A homily on APA citation style

I’ve been doing some work lately using the APA citation style, and I hate every moment of it.

This may seem like an exaggeration—after all, it’s just a citation style. It’s purely a means of conveying information. So long as all the same information gets across, the difference between one style and another is purely cosmetic. Of course you might prefer one over the other, but it seems needlessly petty to hate a citation style.

So what is my beef with the APA? To name a few things:

Citations are in-text. This always makes a document messy and difficult to read. APA style says that with anything up to and including five authors, you need to list all of them on the in-text citation. This makes huge breaks in the flow of text, which translates to huge gaps in the flow of thought. And, let’s face it: lots of academics have funny names. It’s distracting.

Another name-related problem: the APA style emphasizes authors’ names and de-emphasizes titles. This means that something like “(Prendergast, van Schmuijens, and Koop, 2006)” is meant to stand in for “A Retrospective Study of Data Collection by Mental Health Organizations” (no page numbers, of course, that would be gauche). How do you remember that “Prendergast, van Schmuijens, and Koop” is supposed to stand for that? Because you’re an academic and you’re friends with Prendergast, van Smuijens, and Koop. Anyone who doesn’t go to the right cocktail parties is at a severe disadvantage in reading these articles. This feature of APA style so effectively promotes academics’ careers at the expense of communication that you have to think they designed it that way on purpose.

By way of contrast, my own field (music) uses the “whichever one you happen to like the best” style guide, so I’ve always used Chicago. Citations in Chicago are typically done in footnotes (they can be in-text, but in practice they’re usually footnotes or endnotes). The footnotes constitute a parallel text to the main text that can contain parenthetical expansions, directions to further reading, anecdotes, and jokes. This means that the main text stays uncluttered, and that authors are encouraged to expand upon their citations. Titles and page numbers are given for every citation.

This is not just an issue of cosmetics or even the availability of information. It constitutes a totally different way of thinking about references. To use computer analogies, the Chicago method construes references as hyperlinks: they direct you somewhere you can find more information or verify what has just been said. It allows the author to qualify or comment on the value of a source. Thus, it demands acknowledgment up front that you are reading a text that can be criticized, and it directs you to other texts that can be criticized.

On the other hand, APA treats citations as “includes”. A computer program has just one continuous effective text, but this text tends to be broken up through several different files and copied automatically into the main stream of text as needed. A computer can do this. A person cannot. The rhetoric of the social sciences treats “(Prendergast, van Schmuijens, and Koop, 2006)” not as a direction to read the corresponding study, but as a shorthand that straightforwardly copies the chunk of knowledge that study represents into the present context. It glosses over the fact that this may not always be possible or even desirable. Moreover, it glosses over the fact that the source may not actually say what the present author claims it does.

Fundamentally, APA citation is dishonest, in exactly the same ways that the field of psychology is dishonest. I’m not OK with that.

The Kobayashi Maru, the trolley problem, and philosophical supervillains

Listen, Meg, God made the angels to show Him splendor, as He made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But Man He made to serve Him wittily, in the tangle of his mind. If He suffers us to come to such a case that there is no escaping, then we may stand to our tackle as best we can, and, yes, Meg, then we can clamor like champions, if we have the spittle for it. But it’s God’s part, not our own, to bring ourselves to such a pass. Our natural business lies in escaping. If I can take the oath, I will.

—Thomas More, A Man For All Seasons

If you want to have any kind of sanity at all, sooner or later you have to stop looking for an ethical system. That’s not to say you must forgo ethics entirely—that would be a different kind of madness—but a systematic ethic that can be mindlessly applied like a mathematical formula to yield the moral answer to a dilemma is too elusive a goal for the average person to pursue. Even if such a thing is possible, it could never be applied in practice because everyone would have to derive it individually. No one but professional ethicists has time for such a thing—there are bolts to be turned, aircraft to be designed, symphonies to be performed.

I’ve made peace with the idea that I will probably never have a moral formula. I am satisfied that murder is wrong and am neither able nor willing to derive that fact from some ultimate moral principle. In grey areas, I am susceptible to arguments, but these arguments must ultimately inform the exercise of my moral judgment. I cannot escape exercising this judgment, and it’s debatable whether such a thing would be desirable.

Needless to say, this makes intro philosophy courses very unpleasant. Continue reading

Apostasy squared: “New Atheism” considered harmful

Russell Glasser of The Atheist Experience posts this list of recommended reading for atheists. The list, which prominently features Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris, with a little Russell thrown in and Dennett conspicuously absent, is supposed to give readers “a basic handle on the intellectual foundations of atheism”. This is the New Atheism, the strange mixture of half-understood science, naive philosophy, and adolescent rage beloved of fourteen-year-old boys and others who might as well be. It evolved gradually over the last forty to fifty years and has recently been taking the world by storm. I date the New Atheism’s ascendancy from 2006, when Dawkins’s The God Delusion was published and became an instant bestseller. The rise of the Internet (particularly blogs and social media) is also crucial because it allowed fans of the New Atheism to organize—which was difficult in the past due to geographic spreading and the fact that many of these people are not very well-adjusted socially.

The central figures of this movement are Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins, neuroscientist Sam Harris, the Tufts philosopher of mind Daniel Dennett, and the late political writer Christopher Hitchens. Each one brings his own distinctive style to the table. Dawkins began as a pretty good popular science writer with a chip on his shoulder about religion. It wasn’t until The God Delusion that he went full-blown cultural critic. God only knows (excuse the expression) if he’s done anything scientific in recent years. As far as I know he’s currently a full-time atheist.

Harris combines a mild-mannered demeanour with moments of bugfuck insanity, particularly when the subject turns to Islam and conflicts in the Middle East. This is a topic to which we’ll return. Hitchens was a drunken cryptofascist asshole who appears to have been roped into the movement largely by accident; most of his writing is about politics and touches religion only obliquely.

By far the most tolerable of the four is Daniel Dennett. This is probably because he’s the only one who has an agenda more sophisticated than the grown-up equivalent of telling the younger kids there ain’t no Santa Claus (Dennett has confessed to playing along on one occasion when he was mistaken for the jolly old elf). His book Consciousness Explained is an enlightening read about consciousness and the self. He is probably the least-read of the four; his books require a little more heavy lifting and he is less prone to sloganeering.

I’ve been a bit glib in the above summary. Partly this is my own frustration coming out, partly it’s a transparent attempt to bate the New Atheist fans into responding, but mostly it’s affectionate prodding. Although I would not consider myself a New Atheist (and I’m skeptical of the term “atheist” in general), I did at one time and I understand the thought process that leads people into this movement. I get why people pick up Richard Dawkins and fall in love with him, and I feel a certain amount of kinship with them. This is tempered by a desire to kick them in the ass until they read a goddamn book1, which would solve a lot of their problems. Continue reading