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How To Avoid Sounding Like an Idiot

Avoiding the Pet Peeves of People Who Read Your Stuff (IV)

Logical Mistake: Texts Are Not Behavior

You do not always buy what is on your shopping list. People do not always follow the law. Very few people have read the philosophical speculations of even the most famous philosophers.

It follows that one cannot assume that one knows what people are doing or thinking from their shopping lists, the laws that are supposed to apply to them, or the insights laid out in books that they almost certainly have not read.

This seems obvious, but for some writers the temptation is great to assume, for example, that Confucians behave as Confucius said they should. Some writers even assume that whatever they find as a quotation from Confucius applies to all East Asians at all times and places.

Similarly, although the Bible is an important book in the history of Judaism and Christianity, but it is NOT a description of modern practice and belief among Jewish or Christian believers. Jews today do not practice animal sacrifice, and Christians do not argue that slaves should be content with their lot.

Worse yet, to quote the Bible as a point of contrast with some non-Christian religious belief or practice (such as Japanese village processions, to take an example from a student paper) does not constitute a comparison of that practice or belief with the ethnography of Christian life.

Logical Mistake: Value Judgments Are Not Analysis

Value judgments are usually easily made once a criterion of value is established: elephants are "better" than hummingbirds once we agree that bigger is better.

But value judgments are seldom what scholarship is about. Your tirade about how outrageous it is that Tang dynasty Chinese women were mistreated (by your standards) does not, in itself, constitute a study of Tang women or of the forces that operated in Tang society.

Similarly, expressing outrage that the Spanish suppressed human sacrifice in Mexico does not constitute an analysis of Spanish colonial motives, policies, or daily life.

This does not mean that value judgments cannot be included in essays, either directly or by the use of insinuating language, but they do not show how anything works (except how to escape analysis).

Many social scientists like to conclude their analytical papers with recommendations for public policy. They do this after an analysis of a situation, an explicit value judgment that the situation is undesirable, and a prediction that it can be improved. Clearly a value judgment is involved, but it is not confused with the analysis of the situation.

Time Passes

When writing about authors in an historical context, the past tense is normal, since the stress is on the history of thought, not the content as such:

When the focus is on the opinions or arguments themselves, it is not unusual in English to use the present tense, since the opinions and arguments last even long after the writers are gone:

This use of the present tense is usually harmless, but it is important to remember that different articles are written at different periods. Your source authors may speak of China "today," but if you refer to their writings as applying to China on the day you are writing, you are likely to be anachronistic. For example, Arthur Smith's Village Life in China was published in 1899 and was based on the years of his residence there just before that. In his era, China was ruled by a Manchurian royal house. It is foolish to assume that nothing has changed:

Opinions Are Not Facts

Authors' conclusions, impressions, and opinions are not facts, except perhaps about the authors themselves.

For example, if an author says that French art in the XVIIIth century was hideous, that should not be built on as a fact about French art; it is a fact about that author's impression or opinion. If you are writing about the author, it matters. If you are writing about French art, it is irrelevant.

Informed opinions are important, and the people expert enough to write books and articles are normally well informed and may well represent what reasonable people think, but their opinions are not facts.

Authors' Conclusions The flip side of the previous point is that the actual arguments made by experts and the conclusions reached through those arguments are not mere opinions; they are reasoned positions which the experts believe to be the best integration of all available evidence with the most persuasive ways of evaluating it. It is inappropriately dismissive to confuse the results of careful reasoning with mere snap judgment.

For example, to say that Jones "believes" that Neanderthals were capable of artistic production fails to credit Jones with having arguments to back up that position. If Jones has a reasoned argument and not just a blind faith in Neanderthal artistic capacity, it is far better to say that Jones "argues"or "reasons"or "concludes" that Neanderthals were capable of artistic production. (And then, of course, you should probably indicate the published source or suggest the argument so the reader has some idea why Jones would reach such an implausible conclusion.)

The key point is that it is not the specialists' "beliefs" or "opinions" that matter, but their arguments and conclusions, even if we don't understand the arguments and are willing to take their word about them.

East & West Are Not Places

The tired words "East" and "West" as contrasting kinds of civilizations have always been rather silly, and they remain silly, at least most of the time.

Arguably, there actually is such a thing as "Western" civilization, referring loosely to those societies most directly the heirs of the cultural heritage of ancient Greece and, even more so, Rome: the European Medieval philosophers, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and so on. The use of the term "the West" to refer collectively to such societies is unexceptionable. Also reasonable, in appropriate contexts, is the use of the term "Western" to refer to the general political alliance structure centered on North America and Western Europe.

