My four-year-old daughter loves to read with us, and we have fun going to the library and picking out lots of books. One that we grabbed recently was Miss Fox’s Class Gets It Wrong by Eileen Spinelli. The book shows students noticing their teacher, Miss Fox:
- Being stopped by Officer Blue Fox
- Being escorted into the police station by Office Blue Fox
- With Officer Blue Fox around town
- Wearing a big hat and sunglasses (that make her hard to recognize)
- Keeping travel brochures for Hawaii
After much gossip and speculation, they assume that their dear teacher has somehow gotten into trouble with the law and is planning to take her disguise and run away to Hawaii. Spoiler alert: Miss Fox is actually engaged to Officer Blue Fox, and they’re planning their honeymoon in Hawaii.1
The book explicitly tells kids to “Use your imagination for your schoolwork – not for rumors and gossip. Make sure you have all the facts straight before you start telling stories about others,”2 which is certainly a valuable lesson, and a good takeaway for young readers.
This example brought something else to mind for me, though – the dangers of confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias can creep into genealogy research in a number of ways. We might be aware of the dangers of starting research assuming that family legends (such as a connection to a famous person or event) are true, seeking only for evidence to support those legends, without a critical eye for clues that the legends are false.
Sometimes confirmation bias can be trickier to spot, though. Sometimes we start with an open mind, and then like Miss Fox’s class, we make an interesting observation: Miss Fox was stopped by Officer Blue Fox, which leads us to a hypothesis: Miss Fox was stopped by Officer Blue Fox because she was in trouble with the law. If we evaluate further information from the perspective that, “sure, it could match our hypothesis,” then we can be led astray and get ourselves into trouble.
Instead, as we make our first observations and come up one or more hypotheses to explain our findings we should try to prove ourselves wrong. If we honestly try to find flaws in our assumptions and in our theories with every piece of evidence we examine, and if, at the end of our “reasonably exhaustive research,”3 our hypothesis still stands as the only or the most likely explanation, then we can feel much more confident that we have come to a reasonable conclusion.
Eileen Spinelli, Miss Fox’s Class Gets It Wrong(Chicago: Albert Whitman & Company, 2012).
Spinelli, Miss Fox’s Class Gets It Wrong, unnumbered page 26.