Radu Luchian(ov): Pastime: Commentary
On References

I've been meaning to put down somewhere these comments for a long time now. I kept talking about them with friends and professors for almost 25 years yet they never hit any less volatile external medium than speech. So there.

References, dear references. One of the most basic building blocks of our cognitive abilities when they're used properly (as they are doing implicitly in representations), and unbelievable pains in the neck (literally, see below) if they're NOT used properly (mostly in philosophical or scientific writings).

Now who am I to set normative criteria around such a widely used cognitive economy tool? Nobody. And I'm not setting a normative criterion, I'm observing the existence of some limitations in the use of the tool.

So what do references do? They allow us:

  • Cognitive economy: they pack a large amount of knowledge or data into a short form so that the reader can follow an argument, then read the reference, if needed.
  • Organization: large arguments can be broken down in "chunks" easier to be "digested" by our limited minds.
  • Division of labor: people can divide the task of considering reality among several [hundreds of thousands of] documents and [thousands of] authors, then, when a point from another document has to be made, in pops a reference.
  • Copyright: excellent way to give credit where it's due.
    BUT. Yeah, lotsa big "but"s.
  • Impractical: when paper references are made to inaccessible sources (e.g. either too old or in an unknown language) they're as good as inexistant.
  • Context: when words are taken out of context, they tend to mean wildly different things than their author meant.
  • Opaqueness: any times the argument presumes prior acquaintance with the content of the reference in order to understand the argument, thus leads to interrupting the argument in order to hunt down the reference (whence the literal pain in the necks)
  • Name-throwing: the worst kind of reference that goes like "so-and-so says" or "according to so-and-so". Hell, no! "So-and-so" might have changed their mind several times in their thinking career and they'd be very upset to hear people throw their name around with so much disregard to their current opinions. Name-throwing may indeed lead to a very "comfy" feeling in the people who hear it and think they understand the reference, but it is not a good tool for actually communicating thought.
  • Non-determination: you can never say even "[some hypothesis - or assumption] as so-and-so writes in [such-and-such book, article, etc.] It requires too much consistency in the speaker and hearer's currently primed background knowledge to be plausible (short of psychic phenomena like telepathy). The writer-reader relationship is even more problematic, because all the contextual cues that can't be encoded in text are lost (body language, intonation, the situation that led the writer to write, etc.) And we are very bad at conveying context in writing. What I think may bring my readers to the frame of mind I want them in, so they understand what I'm writing is also subject to misinterpretation.
  • Imprinting: say the reader read through an argument that's wrong, but was moved (by a reference to an illustrous name and text), to buy the argument. Not many people have the resources to hunt down references, so that argument can be integrated in the belief system of the reader. After that point, even if presented with plentiful evidence, the reader will be reluctant to give up the argument, preferring to discard the evidence than re-evaluate the belief.
  • Economy: many were the times when I lost track of an argument I was making just because I was tracking down and recording references. And (man!) it takes a long time to gather all the little bits of information spread throughout a book, then to format them in the appropriate standard. I'd rather do something useful with that time. OK, so this last one may say more about myself than about references. :D

    I've been long ago sensitized to these problems by my Language teachers: my godmother and Dr. Gela (family friend - both were feeding me Chomskyan GG concepts from preschool to highschool), Dr. Sichitiu (primary school, with his little nursery rhyme that emphasized the continuous synergy between the form and meaning of symbols), Dr. Lavinia (highschool, with her emphasis on the structure of essays and constructively critical argumentation), Mr. Heinlein (scifi author, with his gorgeously well presented social commentary) and many others, some of which are listed on my thank you page.

    I seem to have a problem related to the Imprinting result of Referencing that I mentioned above. Professors continue to highly criticize my writings because I don't concentrate on the positive aspects of the works I'm discussing, but on the contradictions and other problems I find in them. I do that on purpose and it irritates them. I guess that's to be expected: who the heck does this guy think he is, criticizing his betters, with no respect for the advances those betters have made in their field? Indeed that is never my intention. I always look for the inconsistencies between what I know and what I read. I think there's an important difference between [what you read in a book abstract or other forms of eulogy] and [what you read in commentary articles]. It's the difference between "compare" and "contrast". Both forms of analysis are perfectly necessary. And I use both to gather knowledge. I'm asked why I don't look past the details and try to see what the authors really say. My answer is twofold:

    My position's like this: if you have an opinion, say it as it comes from you, try to convey your own interpretation of the reference, because it's the only opinion over which you have any influence. Don't hide behind other people's words! Because, to begin with (due to wide differences in background experience and context between you and the authors), there are big chances you have misunderstood what they said and all the ramifications of their arguments. If you just parrot the author mechanically, you may sound knowledgeable, but deep inside, ye'r just that: a parrot. That's why when I write things myself, I tend to provide a bibliography rather than a list of references. The only place when I agree references are needed is when I provide a quote; that way if my readers want to hunt down the quote in the original in order to verify the context of the quote, they can do it without having to read the whole source text.

    More on context. Good writers make use of context. They write plausible stories by using simile and other stylistic tools within the current context of the story, simulating the thought processes of the characters:

    "The gaudy saddle was out of place in the ranch school he was attending, just as formal clothes at a branding."
    -- Robert Heinlein: Between Planets p.7

    In my own research into accessible documents (MonDoc), I try to curb the recklessly open hyperlinks provided by HTML into cognitively sensitive tools for referencing.

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