Passing the thought

You’re in fourth grade, writing your first research paper on Greek philosophy, and the teacher has a special announcement. Class will be held in the library today, for a session on citations and bibliographies by the librarian. Everyone knows that these sessions do untold damage to young kids — hours of boredom sitting through the semantics of MLA and the locations of commas and italics.

But something more sinister is also happening, and its echos into adult life are a tasteless, colorless poison. In a knowledge world, the modern form of passing the buck is passing the thought.

It turns out that adults repeat the same tactics they used during school, except for things that actually matter. That’s a dangerous combination.

When we teach kids to respect the authority of prior work, it ends up having a silencing effect on potential disagreement. I learned early on that, if a credible source with an important-sounding name, title, or pedigree simply wrote something down, I need only find and quote it to ‘prove’ a point. Indeed, citations are the ultimate academic commodity — they’re often counted as the only metric other than pages and words that matters to the quality of a paper.

These antics are repeated endlessly through primary school, high school, and college. We spend painstaking effort to include the minimum number and ensure every citation is formatted correctly. Or beware the wrath of your professor.

Why does this matter?

But when’s the last time you remember a teacher commenting on one of your citations? That you misquoted the author, took a quote out of context, or that the quote was based on shaky evidence?

For me, not once in my academic career. Not. Once.

As a time optimizer, I quickly learned to short-circuit such a flawed metric. A quote is a quote, after all, and no one would check. So lots of citations were taken out of context, or hastily added without actually reading the piece I was quoting.

I know this story isn’t particular to me, and in a school context it’s mostly inconsequential. But what effect does that formative experience have on people later on?

We see this every day, actually. People use outside evidence in everything from casual conversation to business presentations to formal research without completely reading the source. Worse still, many leaders will use an outside source to justify actions, without ever forming an independent opinion on the usefulness of that source’s data.

A form of office pollution

Jump with me from the classroom to the boardroom. This type of faux logic appears in business arguments constantly. It’s the cancer of consulting. Just pay someone else to do the work, and use their credibility to rationalize whatever the conclusion. The good word has been Written by McKinsey. (Or insert your favorite scapesource). So shut up. Next question, please.

Somehow, training kids in the scientific method but then valuing the citation alone as a stopping point has bred a culture of absolution. Just cite someone smarter than you, and you’re excused from the responsibility to think.

Here’s an idea: let’s discuss the logic behind conclusions instead of the authority of sources. My anti-MLA is a citation like “326 of 1000 surveyed in a randomized, controlled study would buy this product for $10”. By making the evidence explicit, it can lead to questions like “were the participants representative?” or “has that conclusion been repeated in other studies?” This is called traveling down the ladder of inference.

Holding everyone accountable for preparing these answers encourages discussion and engagement, rather than unquestioning belief. This requires a culture that praises people having the courage to be wrong, so we need to value discussion over watertight arguments.

Our responsibility to think independently has been in decline for too long. Once and for all, I declare war on citations.

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