On the difference between "opinion" and "informed understanding"

(from Blog '66, 2008 / former URL: http://hatlie.twoday.net/stories/4733323/)

Frustrated with the need to thoroughly document a paper, a student of mine recently wrote to me to talk about citations. An example of something the student didn't want to cite was his/her opinion that Hinduism makes believers docile through the belief in reincarnation. The latest e-mail is in italics, my responses in normal print:

Hmmm, no offense meant towards you professor, but it sounds like when in doubt, cite a source, and I really hate that.

I mean, why aren't my opinions valid? Why do I have to find something someone else wrote and note that next to everything I say? Maybe my parents are Hindu, and I just know things that seem like common knowledge to me, or maybe I was very well-educated...

Education is not about opinions, but informed understanding. Opinions are "valid" if they are based on real information. Then they become informed understanding. What you think is in and of itself of little interest. What you show, demonstrate and argue are of great interest.

Why can't I state opinion born of 100 resources that I read over the course of growing up and thus, don't need to go look anything up...

If you have 100 resources that you read while growing up, then you know the material quite well. Tracing your information back or finding that information should be no problem.

I mean, if I were writing that 1+2 = 3, do I have to cite a math book? If I write a really long equation that most people wouldn't understand, do I have to cite where I went to high school and who my math teacher was?

Mathematical equations are manifestly true or false. They _are themselves_ the proof of their own validity. The underlying assumptions would need to be ironed out and cited if that is what the paper is about, of course.

I just think it's kind of offensive and counter-productive to learning. It seems to encourage a copy-and-paste attitude. Like my opinions aren't worth anything, but if someone wrote a book on something, they must be experts, so my paper has to be a collage of quotes by other people. Where's the original thought? The proof that you learned something and found your own opinion and no longer need the books to rant on and on about a subject?

Again, you are not learning to voice an opinion. We can do that on internet forums and talk shows. Nobody needs to go to college to learn that. You are learning to research and formulate informed understanding.

Your original thoughts are fine. You don't need to cite them. But there is of course a line somewhere. You need to find the level where the expected reader is. If the paper is so basic that the reader is not even assumed to know that Hinduism is predominantly in India, then you will be footnoting rather banal stuff. If you are writing on subtle doctrines hidden within the Vedic texts, you do not need to cite the claim that "Hinduism is the dominant religion of India". On the other hand, it might then be an issue of why such a claim is in such a paper.

So cite:

Claims such as "Hinduism makes people docile" will either be anecdotal and hence highly suspect or based on a broad study. Cite the study or take the hit for spouting anecdotal evidence to make broad assertions.

There is, of course, little difference between your opinion and just any other person's opinion. Just because someone wrote a book or a webpage on something does not mean that their opinion is somehow better. On that we agree. Just citing any old book or webpage is not much better than not citing. That is why we university profs insist on scholarly sources. That means sources which allow the reader to trace the information directly or by way of several steps back to the raw data at the basis of the "opinion."

Without specific examples it is hard to make a general case for what to cite and what not to cite. Do not get all hung up on footnoting. If it is banal and obvious, just connect it to a general history (the textbook, an encyclopedia, a general history of the topic) or don't cite it. But a conclusion about something - that Hinduism makes people docile, for example - is not of that nature.

There are, of course, times when it really does slow things down. I had the issue recently with an article I submitted. It was on a subject I know well (my dissertation). But the editor sent it back saying I need to better document some of my claims on the last several pages. I had to go back to my files and anchor what was for me "knowledge" to the sources (primary and secondary). It was tedious, but that's the way it works.

That is what differentiates the "opinions" of some (like the rants of Bill O'Reilly) from the "informed understanding" of scholars.

Contact / Impressum:
Dr. Mark R. Hatlie (ViSdM)
Im Feuerhägle 1
D-72072 Tübingen


info @ hatlie.de