The Importance of Footnotes

It's a sore point with all academics, but especially political scientists, that their work doesn't get much attention outside of universities. The opinion pages, cable news, and interviews with Steven Colbert go to those who claim to have an expertise in politics, yet do not possess the almighty PhD and citations in APSR. How many political scientists dream up imaginary witty repartee with Colbert? All of them.

Not only do the mainstream pundits get all the glory, but they are frequently wrong. Lee Sigelman checked out whether the pundits got their predictions correct on the McLaughlin group.

Most of the pundits’ predictions were either too unclear to be subjected to a truth test or turned out to be simply incorrect — none of which deterred these “inside dopes” from confidently and loudly offering a new batch of predictions week in and week out. In weather forecasting, we realize that achieving accuracy in the short run is impossible, so the local wather show typically has more to do with the personality of the weather(wo)man than with providing a clear and accurate forecast of whether it’s going to rain tomorrow. The same thing holds for political and economic prognostication, though we prefer to pretend otherwise.

So, the pundits get all the glory and they're often wrong. Oh, that galls!

Typically, if you get me to take sides in the pundits v. political scientist brawl, I'll root for the pundits. I figure that if political scientists weren't so elitist, so insulated and such bad writers, people would pay attention to them.

The last two papers that I've had to peer review have followed a very simple formula: bad writing, bad writing, a big important chart, bad writing. I had no idea what the papers were about until I squinted at the charts. The introductions never presented hypotheses or hinted at findings. Even aside from those two papers, the quality of writing is very low in my field. Scientific notation has destroyed even great prose. The topics have grown more and more narrow. Everyone runs from creating new theories.

But I'm in a different mood today. I'm halfway through Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers and there are things irritating the crap out of me. I'll give a full review of the book tomorrow, but today I just need to rant about the lack of footnotes.

Gladwell wonders why exceptional people are exceptional. An interesting question, no doubt. And Gladwell pulls together various amazing scholarly work to assemble his own theory, which isn't all that, but more on his theory tomorrow. As Gladwell tells the story of various interesting people and communities, he doesn't put in references into the text. I have no idea what are his own ideas and what he got from others. I have no idea what quotes come from his own interviews and what comes from other researchers. That blurred line of authorship is dishonest and irritating.

There were several times I came to something in the book that was a little bizarro, and I wanted to find out where he got his information. On page 56, he has a chart of the richest people in history. The chart includes the obvious, Carnegie, Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Gates. It also includes Cleopatra and Marcus Licinius Crassus. How the hell did someone quantify Cleopatra's wealth? They aren't even sure which year she was born. Was this chart from a reputuable source or from wikipedia? So, I went looking for a footnote. None.

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Typically, when you write a paper on a topic, you have to give a nod to those who came before. You list the other scholars who have written on a similar topic and say how your work will be different. Gladwell picks one scholar who writes on a topic and doesn't mention any of the others. To his credit, he does pull out the best scholar, but he sure leaves out of tons of people. He doesn't even mention all the scholars who have done research on the benefits of redshirting. (Dude, google scholar is a good thing.)

On the plus side of books like this one, Gladwell does expose more people to quality research and ideas, even if you walk away from the book thinking that he came up with these ideas. He does have a knack for finding "the interesting." He ties together various studies from different fields with some success. He shows that there is a market for ideas and research and that more people need to jump on this gravy train.

6 thoughts on “The Importance of Footnotes

  1. I detest the lack of cites in “pundit” articles/books. These days, I think columns in newspapers (Kristof’s are the ones where I frequently want them most clearly)should have cites, at least on line.
    I’ve been particularly focused on this since reading Leonard Sax on gender, a book so misleading about the science, as to be fraudulent. To his credit, he does cite, so it’s actually possible to figure this out. Because the cites are there, I can blame the reader for not thinking critically. Without the cites, the reader doesn’t even have that opportunity.
    (Gladwell is a prime culprit, and you’re not the only one to complain about the book on these grounds — a not so original thought, pulled together with random anecdotes, and little mroe).

  2. “Typically, if you get me to take sides in the pundits v. political scientist brawl, I’ll root for the pundits. I figure that if political scientists weren’t so elitist, so insulated and such bad writers, people would pay attention to them. ”
    If there’s one group in our society which combines elitism, insulation and bad writing, it’d be pundits. They’re good at shouting on talk shows, and their opinions are useful to the elites; that’s why and how they make their livings.

  3. Laura,
    I agree completely. We listened to Outliers on the way down from NJ to TX and I hungered for his bib. Sad to realize that there is none. (I guess this is a hidden disadvantage of listening to books on MP3.)
    You know, what is an interesting comparison of Outliers with our summer audio “read” Stumbling toward Happiness (or something like that) is that these books are essentially long lit reviews. Seems to be rather formulaic. They’re insightful, but big hypothesis generators.

  4. “The last two papers that I’ve had to peer review have followed a very simple formula: bad writing, bad writing, a big important chart, bad writing.”
    At least I know those aren’t my papers. Mine have overly detailed tables instead of charts.

  5. I have also tried bad writing, bad writing, PG-13 sex scene that was only tangentially related to the rest of the piece, bad writing. I don’t know why that one didn’t work for me. It’s done wonders for Michael Bay.

  6. from Joe who was having trouble posting comments:
    I can’t post for some reason, but the list in the Gladwell book was apparently just made up for Wikipedia based on a Forbes list of richest Americans of all time. That explains why there are so many Americans on the list.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wealthy_Historical_Figures_2006
    Oddly, the Forbes list is not scaled based on inflation. The Forbes list is based on wealth as a percentage of the total US GNP at the time scaled up in proportion to the current GNP. George Washington didn’t really have the equivalent of 17.7 billion dollars. He just had wealth that is the same percentage of the 1800 (or whatever) GNP as 17.7 billion/$13.13 trillion.
    I have no freaking clue how you fit people from other countries into such a list. For example, I am sure that there are a boatload of people from England who were richer than George Washington at the time but are not on the list. The non-Americans are probably just estimates of random rich dudes total wealth done by random Internet dudes.

    Thanks Joe!

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