Errors and Sources

These are two things you have to acknowledge. If someone asks you where you got your information from, you have to tell them. You may have learned something just from reading a book or you may have gleaned it from careful analysis of data. You may have happened on a long-forgotten document in an archive. Whatever is the case, you have a story to tell about how you know something. If you are a scholar, other people have a perfectly legitimate interest in that story. If you refuse to share it, you have stopped behaving like a scholar. Even telling someone that you don’t know where you got it (if you in fact don’t remember) is a (true) story about the basis of your claim. Being a scholar means having to be honest about that.

The same goes for your mistakes. If someone points out that you’ve gotten something wrong, you have an obligation as a scholar to do something about that. You have to acknowledge the mistake and you have to try to correct it. This also means that you have to check whether it affects the general conclusions you’ve reached. Don’t assume (or pretend) that it doesn’t matter. “When the authors protest that none of the errors really matter,” Andrew Gelman reminds us, “it makes you realize that, in these projects, the data hardly matter at all.” You seriously undermine your credibility by not taking people who think you’re wrong seriously. If they do spot a mistake, you really lose us if you act like it’s of no importance to you. Why did you assert a fact that it’s of no importance to you to be right about?

Remember Wayne Booth’s story about “the two standard tutorial questions at Oxford”: “What does he mean?” and “How does he know?” Make sure you know the answers to those questions. Think of them as answers to the questions, “How could I be wrong?” and “Where can I find more information?” That is, if you know a thing you also know how things could be different, and you know how to find out whether they have changed and how similar things are now arranged. You are not just saying things that other people can take or leave, believe or reject. You are proposing to discuss these things with people whose opinions you respect. Scholarship is an ongoing conversation among people who are mutually committed to acknowledging both their sources and their errors.

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