Keith Garratt’s critique of genealogy (New Zealand Skeptic 77) is a strange mix of arguments. He purports to be addressing genealogy “as normally practised” or “as often practised” but offers no evidence that this is the way that things are actually done. He also identifies a “traditional approach,” a term which is used, however, almost interchangeably with the others. He presents no evidence as to the prevalence of these approaches amongst genealogists and most of his examples of misuses of genealogy, such as Dan Brown’s bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code, are not drawn from the genealogical literature. A review of the contents of the volumes of the bi-monthly New Zealand Genealogist for 2004 and 2005, as an example, contradicts most of his claims about what represents usual practice. Ordinary claims require ordinary evidence, at least, but little is provided.

I have been a member of the New Zealand Society of Genealogists since 1989. Genealogy is an enormously popular pursuit so people undoubtedly do it for all sorts of reasons. In my experience looking for famous ancestors or ancestral fortunes is rarely the motivation. Most people treat genealogy or family history for what it is – an absorbing hobby providing a chance to do historical research which means something personally to them and their families. In New Zealand it is also about why people came here, how, and when. In short, a lot of genealogy is about the recent past because that is what people find most relevant. This is the approach that Keith Garratt says that he takes to genealogy, but which he says is not genealogy “as normally practised.”

I don’t know any genealogists who wouldn’t admit that their reconstructions are often based on partial or potentially flawed evidence. It is very well known that the mother of the child is more likely to be correctly recorded than the father. Generally the further back in time, the more incomplete the record. This is one of the reasons why genealogy as usually practised is usually about the recent past. Beyond about 300 years there is only the certainty that most people with British ancestry, for example, are related one way or another to almost every one else.

The term ‘bloodline’ is seldom used by genealogists. A search on the internet reveals that this talk tends to happen amongst breeders of dogs and horses, those interested in royalty, and those concerned with religious ideas. Garratt’s critique of bloodlines is valid, but I doubt that this has much relevance to current genealogical practice. I suspect that many New Zealanders are deeply unimpressed by any claims of merit or quality based on ancient, royal, or noble bloodlines.

I have characterised the current practice of genealogy differently from Keith Garratt. There is a world of difference between knowing that your distant nameless ancestors come from, say, every part of Britain and knowing that some recent named ancestors lived in particular places at particular times within about the last 300 years. My eight great grandparents between them came from places in six different counties in England. I can’t know the whole picture, but I can know something about some of my recent ancestors, and that is enough. (Abridged)

Tony Walton

Keith Garratt replies:

I am pleased to hear that serious genealogists use the rational approach to genealogy that I advocated in my paper, rather than the traditional gender-biased system. I would expect nothing less. However, I think it is a matter for debate as to which approach is most often used. I based my comments on what I have experienced, and hundreds of examples of surname-based family tree projects on the internet. I think Tony Walton has failed to recognise that the primary target of my paper was not genealogy itself, but the way the traditional approach reinforces obsolete notions about the role of women. It also reinforces the objectionable principle of primogeniture, which was certainly alive and well in provincial farming areas of NZ just a few years ago. The same principle gives New Zealand the prospect of having as sovereign a person whose only qualification for the position is that he is the oldest male offspring of the current incumbent.

Maori Bashing?

The following is a message received via the NZ Skeptics Contact page.

Chairwoman Vicki Hyde appears to suffer from a certain lack of education — perhaps she should take a Ritual & Belief paper at Massey before adding her simplistic views to yet another gratuitous piece of Maori bashing. That way she might be prepared to accept that the ‘Skeptic’ view point has a quite different cultural resonance.

There is every reason why we should challenge belief systems — particularly our own — and every reason not to furnish the tabloid press with cheap quotes to be used as weapons with which to beat up the practices — health or otherwise — of our indigenous people.

A lack of care in this respect might well be regarded as an unfortunate tendency towards hubris.

If it reads like ego, and sounds like ego — it very likely is. Rather than the detached scientific approach it might purport to be.

Andy Beck

Vicki Hyde replies:

Thank you for your comment regarding my concern at the potential for harm from non-evidence-based medical practices.

I’m sorry if you read it as gratuitous Maori-bashing, and sorry that you feel the need to descend to an ad hominem attack, rather than taking on board the principle that neither deception nor delusion are ethically acceptable foundations for medical treatment.

As someone proud of her Tainui whakapapa, I am more than well aware of the problems and issues of Maori health. While appeals to waiata have their place — as does awareness of the pyschological interaction with the physiological — it is necessary for someone to say ‘taiho’ when such applications overstep the area for which they are appropriate. That is the area of concern for the NZ Skeptics.

We have seen cases where, for example, poultices of kawakawa leaves were applied externally to ‘treat’ lung cancers. If that sort of practice, whether an ethnomedical approach or a New Age one, goes unquestioned, then the patient is the one who is being put at unacceptable and unnecessary risk.

The first tenet of the Hippocratic Oath is “First do no harm”. The next implicit step is “second, do some good”. There will be areas where psychological and cultural contexts are important, and the NZ Skeptics acknowledge that — our concern lies with ensuring that the cash-strapped health system provides the accountability and transparency to ensure we get the best possible care available.

As a society it has taken us years of consumer action and legislation and attitudinal change to ensure our evidence-based medical community provides informed consent, undertakes patient consultations and accepts independent overviews and accountability for their actions. Maori deserve no less than anyone else in this regard where medical claims are being made.

Cancer, meningitis, broken legs – none of these respond to cultural resonance…. (see Hokum Locum, p15).

TV credibility done to death

The Sensing Murder programme on TV2 (January 10) was appalling. Any respect I had for the integrity of Rebecca Gibney has now gone down the toilet. It was terribly bad taste with a re-enactment of the murder of Tracey Anne Patient that was shown again and again in graphic detail.

However, the real sleaze in the programme was the two ‘psychics’ who claimed to be in touch with the murder victim and, according to Gibney who hosted the programme, were able to give investigators lots of new clues about the murderer. According to Gibney the ‘psychics’ were chosen from a large field of candidates because they were able to offer some quite specific and accurate details about the case. The ‘information’ the ‘psychics’ actually gave was a mixture of high probability stuff such as “the victim is very frightened” and “the murderer is definitely a man”. There was also a great deal of pure speculation masquerading as ‘fact’ which can never, of course, be verified.

However, both ‘psychics’ did make some quite specific hits and frequently agreed with each other to a surprising extent (each were supposed to have been interviewed on different days). Gibney kept telling us that the ‘psychics’ had no prior knowledge of the case and that there was no collusion going on. Bollocks! It seems to me that it would not have been difficult for each of these psychics to have gained a great deal of background information before the interviews. In short, I think there was a great deal of cheating going on that Gibney swallowed hook, line and sinker!

Each ‘psychic’ was apparently told they were going to do a story on the unsolved murder of a NZ teenager. It would not have taken much effort to come up with a very short, short-list for who the victim was likely to be. Perhaps, like me, they can remember some details of the case from when it actually happened.

I think that the ‘psychics’ were cheating and I would like to nominate Rebecca Gibney for a Bent Spoon award. The whole programme was a terrible exploitation of a brutal murder.

Mark Fletcher

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