No comparably coherent tradition is shared by any entity called "the East." The term "the East" (or even "the mysterious East") was used in the last century to invoke popular notions of the inscrutability, arcane superiority, or inherent untrustworthiness of people in much of Asia.

As a geographical term, "the East" covers everything from Turkey and Israel to Korea, from Siberia and Mongolia to Borneo, and even Australia. It is not a cultural category, and it has no analytical value whatsoever. When set in direct contrast to "the East" without further specification, "the West" covers everything from Norway to Argentina and from Romania to Angola and everybody from Zulus to Navajos. So it becomes meaningless as well.

Thus, if it can sometimes make sense to refer to "the West" (although it is still stupid if what you really mean is "middle class white teenagers in Santa Barbara"), it never makes sense to talk about "the East." It never did, and it still doesn't. If you find an author who does that, the work is unlikely to be a good termpaper source. For example, here is a bit of meaningless blather from a UCSD doctoral dissertation (not in my department), trying to sound profound. This author even manages us to use "Asian" equally meaninglessly!

Eastern philosophy is circular; the individual is one with the universe. The Eastern path is reconciliation with nature, not mastery or exploitation. The Asian way enables a pluralistic approach to healing, while narrower Western medicine is physician dominated.

Made-Up Stories Are Not History

On the whole, it is a bad idea to make up history. Too many termpapers begin by telling me about what happened in "olden times," based on no evidence whatsoever.

Here are some examples from student papers. None of these writers was intending to write about these themes (or to sound like an idiot), but rather made up the passages without much thought in order to introduce what was to follow.

The tendency to make up history, particularly very early, "prehistoric" history, is by no means limited to undergraduate termpapers. It has long been an intellectual pothole for inattentive writers from Plato to Karl Marx, and in anthropology just as much as in other subjects. Consider the following beautiful but essentially meaningless passage from the pop-anthropology writer Wade Davis (1998 Shadows in the Sun: Travels to Landscapes of Spirit and Desire. New York: Broadway Books. P. 144.):

Quotation Objection
Shamanism is arguably the oldest of human spiritual endeavors, born at the dawn of our species' awareness. The author distances himself from this paragraph by use of the term "arguably," implying that arguments exist for his assertions even though he does not cite them. The phrase "dawn of our species' awareness" is poetic, but all of its terms are vague. The same is true of "spiritual endeavors."
For our Paleolithic ancestors death was the first teacher, the first pain, the edge beyond which life, as they knew it, ended and wonder began. All animals die. There is no reason to believe that death was a source of special "wonder" to Paleolithic humans. We have no evidence what they wondered about.
Religion was nursed by mystery, but it was born of the hunt, from the need on the part of humans to rationalize the fact that to live they had to kill that which they most revered, the animals that gave them life. Religion, a slippery term, is being anthropomorphized by the terms "nursed" and "born"; but that doesn't disguise the claim that it originates with a "need" to justify hunting. Modern hunters sometimes do and sometimes do not worry about that. Most known hunters do not "revere" animals; they eat them. We do not know what attitudes of prehistoric hunters were, let alone of ALL prehistoric hunters.
Hunting myths developed as an expression of the covenant between animals and humans, a means of eliminating the guilt of the hunt and maintaining a certain essential balance between the living and the spirits of the animal dead. The covenant is a charming idea, but hardly a universal one, and certainly there is no evidence of such a REAL covenant being the historical antecedent of hunting myths (as implied here).
Illness, so often the harbinger of human death, lay heavily upon these primitive hunters, a foreboding disruption of the normal processes of life that brought in its wake fever and delirium, perhaps madness, and despair. Illness is a pervasive human concern, a fact reflected in much religious ritual. However, most illness is not fatal, so it is implausible to assume that every headcold or upset stomach inspired forebodings of death.
Coming to terms with the inexorable separation of death and understanding the source of illness and disease were undoubtedly among the earliest of human intellectual and spiritual pursuits. "Undoubtedly," here, as for other authors, means that, although there is no evidence whatever, the assertion sounds good.

Similar to making up origins of customs is the attribution of motivation to government policy makers (or to shadowy culture heroes for that matter) without any actual evidence of what they in fact had in mind. At its worst, this unfortunate approach even assumes that the government entity has a uniform opinion. Making up the motivations for the origins of customs or policies is also faking history, after all, even when the result seems plausible:


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