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Thursday, 13 December 2012

Reliable References?

One of the key elements in any treatise intended for academia is to include 'references' for everything you rely on in your research or your final outcomes. In essence it is a sound system, it should mean that if I study something and draw certain conclusions from it, I should be able to point to support for my hypothesis in other work by others in my field. Ideally I should include references to work which differs from my outcomes and state why I disagree. However, there are pitfalls to this. Quite often the "references" have a tendency to become "circular" and the outcome can be predictable because the author has fallen into the trap of accepting, without challenge, something said by someone else.

As I'm sure Josephus will be able to show at some point when he has time, these 'references' tend to become self-perpetuating and once they have entered a sort of magic zone where they have been relied on by so many other 'experts' they become unchallengable - yet may well be of decidedly unreliable provenance. An example I came across recently relates to the "Mayan Prophecy" that the world will end on 21st December of this year. Tracing the origin of this exposes the fact that it first appears in a book written by someone named McKenna in 1979. The book itself is a rather strange mix of "New Age" ideas, hallucinatory "revelation" and very little actual knowledge of the Mayan artifacts or calendar. So how did it get so widely spread and so wisely adopted?

It turns out that McKenna was one of the "gurus" followed by a small group of later authors, one of whom recently gave an interview on their writing, who all agreed that the way to get noticed was to draw on each other as "reference" material in support of their ideas. According to the article he freely admits that many of the ideas of "Nibiru" and "Planet X" crashing into the earth on this date were "revealed" on "magic mushroom trips." So, the question really, is how did their ramblings become so widely quoted and spark this whole zany movement that now expects the end of the world to occur in 9 days time?

The answer is "referencing." As soon as someone uses a "reference" from something someone has written, it begins to be used by others, quite often without their actually having read the "referenced" item fully. And sometimes the original "quote" is completely spurious, an invention of the imagination of the original author. Suddenly the game changes. Another common misconception is that everything on the internet is true, proved and indisputable. The problem here is that often misrepresentations are posted and go viral because they feed into the expectation bias of certain groups. A good example are some of the quotes and refences used against Christianity - quite a number have become "authenticated" by the reputation of the originator. No one has ever questioned the origins of the opinion - for that is often all it is - of the original author. Many of these can be traced back to authors like Bertrand Russell, and most, when you examine his support for the statement, are unsupported and just his blatantly biased opinion. However, for those of like mind, Russell said it, he's the "expert," therefore it is true.

This is what has happened with the Mayan "Prophecy." It no longer matters how many real experts on the Mayan culture, artifacts and calendars (there is more than one) try to correct the garbage, it is ignored, "because McKenna was an expert" and his interpretation was supported by ... who was quoting ... and so we go round in a circle to discover that they have all been quoting each other as "expert sources." Some of their thinking was inspired by Erich von Daeniken's books (1976) which sparked more than a few entertaining and equally whacky books on the questions he raised.

The "scientific" and the "philosophic" communities of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries were particularly good at this trick and I note with interest that it still goes on today. During my own ventures into writing dissertations for my degrees I have several times investigated some of the quoted references  in works I was pointed to for study and found myself going round the same proverbial roundabout. "A says, because B says; B says, because X says; X says because Y said and Y said it because he read a paper by A ...

In another paper for a different forum, I did a considerable amount of research online and found some similar patterns. More alarmingly I found a huge amount of material which was not just misleading, or inaccurate, but totally spurious and written by people with either an axe to grind, or with some whacky ideas they wished to peddle. In both cases, the actual understanding of the subject and the material quoted tended to be either totally spurious or so off the mark it was complete nonsense. I could see this, but I would suspect that the vast majority of people accessing this material would not. In fact it was only possible for me to see it in some cases because I started out with a very thorough grounding in the subject.

Returning to my starting point, the use of references and quoting sources for ideas, theories and so on is good practice. It has been practiced for as long as men have attempted to build our understanding of everything around us. The Greek philosophers did it, the early Church fathers did it and if one ignores the inventions of the late 18th Century anti-Church movement - whose quotes and references frequently fall into the example I gave above - one finds that even the much maligned Church was drawing on Aristotle, Plato and Socrates to name but a few, for their scientific views and ideas. The problem comes in when someone steps outside that trail, and creates their own "source" without anything other than their own "reason and intellect" to support their hypothesis - and launches a new set of references of the circular kind ...

Sometimes one has to be very careful of one's sources.

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