Epicycle on footnotes
Wed 06 Aug 2014 10:35 AM
It's a popular item prompted by Ole Bjørn Rekdal's recent article Academic urban legends, which is specifically about the phenomenon in scientific articles of only citing a recent source for a factoid rather than following that source's reference to the primary source. The result, as his title suggests, is misinformation or misattribution that gathers a veneer of academic authority as it becomes cited and recited.
Tyson takes the occasion to talk about citation practices more broadly, including in the humanities. Historians, he tells us, are scrupulous. Philosophers, not so much. He writes:
Philosophers, by contrast, may be the worst of the lot, one philosopher and journal editor said. "This is part and parcel of the attitude of most philosophers these days," said J. Angelo Corlett, a philosophy professor at San Diego State University and the editor of The Journal of Ethics. "That scholarship matters nothing. That what really matters is the cleverness of your ideas and how you articulate them."
This strikes me as unfair to philosophers.
It is true that academic philosophy is not as dense with citations as writing in many other fields. Many academic fields write with clouds of spurious references. A sentence which makes a general claim often ends with citations to three or more different articles. And often the cited articles only tangentially relate to the point being made. This is why my articles at the boundary of other disciplines are among my most cited work. It would make philosophical writing worse, rather than better, if philosophers were to adopt this practice.
Moreover, an argument is different than a fact. If I present a philosophical argument in a paper, I need to make the case entirely within the paper itself. References might indicate where similar arguments have been made or what earlier work inspired the present argument. For example, it is the standard lazy citation practice to cite Laudan's "Confutation of convergent realism" as the source for the Pessimistic Metainduction. This promulgates a myth, because Laudan means to undercut an argument for realism rather than provide a direct argument for anti-realism. But that's a myth about who said what, rather than (as in a scientific case) what the world outside academia is like.
Furthermore, practices differ within different subfields of philosophy. Historians of philosophy tend to be much more scrupulous. When I am doing exegetical work, attributing specific arguments to other philosophers rather than using their work as the occasion to talk about issues, I am more cautious.
 I'm guilty of propagating that myth myself in a paper with Craig Callendar, although we write somewhat cautiously that "Contemporary discussions of this argument begin with Laudan." Juha Saatsi clears it up in his "On the Pessimistic Induction and Two Fallacies". I was going to just assert that I was straightened out by Juha, because I heard his paper first as a conference presentation, but I thought I should provide a reference in this of all posts!