One of the strongest points in academic writing is the need to back up your assertions and points with evidence that demonstrates your reasoning. One of the important things that a student should always do when dealing with their evidence is to name their source.
This goes so far as to have a proper citation system for all of your references describing where you got the information so that a later reader could, if they wish, read your sources for themselves to weigh up the evidence used in your article.
On the face of it, this is a good idea. Invoking the authority of others better learned in a topic than yourself is an excellent way to express your learning and knowledge on a topic. There is however one thing to be aware of – what if your sources are wrong?
Beware The So-Called Experts
Just because a statement, fact or argument is in a book or on the internet doesn’t necessarily mean it is correct. One of the criticisms leveled at sites such as Wikipedia is that it’s open nature means a certain level of unaccountability is almost always present. As such quoting the site directly is generally frowned upon directly. However most pages do back up their claims with links and sources which is an excellent way find out more.
As academics you have a responsibility when you invoke an authority on something to ensure that the authority themselves can be trusted and is correctly represented. By authority, we mean any sort of generally accepted wisdom and knowledge.
Here are a couple of things to watch out for when invoking authority in your work:
Where exactly does your claim come from? If you can’t find a name or quote a direct source, is it even true or simply an old wives tale masquerading as truth? Before you quote something in your academic work, be sure you know exactly where it came from and demonstrate it in your sources.
Just because “everybody” believes a fact to be true does not necessarily make it so. Once upon a time belief in a flat earth was widespread but nowadays the vast majority except that the Earth is somewhat ball shaped (with a few people yet to be convinced). Remember that truth doesn’t need a consensus. It either is or is not.
Authorities, just like anyone else tend to be people with their own biases and preferences. Businesses for example typically seek what will bring them the biggest profits. Activists will say what will bring their cause the biggest attention. And Politicians well, there probably isn’t a country on Earth where the local representative doesn’t pick and choose his facts to suit himself.
Remember that who your Authority is for a given statement or evidence may impact on what they say and be aware of this in your work.
The flip side of authority, an appeal to ignorance is generally the assumption that because a claim has not been proven to be false it must be true. Or alternatively false because it has been proven not to be true. For example, claiming that because someone cannot demonstrate that the fairies at the bottom of the garden are not there, they must exist.
Money talks, but it doesn’t always talk honestly. Making the claim that just because someone is rich or a research project had a lot of money spent on it means it is automatically true is disingenuous. Just because something costs more does not automatically mean it is better.
Proper Writing Needs Proper Thinking
Remember that critical thinking is key if you wish to properly put across your message in your essays and assignments in proper academic terms. If you haven’t tried it already, our critical thinking and academic writing courses are a great way to brush up on these key skills.