I do a lot of research. Part of that research involves examining sources. Often a source that I am hoping will give me solid information doesn’t. However, oftentimes I will find, especially in a well-sourced source, I will find a thread. If I follow that thread it will often take me to a gold mine. But sometimes, it’s not the sources themselves, but rather how those sources are employed in making the argument. And when I look at the way that the source is being used, I have learned to ask a few questions:
• Is the source being used to compare/contrast?
• Is the source being used as evidence of a particular claim?
• Is the source being used to buttress an argument?
• Is the source just referenced, or is it being quoted?
A while ago, I posted a series that used a draft of a paper that I wrote where I compared and contrasted particular arguments made in particular camps. I used two primary sources to illustrate these beliefs, then brought in a third towards the conclusion to ask which of the two was closer to it. That being said, I answered two of the four above questions. I also have a rather long post on the blog where I use a single source to demonstrate that the logic of a particular position is weak, thus demonstrating the use of a third. And if you scroll through my many posts, more than likely you will find sources being just referenced, with a link directing to it, or a quote. Now the fact that I can answer those questions, means that there are other questions that need to be answered:
• Is the source being accurately represented?
Just because a source is cited, doesn’t mean that the source is being represented accurately. Is the type of source being identified? Is this an academic journal, a blog post, or a book? While there are many academic journals, there are many with varying quality. Also, a blog post from an academic is something completely different from an essay in a journal or what the average internet blogger, such as myself, puts out. This is simply about the authority of the source.
• Does the source actually say what it is claimed to say?
It is very easy to simply make a claim about what a source says; the question is, and this goes back to the previous point about representation, does it actually say what is claimed? Is the source being used contextually or a-contextually? It is very easy to manipulate a source to make it say what I want it to say. It must also be clear whether or not it is a summary, especially if it’s a large citation involving multiple pages of an argument, or if it being presented as the conclusion of the argument.
• Is the source cited properly?
This might be nitpicking a bit, but if I want to be able to track down these sources and verify what they say, then proper citation is necessary. If it’s a book, give me a page number or, in this digital, paperless age, at least a chapter number. Also, and this is something that is often missed, there will usually be two versions of source, especially in books: a North American version and a UK version, and there can be differences between the titles, the organization of material, and even pagation, not to mention a work that has multiple editions. Ancient sources are usually the trickiest, because different sources will have them presented in different ways, just adding to the confusion. Clarity in citation is a must.
There are so many questions that a person must ask that it can sometimes be bothersome and can make people wary of even trying to interact because trying to answer the questions can take us into some pretty dark places. To that end, those who are not critically minded—not saying that is necessarily a bad thing—will simply yield to an authority or the force of the argument itself without attempting any form of verification.
So, let’s summarize everything. When reading a book or a blog post or a paper, whenever there are claims being made, what needs to be kept in mind?
• The type and quality source that is being used
• The representation of the source
• The relevance of the source
• The accuracy of the representation of the source
• The citation of the source
Keeping these elements in mind will help the careful reader and the critical thinker on the right track. It will also help to spot abuses and misrepresentations that are being used to buttress arguments that cannot stand on their own. We are tremendously blessed to live in an age where claims can be checked almost as soon as they’re made and the veracity of cited sources verified.