When Research is Too Hard - Island of Sanity

Island of Sanity


When Research is Too Hard

When I'm working on an article or a book, I often find that I have to do some research. Sometimes I don't know the facts and I want to find out. Other times I know the facts but I want to get citations to back myself up. And sometimes I think I know the facts but when I do the research I find out that I was wrong.

And sometimes when I set out to do the research, I find that it's a lot of work for a very minor point.

Like yesterday I was working on an article about the courts declaring laws unconstitutional. To give an idea of the scope of the issue, I thought it would be good to say, "Last year, the Supreme Court declared such-and-such number of laws unconstitutional." It seemed straightforward enough to get this information: These days the Supreme Court has a web site where they post all their decisions. So all I had to do was quickly browse through them and count how many involved declaring a law unconstitutional.

Two hours later, I had made it halfway through one month's worth of decisions. There were a lot of decisions to read, and it's not like the first sentence says "This decision has nothing to do with declaring a law unconstitutional." YOu have to at least skim through the text. I thought of searching for the word "unconstitutional", but I'm not sure if every decision declaring a law unconstitutional would actually use that particular word. The Supreme Court works November through June, or eight months per year, so in two hours I basically got 1/16 of the way through one year of decisions. (I wish I had a job where I only had to work eight months a year, but that's another story.) At that rate, I had another 30 hours to go. Just so I could write the one sentence, "Last year the Supreme Court declared X laws unconstitutional." As the exact number is not crucial to anything I wanted to say in the article, I probably won't bother. Maybe I'll just say, "In one month last year ..."

I once wrote a book about end-time prophecies in the Bible. There are lots of conflicting theories in Christian circles about how to interpret some of these prophecies. I started out thinking that for each theory I would say, "This theory was proposed by so-and-so". But I quickly found that that was often not easy to find out. Many of these theories have been around for centuries, with many theologians borrowing ideas from others and putting their own spin on it. Tracking down who was the first to have a given idea sometimes turned into a matter of definitions. Is what Dr Jones is saying basically the same as what Bishop Smith said 200 years ago? Or is it a variation distinct enough to be called a new theory? While writers sometimes give credit to people who had similar ideas before them, sometimes they don't. And then I came across cases where the first person to propose a theory didn't describe it well, or hadn't thought through all the implications. Sometimes Smith might be the first person to propose a theory, but Jones said it much better. So do I quote Jones but then give Smith credit? I discovered that it was getting hopelessly complicated, just so that for each theory I could write the one sentence, "This theory was first proposed by ..." Finally I said, forget it. It wasn't worth the effort. In a few cases the history of the theory was interesting. But usually it wasn't.

These kind of cases leave me, and I presume other people trying to write books and articles, in an awkward position. On the one hand, we want to give citations and evidence for our facts. I've read many articles that assert some fact while giving no evidence, and I wonder, "Is that really true, or is the author just assuming that's true with no evidence?" We want to give proper credit to others. I don't want to give the impression that I am claiming credit for someone else's work.

I don't want to be lazy and not do the research because it's too much trouble. Sometimes, if you aren't prepared to do the research, then you aren't prepared to write the article. On the other hand, it seems like the work involved just isn't worth it for something that isn't an important point. And on the third hand, frankly it just sounds goofy to claim that you are writing a serious article and then say "I'm pretty sure that I read somewhere once that ..."

© 2020 by Jay Johansen


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