorial... the "unknown unknowns"

"Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know."

Donald Rumsfeld
Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld


You might wonder why I would start my editorial in this issue with a quote from US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and I'm sure many of you chuckled when you first heard that convoluted statement.

However, joking aside, it does illustrate many of the challenges faced by genealogists today. Most of us, for example, know who our parents and grandparents are… and we can work back in a logical progression to our earlier ancestors from that point. These are the "known knowns".

And the 1911 UK census and those other records that are just out of view certainly fall into the "known unknown" category, because they will be revealed to us in time. We know they exist…we just can't get our hands on them quite yet! And then there are those records that no longer exist…the Australian and New Zealand census data that we know was taken… and is gone forever.

But what really keeps my interest in this project is that tantalizing question of the "unknown unknowns --- the ones we don't know we don't know." During my research in the Brebner/Bremner families, I have frequently been faced with what is supposedly a complete "set" of known births or christenings. The OPRI and IGI are often interpreted as being that complete record of all those events, but it takes only a little research through the 1841-61 census data to realize that many of the birth events have never been recorded. While in some areas, recorded christenings were over 90%, in others, like many parts of Caithness, that figure is closer to 45%. These are the unknowns that we know we don't know! And researching prior to 1841, that territory is virtually uncharted.

In genealogy, an event-based study, records of a person's life define that individual. For many of the people in our family histories, there are a number of events that define those lives, even for those that we know very little about. If, for example, they lived in Scotland in the mid-19th century, then there are a number of events that should be recorded for each life. These should include a birth/christening, marriage or death record and a census listing every decade from 1841-1901.
These and other event markers from city directories to wills, court records, immigration records, ships lists, monumental inscriptions and newspaper accounts allow the researcher to build up a picture of the individual. They define the framework for a family history, and once a researcher has established those defining time points, it becomes much easier to start understanding the lives that ancestors lived, as well as verifying that we indeed have the correct ancestors and family.

It's all too easy to assign "probable" births to parents based on the incidence of names in a given community, but the reality of the situation is that certainly in rural areas, many births weren't recorded, many children were illegitimate, many wives died in childbirth and a large number of both men and women married more than once or twice. Inevitably a man will marry a second wife of the same first name, or a sister of his first wife, or worse! I have been guilty of making what I thought at the time were very reliable assumptions, and been proven wrong! I now take a much more cautious approach to those pre-1855 Scottish events, and I am accordingly far more suspicious of those genealogists that can trace ancestors back into the medieval period. Most of us are lucky if we can trace reliably to the late 18th century. We would all like to be able to delve deeper into those mists of time, but without concrete event-based proof, that can become a slippery slope. Even Donald Rumsfeld doesn't have a category for what appears to be known…and what turns out to be wrong! Perhaps the less said here, the better!

I'm all in favour of making educated guesses when no real proof of ancestry exists - but only as a guideline! Using Scottish naming patterns, may give some clues toward a mother's surname, but one should be wary of using this technique and thinking that it's absolutely accurate. These and other guesses should be used only as pointers toward verifiable data!

With the increased popularity of genealogy, I find a mountain of uncorrected information on many web-posted genealogies. Many people post their data on a number of sites, including, or Unfortunately, that information is often rarely updated or corrected, and once it appears, it takes on a life of its own, spreading far and wide to other sites perpetuating its errors!

The genealogies that appear on my site are updated regularly. If you see a problem with accuracy, or anything that doesn't appear quite right…such as 10 (or 75!) year old mothers, please let me know. While I endeavour to verify all information that is sent to me, mistakes do happen. Feel free to question any data on my site. I'd like to think that the information that I have is as accurate as possible, and as more resources become available, omissions in Brebner/Bremner data will be filled and new data added.

Finally, let's hope that we can reduce the "unknown unknowns" into "known unknowns" and even further into "knowns"! After all, that's what genealogy and family history is all about…to know as much about our ancestors as possible.
   Previous page... Next page... logo and homepage link Brebner/Bremner Genealogies Newsletter   Page 3